Focusing Only on the Bad — Orthodoxy Is Not in a Rotten State

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll’s The Rotten State of Orthodoxy is reminiscent of a student complaining about school: everything is bad, from the teachers, to the food, to the classmates, to the homework, and all else. Nothing positive to say. While Ms. Keats Jaskoll is justified regarding a number of the items in her long litany of complaints, her article conflates totally unrelated points, resulting in a mishmash of gripes that comes across as the student who can only find fault with school, whereas everyone else realizes that it is the colored perspective and narrow focus of the student that compels him to overlook the full picture and to concentrate exclusively on the negative.

Ms. Keats Jaskoll rightly bemoans a handful of recent and not-so-recent cases of corruption and abuse by Orthodox clergy who basically got away with it, going back a decade. Although this is not a competition, and even one case is too many, I suggest that we take a look at clergy in other religions, and at communal leaders and people in positions of power in the secular world, and consider whether the percentage of such cases enumerated by Ms. Keats Jaskoll in the Orthodox world comes anywhere close. Even if we were to multiply by many times the number of corrupt/abusive Orthodox clergy members and community leaders, the number would pale and not even register when compared with the rest of the world. Again, even one case is an unacceptable outrage, but in the overall scheme, the extreme rarity of this awful phenomenon in the Orthodox community would be noted with favor by an objective observer. (One need only tune into the news of the past several days to hear of the dozens or potentially hundreds of new cases of abuse cover-up on the part of clergy members in other religions, now being investigated by the authorities. And don’t even ask about cover-up of corruption and abuse involving politicians and CEOs…)

Ms. Keats Jaskoll, like many journalists and commenters, has a bone to pick with women’s access and visibility in the Orthodox community, be it having women’s photos and headshots displayed, or women having primary ingress to holy places, equal to that of men. Although I do not at all address here the specific issue of photos of women, the traditional Torah attitude regarding the points raised by Ms. Keats Jaskoll has been one of women avoiding exposure and not seeking to be center stage, as explained by Rashi concerning our matriarch Sarah, who remained in her tent when the angelic guests were hosted and served by Abraham, in conformity with her sense of modesty. (Gen. 18:9) The same praise was heaped upon Yael, who heroically killed the evil Sisera and was lauded for her aversion to public exposure (Judges 5:24, with commentaries). Does this notion of modesty, as exhibited by Sarah and Yael’s aversion to visibility, conform with the worldview expressed by Ms. Keats Jaskoll?

While this vision of modesty might seem foreign to modern minds, it is a central feature of Torah/traditional Orthodox Judaism. In fact, as Rabbi Hershel Schachter explains, avoidance of publicity, which is a manifestation of modesty, is the ideal for both men and women. However, Halacha mandates that men lead public prayer and carry out various other public religious functions; men therefore have no choice but to compromise on the ideal of modesty and private conduct. In contrast, women are commanded to maintain this modest and private comportment and may not compromise it in normative circumstances.

The entire concept of “Hey, I want my picture in the magazine too” is frowned upon by the Torah’s value system. Indeed, men as well should not be seeking opportunities for publicity. Demanding publicity runs counter to Torah/traditional Orthodox Judaism, and to make it a central feature of one’s Orthodox identity or agenda is antithetical to what Judaism is all about.

Ms. Keats Jaskoll then turns her attention to perceived unfair process in Orthodox society regarding women. While a few of the cases she presents would seem to have great merit, she does not cite much data to demonstrate her allegations. (And of course, avoidance of discussion about breast cancer screening is an absolute evil — although I think we need to see more information on the prevalence of this, as Ms. Keats Jaskoll’s linked article did not provide it.) Indeed, most of the examples featured in The Rotten State of Orthodoxy are misleading and unfair. For instance, Ms. Keats Jaskoll criticizes the Orthodox Union’s rabbinic panel rulingĀ about female clergy, because the panel was all-male; what Ms. Keats Jaskoll fails to note is that this was a halachic ruling, issued by leading yeshiva heads and senior rabbis, who, for the reasons discussed in the ruling, are by necessity male. The fact that women were not part of the rabbinic panel is not a reflection of bias.

Ms. Keats Jaskoll concludes by alleging that Orthodox society treats women as “guilty until proven innocent,” implying that the differing social parameters of men and women in Orthodox life reflect an implication of wrongdoing on the part of women. This is a fallacious argument that seeks to paint a picture of victimhood and elicit sympathy, yet the substance of the argument is absent. Ms. Keats Jaskoll complains that in Orthodox synagogues, women do not dance with the Torah on Simchas Torah because their motivations are suspect as being subversive. This is not true; please see Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s Mi’Peninei Ha-Rav (“Simchas Torah”, s. 3) quoting Rabbi Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik as ruling against women dancing with the Torah because it violates traditional synagogue conduct — not because women are somehow suspect. Ms. Keats Jaskoll might not be happy with this idea ether, but such would be a grievance against normative halachic practice, rather than against leaders who are alleged to rig the system to the detriment of women.

As mentioned earlier, Ms. Keats Jaskoll portrays a dismal image of Orthodoxy because she narrowly and exclusively focuses on the feminine agenda therein. The beauty, appeal and dynamic flourishing of Orthodox Judaism — its exponential growth, outpacing the heterodox Jewish movements and bringing Torah study and inspiration to the minds and hearts of over a million women around the world — are not mentioned by Ms. Keats Jaskoll.

There is no excuse for abuse, and we dare not tolerate or exonerate it. That said, The Rotten State of Orthodoxy presents a highly inaccurate state of affairs, depicting a glass that is basically flowing over as mostly empty. The biggest proof is that half of Orthodox society consists of women, the overwhelming majority of whom are quite happy with their roles and are not penning complaint articles. The unfortunate cases of abuse of power are extreme exceptions to the norm.

I invite readers to click on some of the popular Orthodox websites, such as Aish.com, Torah.org, Chabad.org, YUTorah.org, OU.org, agudathisrael.org and ohr.edu, and experience the holiness, beauty, energy and sincerity of Torah life. There will always be some bad apples in the basket, but let us not disregard the overwhelming positives of Orthodox society, and let us appreciate its sacred values, its multitudinous great leaders and countless awesome “regular” people.

About the Author
Rabbi Gordimer is a kashruth professional, Chairman of the Rabbinic Circle at Coalition for Jewish Values, a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and a member of the New York Bar.
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