Learning To Accept Our Ordinariness

Whether in the insular ultra-Orthodox community of Brooklyn this year, or the relatively more modern and open Orthodox community of Yeshiva University in the 1970’s, covering the years when I was an undergraduate student there, recent revelations about sexual abuse in the Jewish world, and efforts to hide it from public view, have been terribly disturbing to all of us. It does not appear that our community is plagued by the kind of serial cover-ups that have tragically characterized the Catholic Church in recent years, which I guess we should be grateful for. But nonetheless, learning that abusers were either sheltered from authorities, or simply allowed to “quietly leave,” stains our community as a whole.

When I hear the stories of abuses such as these, the one thing I am not is surprised. That might sound like a strange thing to say, especially for a rabbi. You might well think, how can I be so cynical? It is almost as if I am expecting there to be inappropriate and even aberrant behavior in our communities. But the truth is that I don’t for a moment doubt that such behaviors exist, nor that they always have. And I have absolutely no doubt that this is not an “Orthodox” issue, or Ultra-Orthodox issue. It crosses all denominational lines.

This is not a matter of cynicism at all. It’s simply a matter of reality. Social pathologies exist in all communities, even (especially?) in religious ones. It is our own, time-cherished and embellished communal self-image that has convinced us of our “specialness,” and made it hard to believe that the problems that afflict everyone else in the world also afflict us.

But they do afflict us, most probably in stunningly similar numbers to those found in the rest of the population. And the more we allow ourselves to be surprised by that fact, the harder we make it for those who suffer from the pathologies, and their families that suffer along with them.

This is not a new issue. For a very long time- and I speak with more than thirty years of experience in the synagogue pulpit- I have encountered Jews who find it difficult to believe that there are significant numbers of substance abusers in the Jewish community. The conventional wisdom, which we are all too ready to accept as truth, is that alcohol is mostly consumed for ceremonial purposes in the Jewish community, not recreational drinking. I don’t think so…Do a quick survey of bars on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and tell me that there’s “ceremonial drinking” going on there, or, for that matter, in a Chabad house on campus on a Friday night.

And drug abusers are all lower-class ne’er-do-wells, and perpetrators of domestic violence are all from this ethnic group or that one (but not our own), because Jewish men would never do that to women. And yes, it’s so easy to assume that pedophiles, or those who prey on inappropriate sexual targets, are Catholic priests, or social misfits who are so obviously “creepy” in ways that we don’t identify as Jewish.

It is long since time for the Jewish community to face the music, and come to terms with a very unhappy but not surprising truth. As regards social pathologies, we are, sadly, not particularly special at all.

It is not hard to understand why, for so long, we allowed ourselves to believe that we are different. Persistent defamation by those outside the community generated an artificially enhanced sense of self, designed to protect us from the slings and arrows of anti-Semitism. The constant disparagement at the hands of others made believing in ourselves and our community’s specialness all the more compelling. We are special. We are “chosen.” We are “better than…” And so it became an accepted part of Jewish communal mythology that the least savory aspects of secular society are not problems of ours.

But sadly, in addition to deluding ourselves about what was going on in our communities, by portraying ourselves as special, we made it infinitely harder for those in our communities who suffer from these problems to come forward and seek help. As long as synagogues pretend to be populated exclusively by perfectly healthy, loving and intact families, those who are hurting will be disinclined to ever show their faces. If Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon is a place where “ all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” the Jewish community too often presents itself in a similar way. If you’re not strong, good looking or above average, our average Jewish community can be a pretty lonely place.

We cannot, and should not, allow ourselves to believe that we are a perfect community, or special in ways that others are not. What we can do-– and should do– is aspire to be different, and hopefully better. We will always have our members who are struggling with the same issues as everyone else. That should not surprise us. But the truest measure of who we are as a community should be how we relate to them, and their sense of being in exile. Isolating them by pretending they’re not there just makes their situation that much more painful. We can, and must, be better than that.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.