Joel Cohen

Observant Jewry: Should It Operate as a Silo?

Sometime back, I was asked if I would be interviewed for a program commemorating a great rabbi and role model who, when I was young, changed the trajectory of my religious life. He did so by encouraging my parents to take me, at 10-years-old, out of public school and send me to yeshiva. My life would have likely been demonstrably different without his influence.

As the videographer set up in a conference room at my office, I made small talk with the interviewer and the late rabbi’s cousin whom I have known all my life — he too was to be interviewed. The young woman from the rabbi’s community who was to interview us peered closely at me, choosing her words carefully: “Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable wearing a yarmulke?”

I almost laughed, but managed some level of civility in response to her somewhat provocative — I suspect, judgmental — query: “Absolutely not, but thanks. I’m quite comfortable.” Clearly, she wasn’t. My honest (and arguably restrained) answer had not comforted her. She turned to the rabbi’s cousin, who was in fact wearing a yarmulke, as if to ask silently for his help.  Instead, he basically said: “It’s okay. If I were here for a business meeting, I wouldn’t be wearing a yarmulke either. The rabbi’s synagogue that Joel and I attended when we were young wasn’t composed of the same demographic as the yeshiva that the rabbi later became known (and revered) for.”

Not sure that his explanation allayed her concerns, I further explained, “You need to know that the rabbi influenced the lives of many people [I reluctantly omitted “heathens like me”] who might not wear a yarmulke in their workaday lives.” It appeared that she wasn’t convinced and remained somewhat uncomfortable. But it seems that by her very question, she lives in a silo of which I will speak here. The diversity of her world begins and ends at the outer fringes of the landscape of what she and her community perceive (Orthodox) Judaism to consist of.  But perhaps more important, she was asking me to engage in the hypocrisy of presenting myself to an audience made up of that community as someone who wears a yarmulke in non-religious circumstances when, as should have been obvious to her, I simply don’t.

And the incident, which I continue to think about, raised the question for me of something far broader than “hypocrisy” — although I don’t think she would have seen it as such. Rather, it is the narrowmindedness of many in certain, perhaps most, Orthodox communities. For they see their communal customs and practices (which dictate their individual acts) as the way in which all Jews who see themselves as somewhat observant, and not just those in that community, should — must — conduct themselves, particularly when in plain sight of each other.

And while there are surely some, if not many, synagogue communities (I belong to one) and individuals who are more tolerant and less judgmental, one wonders whether a willingness to “play God” — meaning telling us what (they somehow “know”) God Himself really intended — has become the norm, a way of life in how people assess how others among them act, or should act. And how does the community standard impact how they choose to live (or lapse into living) their own lives? Is it in conformity with that standard, or with their own idiosyncratic religious beliefs or upbringings?

Now, I suspect, the interviewer described at the beginning of this piece — who was lovely, by the way — never even thought for a moment about the questions I raise here. Although I really know nothing about her personally, I have met many like her. I imagine she has lived her life in somewhat of a religious cocoon — the concern about how I might present myself to her community without a yarmulke was simply reflexive on her part, as if it is a crucial part of the apparatus of the religion. I was to be interviewed about a revered rabbi. Thus, to not wear a yarmulke during the interview would be perceived as irreverent — maybe even disrespectful to his memory.  I am certain it did not occur to her that his impact on lives outside that community, on the lives of those different, was the foundation of that concern about my irreverence.  Nor, likely, did it occur to her that the fact that he could reach out to others may be a core tenet of why he was revered by so many.

Suppose, by way of mere example, one had the temerity to challenge biblical teachings as held by community norms. What if one were to ask members of an Orthodox congregation during a talk about the splitting of the Red Sea how many truly believed that it was actually split into two vertical walls of water, as depicted in the Bible? Some might find the question funny, some may find it thought-provoking; but how many want to actually answer that question truthfully under the gazing eyes of their community members? Indeed, the mere asking of the question might be seen as an assault on the religious beliefs expected  by the community, just as departing from the seemingly “essential” wearing of a yarmulke might be seen as an affront to the accepted (and acceptable) religious beliefs and observances of a community.

All of this suggests a (somewhat disturbing) willingness, perhaps enthusiasm, to elevate a community and, by extension, its individuals into a position to judge the conduct of others based on what they see within their silo. The principal problem with it is that such a judgmental typography stands in contrast with the mores of a people that actually encourage the questioning of the views and practices of others as a means of intellectual and spiritual discourse. To question is the very premise on which the Talmud itself is based. And when people fail to do so — when they move into that silo that allows no light to shine through the cracks — that is where unacceptable narrowmindedness lives and thrives.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.
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