The holiday of Shavuot, the time we celebrate receiving the Torah that unified us, is here. It is at this time that I remember several incidents.
On a train from Budapest to northeastern Hungary on their way to visit the town of his birth and the cemetery where his father was buried just prior to the family’s transfer to the ghetto a late middle-aged couple sit still watching the scenery. It is late afternoon and a bearded man walks by seeking three more Jews to complete a minyan for the afternoon service. The bearded man asks another man dressed in traditional black and white sitting just across the aisle if he would be willing to join the other seven to help complete the minyan. The bearded seeker skips the man sitting with his wife but undeterred and knowing that if a minyan is available he would much rather pray with the requisite ten than alone he stands and says he can be counted. He is ignored. He joins them but they have made him the eleventh, as if he is irrelevant. His only sin is that he wears a blue shirt and is clean-shaven.
The story is true, it happened to my parents. It is very much like this situation – a man saying Kaddish for a parent is ignored when he is in a certain shul in a certain neighborhood and the gabbai asks if there is someone among them who is a chiyuv, and would lead the services. He answers “yes” but it is as if he is not there simply because his shirt is not white or his yarmulke is not of velvet. This was my experience.
Agudath Yisroel of America held its convention on Tuesday night May 27th and the keynote speaker was the Novominsker Rov, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow. He made some comments viewed by many as pointed and inflammatory. While some sharp negative comments were made about Open Orthodoxy (http://forward.com/articles/199226/agudath-israel-defends-rabbis-heresy-attack-on-ope/), his primary focus was on Reform and Conservative Jews whom he said “will be relegated to the dustbins of Jewish history.” Much of the criticism of the speech was directed at the Mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio who was in attendance when the Rov spoke. The Mayor made no mention of the Rabbis comments and offered not even a modest response indicating a diplomatic defense for the rest, the bulk of his constituents. Thus far two New York Times articles were critical of the Mayor, a liberal known for his stance on inclusiveness and understanding who hypocritically did not keep to that script on that night with this crowd (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/nyregion/at-a-jewish-gala-de-blasio-skips-his-cue-to-speak-out.html , http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/31/nyregion/given-another-chance-to-address-rabbis-remarks-de-blasio-sidesteps.html?_r=0.)
Some did not take issue with the Mayor but with the Rov for publicly shaming a group of people. There was additional criticism directed at the Rov about the fact that the Rov made no mention of some real crises in the Jewish world, others at the fact that he was so critical of so many people and not more welcoming (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/mayor-distracted-focus-rabbi-tirade-article-1.1810711.)
Rabbi Perlow’s four-minute speech created quite a stir. I have no idea if this was his intent. I do know that as Avi Shafran, the public relations director for Agudah was quoted as saying, “Anyone who knows Rabbi Perlow knows well that he has only love and concern for all Jews, no matter what misguided paths they may have been led, sadly, to take,” and I am sure that is true. However, I also know that in the time of the internet, when the whole world is watching, in the time of conflicts and rigidity between and among groups, and in the time of growing anti-Semitism, what brings us together is more important than what divides us. Didn’t a recent survey by Mishpacha magazine indicate that the Hareidi view of chilonim was wrong? (http://www.mishpacha.com/Browse/Article/4196/Do-You-Care–What-They-Think.) Chilonim do not hate the Hareidim. So why is the thinking of the Hareidi world against those who are not on the same page religiously so negative?
The partiality that causes some of us to spurn our cousins and friends spread to those who are our brothers. Specifically a social desirability bias and stereotyping are prejudices that lead to a separation and walling off among people who are more alike than not. Biases like these, in psychology referred to as cognitive biases, often lead to a loss of good judgment or deviations from rationality. Indeed, baseless hatred caused our exile. Keynote speeches should show love and concern for all Jews and teach listeners to tear down the bogeyman that separate us and not erect greater barriers that are little more than veneers caused by misunderstanding. If the Torah, given to us at Sinai and revered all theses centuries is to truly unite us than we should learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.