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Who’s afraid of Hassidic Jews?

American Jewish University's ad campaign deepens the divisions within Judaism

The ominous image of two Hassidim in a dark, foreboding background appears in an advertisement asking for support for the American Jewish University. The liberal Jewish college sits astride the hills of the Sepulveda Pass dividing Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. In the ad’s foreground are the backs of two Hassidic Jews, their large round hats, peyos side curls and dark clothing. A headline in bold white letters across the page poses the question “Will They be the only Jews left in 100 Years?” Against a black background slicing across the bottom we read that the “American Jewish University is a center of ingenuity and vision, dedicated to Pluralism in the open society.” It will insure a future for a dynamic Judaism.

Ad for American Jewish University
Ad for American Jewish University

The subliminal message is more portentous. We are the bastion of progressive ideas against the menacing and rising number of “ultra-Orthodox.” It’s our innovation that will chart the course for the future. We stand ready to stem the black hatted fundamentalist tide.

Imagine for a moment a slightly different ad. Let’s replace the image of Hassidim with that of a Mexican immigrant, the black background with the stark desert that lines the southern US border. Let’s rephrase the question to read “Will they be the only Americans left in a 100 years?” The hue and cry would be deafening. Standing at the forefront would be the alphabet soup of liberal Jewish groups, such as AJU, rightly decrying the racism embedded in the message.

I am sure that that the staff at AJU that created this ad did not have malicious intent. Tragically, the prejudice is buried so deep they failed to realize it’s there. Let’s not fool ourselves. Many times the statements about liberal Jews emanating from parts of the orthodox community are not much better. They too stereotype in a very negative light.

Still we do live a in a strange world. A Jew who follows tradition as it has been practiced for ages is not just religious or orthodox, he is “ultra.” Jews who have stepped away from ancient tradition are progressive. The message is clear: the Jew that observes as our ancestors did is beyond the fringe, extreme etc., while “we modern ones are on the forefront of the future.” At the very core of this issue is the question of how we view Jews whose beliefs are different from our own. Do we vilify them even in unconsciously – “oh those ultras in Jerusalem” – or do we find a way to speak of each other with dignity.

How can we have a dignified conversation? Only by understating the nature of the divisions between those who have remained loyal to classical Jewish teachings and the modern movements that have modified them. It’s a vast chasm. Sadly it’s an unbridgeable theological divide. You cannot reconcile the belief in the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as an historical fact with those who reject this central pillar of Judaism. Across that gap we have a variety of views. Some see Torah as divinely inspired, others as a treasure house of wisdom of the Jewish sages, or an evolutionally process to be redefined by each generation. Understanding cannot come about with the newly created rationalization called “religious pluralism,” this new philosophy that says there are different truths to Judaism, all equally valid. It’s a great idea for politics but cannot be applied to issues of theology and belief. Only when we accept this fact that these issues are not intellectually reconcilable can we be able to have an honest conversation.

Secondly, we need to appreciate that even those who do not share our views have a deep commitment to the Jewish people. Reform and Conservative Jews must recognize that the profound belief among religious Jews in the immutably of Torah is not a manifestation of hostility. Nor does it mean that they are intolerant. They simply believe that it is a divine command and cannot be changed by the whim of a religious committee. Orthodox Jews need to recognize that many of their liberal brethren are on a spiritual quest and have a deep commitment to the Jewish people.

Some years ago, Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, chairman of Lubavitch World Headquarters, asked me to assist a young Chabad rabbi starting off in a new community. The local Reform rabbi was on a campaign to drive him out of town. He attacked him weekly from the pulpit as extreme and fundamentalist, “a relic from centuries ago, that should have no place in our community.” At the end of the conversation Rabbi Krinksy added a caveat that has served as an everlasting lesson: “Don’t forget this Reform rabbi is also a Jew, we have to have Ahavat Yisroel (love of our fellow Jew) for him also.” His message to me was clear that despite the differences we are one people and have a common destiny.

Hopefully AJU will take another look at its advertising campaign. And if it still wants to make the statement that other groups might be in existence a hundred years, let it use a picture of an orthodox couple with their children with a bright sunshine in the background. At the very least it will send a message that religious Jews are not foreboding, but rather have healthy positive families with a bright outlook on the world.

About the Author
Rabbi David Eliezrie is the president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County California