(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week in July 1998)
Because I do not believe in conspiracy theories, I have no easy explanation for the curious circumstance that Rabbis Eric Yoffie and Ismar Schorsch, the key leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements, chose the same time and similar language to go after Orthodox Jews, both using the Yale housing dispute as the springboard for attack.
This may have been their dubious contribution to the pre-Tisha B’Av period, giving the Jewish people another reason to mourn. Or, it may have been their peculiar way of promoting tolerance, an ideal which they embrace for everyone but the Orthodox. Most likely, they needed no special reason to excoriate religious Jews. If Yale was not on the horizon, they would have found some other cause. Whatever still separates the Reform and Conservative - and the gap is small and becoming narrower – Rabbis Yoffie and Schorsch are bonded by a fierce detestation of the Orthodox. Strange bedfellows they are not.
About the conflict at Yale, when the Sunday Times Magazine visited the issue, what emerged was a sympathetic portrait of the religious Jewish students. I imagine that had the challenge to Yale come from Amish students or members of another insular religious group, our patrons of liberty would raise their voices in support of individual choice. Alas, the beneficiaries of freedom and tolerance at Yale would be religious Jews and this fact alone results in the amazing transformation of putative liberals into advocates of intolerance.
It is said, apparently correctly, that there are Modern Orthodox, including rabbis, who are unsympathetic to the claim advanced by the Yale students. That is their shame and one more example of how when they are forced to choose between the imperatives of modernity and Torah standards, they go with the crowd and abandon the latter. It is small wonder that except in their great capacity to attract publicity and fundraise among the affluent who despise the Orthodox, they are a negligible factor in contemporary Jewish life.
In his attack, Rabbi Yoffie goes beyond the pale of decency when he refers to Jews who are determined to maintain their distinctive way of religious life as “ghetto Jews.” The term, with all of its nasty and painful historical echoes, is another building block in the relentless campaign to make Orthodox Jews the object of ridicule and loathing. For the record, the Yale students live in a mostly Black neighborhood in New Haven. By attending Yale, they inevitably open themselves to new experiences, intellectual and social. And these are ghetto Jews!
Yoffie tells us, “ghetto Judaism exists in Israel . . . and here, too, in Williamsburg and Borough Park.” Williamsburg remains one of the most ethnically integrated communities in all of America, which is to say that it is the sort of place where Rabbi Yoffie’s chasidim are not to be found, not so much because they do not want to dwell among Jacob’s tents – although that is a factor – as because of their intense determination not to have close encounters with so many Latinos.
In general, Orthodox Jews are more likely to be found in places with heterogeneous populations, rather than, to use Pete Seeger’s words, in communities of little boxes on the hillside which all go ticky-tacky that are favored by Reform and Conservative suburbanites. Incidentally, I learned this little ditty in the Borough Park ghetto.
Instead of constantly using the Orthodox as punching bags, Reform and Conservative leaders ought to look inward and reflect on the Judaic devastation wrought by the wholesale abandonment of tradition, practice and belief that their movements encouraged. There is talk of a return to Torah in these quarters, but it is a strange Torah that is being returned to. Among the more Jewishly committed Conservative Jews, about three-quarters do not light Shabbos candles or attend synagogue as often as once a month or keep a kosher home. The statistics are more woeful in Rabbi Yoffie’s bailiwick.
There has been an upsurge in Reform and Conservative day school education, but even this development is severely compromised by the compromises made during a century of unrelenting Judaic abandonment. There is so little left to be salvaged and even this small opportunity is being forfeited.
Orthodox Jews separate themselves from much of the society in which they live in their dress, food choices, cultural preferences, Sabbath observance, use of leisure time and much else. This does not make them ghetto Jews. It makes them Jews who are determined to live in the contemporary world and also to be faithful to the world of their fathers.
For all of the vituperation directed against them, the Orthodox are a varied lot and their engagement in the larger society is quite pronounced. Like the Yale students, many go on to college or professional training, some after years of complete immersion in their religious studies. They hold down jobs like the rest of us, although their penetration of the job market is at times limited, primarily because of the tenacity of the discrimination that is practiced against them. Still, corporate life, especially in New York, includes many of these religious Jews who our ersatz advocates of tolerance denounce as ghetto Jews.
What these Orthodox Jews seek is the retention of religious elements that have ensured the endurance of the Jewish people, while they selectively accept those aspects of American life that are compatible with their religious belief and practice. Perhaps I have it all wrong, but this is what I thought the American dream was about. We Jews eagerly endorse the ideal of diversity for other people. Is it too much to ask that we adhere to the same standard in our own community?
Frankly, in their talk of ghetto Jews and in their scorched earth policy against the Orthodox, Rabbis Yoffie and Schorsch increasingly sound like Reverend Louis Farrakhan and his talk of Judaism as a gutter religion. The Muslim leader has toned down his rhetoric. Is it too much to demand the same of the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements?