Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Challenge of Insularity

Nearly fifty years ago, I wrote an article on Orthodox Jews and the civil rights movement that was published in the Jewish Observer, then the magazine of Agudath Israel, arguing among other things that it is appropriate to contribute to such causes. Although the contribution might not qualify as tzedakah, it would certainly be charity and a good use of our discretionary resources.

I taught at Hunter College in the 1960s, with the lion’s share of my time devoted to COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which in a brief period made great strides in advancing the rights of religious persons. As an additional voluntary activity, I represented the American Civil Liberties Union in connection with its non-governmental organizational status at the United Nations, working toward the adoption of human rights treaties.

In a sense, the article and ACLU activity pointed in the same direction. An Orthodox Jew who was embedded in his community and was extremely active in religious life need not and perhaps should not be entirely insular.

It’s doubtful that nowadays the Jewish Observer would publish an article that advocates contributions to non-Jewish causes and not only because the magazine is no longer in existence. Orthodox Jews who inherently and justifiably are insular have become more so. There are barriers and attitudes that limit our interactions with the general society. Yet, I cling to the view that I expressed long ago. When recently the back page of the Times Sunday Magazine, usually devoted to human interest stories, told of a courageous Glendale, Arizona woman who operates a home for abused women, after Google provided the name and address, I sent a contribution. It may be that this was not an act of tzedakah, although we are halachically enjoined under at least some circumstances to assist persons in need who are not Jewish.

For sure, this isn’t standard procedure for most Orthodox, at least not among the charedim, and, to an extent, for good reasons. Although in the aggregate the Orthodox are the least affluent of American Jews, they contribute a disproportionate share of the tzedakah given to Jewish causes, helping to sustain in the process and under increasingly difficult conditions a large and growing network of yeshivas and day schools, as well as other educational institutions, and a remarkable array of chesed activities that assist a vast number of Jews, including many who are not Orthodox. All of this despite the high cost of religious Jewish living.

For these reasons alone, the Orthodox can be forgiven for exhibiting parochialism in their charity. If any Orthodox contribute outside of the four cubits of their communal life, this, too, is understandable and even praiseworthy. There is, after all, Hillel’s great teaching about not being merely for ourselves.

Insularity is objectionable, however, when it is expressed, whether in word or deed, as negativity toward persons who are not Jewish. It is one thing to contribute exclusively to Jewish causes because they are our special obligation, need help and we cannot count on other people to be of assistance. It is something else and potentially ugly to justify parochialism on the ground that non-Jews are never worthy of assistance because they are inferior. I have challenged this wrongful attitude in writing for decades, without much apparent impact.

We are a Chosen People only by nature of our living sanctified lives. We are not sanctified – and certainly not better than other people – when we denigrate the 99.99+% of the world’s inhabitants who are not Jewish. Just as a practical matter, this attitude is at once silly and dangerous. Why should we expect other people to respect us, if we do not respect them?

Yet, there is a disturbing tendency among some Orthodox, religious figures included, to express in words but not deeds attitudes that are objectionable. When such language is not challenged, there is a good prospect that what is wrongful will be dynamic and breed even greater wrongs. If offensive rhetoric is regarded as appropriate, our community is seriously in need of improvement.

One highly unwelcome consequence of parochialism accompanied by negativism is that it serves as a justification, if not a cause, for Orthodox Jews who have abandoned a religious life. It is clear that by a considerable margin more Jews who were born into Orthodox families are rejecting that commitment than the number of Jews born into non-Orthodox families who have been attracted to religious life through outreach and other activity. There are, admittedly, strong forces at work to produce this unhappy situation, mainly that we live in an open society that provides powerful and exciting incentives to those who want to abandon religiosity. It remains that there are Orthodox who were turned off by inappropriate language about non-Jews.

When I point this out to my fellow Orthodox, they invariably invoke the long and painful history of persecution. For them the Holocaust remains an open wound that justifies the denigration of non-Jews. It is hard to argue with them about the history and yet their argument which is predicated on the notion that inherently every non-Jew is at least a potential anti-Semite is false and dangerous. The United States is not part of this history; it is a land of tolerance that has exhibited, even now, extraordinary esteem for our people. Nor is it accurate to depict all those among whom we have lived throughout the centuries as people who hate Jews.

There is a way of being on guard against anti-Semitism without regarding every non-Jew as an anti-Semite. There is a way to be insular without being negative and derogatory toward all other people.