Let me start out by saying that I am about to get into some trouble. I know that there are a lot of people who might take some offense at some of what I am about to say, and I sincerely apologize for this now. Just like anything else in the world, there is no ONE Orthodoxy, and many of my friends are Orthodox and I admire and respect them.
That being said, “What IS wrong with the Orthodox?” For my friends who are not in tune with Judaism in America and Israel today, let me give you a little background. Prior to the 18th Century, Jewish life in the world was mostly confined to semi-insulated communities. A community would have their Rabbi and the Rabbi would make religious decisions for them. There did exist a hierarchy of rabbinical leadership and community Rabbi could seek guidance from other “greater” Rabbis in his area or even from other large cities or countries. During the middle to end of the 18th Century however, Jewish people were gaining more freedoms in the western world. This era has been called the age of enlightenment. Assimilation into the general society was of course a major effect of enlightenment and with enlightenment came early reformers of Judaism. Rabbis were begging to preach that the Synagogue worship service should be made to look like the Church service. The Orthodox movement began as an opposition to this early German reform.
As time went on, Reform and Orthodoxy made their way to America (and soon after the Conservative Movement was founded in the US, and outgrowth of the German Positive-Historical school). During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the movements existed very apart from each other in the US, and while they clearly opposed each other’s beliefs and practices, there was little interaction and American Jewish Religious life was still mainly controlled by the Orthodox. As the Conservative and Reform movements grew in the 20th Century, the Orthodox also grew and started to become more rigid in its interpretations of Jewish Law, probably as a reaction to the Conservative movements more progressive interpretation of Jewish Law. For example, when Kraft cheese was introduced in America in the 1920s many Orthodox Jews ate their products. As time went on however, and Jewish owned and Rabbinically supervised cheese became readily available in the supermarkets, Orthodoxy banned the use of Kraft and other such products. I am generalizing things here but It is very clear that over the last decades of the 20th and early decades of the 21st centuries, American Orthodoxy has moved to the right. In Israel, similar divides have sprung up with the added twist that the Religious right also has some political power.
Now, what does all of this mean, and why bring it up. Recently, in the Israeli city of Beit Shemesh, an eight year old girl, walking to her all-girl Orthodox school was harassed by ultra-Orthodox men who spat on her and called her a whore for dressing immodestly. Now, being Orthodox herself, the little girl was wearing a long skirt and sleeves that covered her arms to the wrist. Certainly not what I would call immodest. This little girl and her story has prompted rallies and a national outrage in Israel over the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the more centrist Orthodox and the secular majority. Of course, everyone that I know, regardless of their religious affiliation, is sickened by these events. As they should be.
When I ask my question, “What is wrong with the Orthodox,” I do not mean to offend everyone who is Orthodox, but I do want to understand how things like this can happen in the name of Orthodoxy. Where did things go wrong and why? A few years back, Marsha and I were in Israel for the holiday of Shavuot and like much of religious Jerusalem, we went to the Kotel, the Western Wall for early services. We were praying with a group of students from the Conservative Movement School in Jerusalem, way back in the plaza, far from the wall itself. During this prayer service, ultra-Orthodox students from a Yeshiva in the old city began to throw garbage and yelling slurs and curses at the group. I can come up with many more examples of intolerance from the ultra-Orthodox.
Having given this some thought I can come up with two reasons why I think these things are occurring with more and more frequency. The first reason is partly why I choose to affiliate with the Conservative Movement, and the second reason is, I believe one of the two greatest failures of the State of Israel. My first thought is that the movement of Orthodox to the right, in and of itself, is allowing these things to happen. We often joke about the “humra of the month club” (a humra being a very stringent ruling in Jewish law that restricts or inhibits in some way) but I see this as part of the problem. My earlier example of Kraft cheese is a humra, and another is Glatt Kosher. I do not want to go into the history of Glatt Kosher (click here to learn all about it), but in the early 20th century almost all Jews who kept Kosher did not eat Glatt and probably did not even know what it was. When Jews from Hungary came to the US they brought their humra of Glatt and it slowly became the standard for all Orthodoxy. I am not saying that people should stop eating only Glatt, but I am saying that people who eat only Glatt need to remember that non-Glatt meat is still Kosher! Many in the ultra-Orthodox world will consider non-Glatt as non-Kosher. This has gone even further where I have seen signs for Glatt Kosher Chicken (only mammals can be Glatt Kosher) and even Glatt Kosher Bakeries!!!!!
As Orthodoxy moves to the right, those on the far fanatical end of the right seem to be more tolerated by those who have moved closer to them. This is not only a Jewish phenomenon, but a human phenomenon as can be seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan (some of the signs carried at the rally in Beit Shemesh compared situation to the Taliban!) As long as centrist-Orthodoxy continues to tolerate the far right, I do not see things like this slowing down.
As for the second reason, we have to go back to the founding of the state of Israel. In an effort to try and preserve the religious culture of the Jews, Ben-Gurion and the early Israeli Government gave the ultra-orthodox exemptions from national service. They allowed them to run their own schools (with public funding) and in some ways gave them a level of autonomy not given to any other Jewish community in Israel. Over time, this community has grown faster than any other Jewish community. And they have become politically active. In Israel, the political party that controls 61 or more votes in the 120 seat Knesset chooses the prime minister and controls the government. Since no one party can get that many seats anymore, they have to create coalitions with smaller parties and this gives these smaller parties a lot of power. Many of these smaller parties are ultra-Orthodox. So we end up with a state where the authorities basically leave the ultra-Orthodox alone and let them get away with things like this.
This has a simple solution! Of course nothing is really simple, but there are enough members of Knesset who are in non-religious parties that if they all banded together, they could take away the power of the ultra-orthodox. This is hard of course because some of them have very different ideas about the future of Israel, but I believe that if the main parties, Kadima, Likud, Labor and a few other smaller secular parties could gather the courage to do this, what a different place Israel could be!
So, “What is wrong with the Orthodox?” Really nothing. It is the willingness of some people to allow intolerance to thrive that stains the name Orthodoxy.
PS – If you want to know what I think is the second greatest failure of the State of Israel, comment on this blog posting and I will comment back with my answer.