Rabbi Avi Shafran
Too often, Jews are taught to view Jews of other stripes as people on "the other side
of the fence." Though it is not the habit or intent of Torah.org to entertain
inter-denominational Jewish squabbles, this piece is worth reading - because
whatever your own view, you are probably familiar with the pain and disillusionment
reflected in this article.
When the oddly shaped package arrived in the mail, several of my colleagues at Agudath Israel happened to be in my office. I took the cylindrical 20-inch mailing container in hand and looked at the return address. It was from Mr. Blue*, an older gentleman in Northern California with whom I have been corresponding for several months.
Mr. Blue, who had first contacted me to take rather strong issue with something I had written in a national Jewish magazine, had never made a secret of his negative feelings for Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism, to which I personally adhere. We argued back and forth in letters over those months, he quoting news reports and enclosing press clippings and I responding with protestations, corrections and explanations.
"It's from someone not exactly enamored of us 'Ultras'," I told my friends with a laugh. After making a lame joke about the package ticking, I tore off the wrapping and unveiled a two piece Styrofoam container which, when taken apart, yielded... a bottle of fine kosher Cabernet.
All of us smiled, and I put the cherished gift on my desk, where it stayed for most of the day, a reminder of one Jew's gesture of good will toward another - and a spur to thought.
There are no Orthodox Jews where Mr. Blue lives. He had formed his opinion of the Jewish religious heritage and those dedicated to it from the only sources available to him: the pages of newspapers and word of less-than-friendly mouths - some, no doubt, speaking stridently from pulpits. And so his first missive had been accusatory and indignant in tone. All the same, though, I realized from the start, he had bothered to write, and that says he cares. And so I had written him back in a friendly tone, expressing the hurt rather than the anger that his words -- a hodgepodge of common misconceptions and overheard half-truths -- had caused me. And so it was that our extended correspondence began.
Now, many months later, Mr. Blue still sends me press reports of outrageous statements by some Orthodox rabbis (often misquoted, still more often misunderstood), displays biases, and misconstrues things he reads; he may never fully accept my point of view. Yet he has, I think, come to realize that Orthodox Jews are not the shallow caricatures he once assumed, and that we consider all Jews to be parts of the Jewish people. He has been forced to concede, to boot, that we are real people, people from whom he can elicit a reasoned response, people with whom he can have a good argument, people whose day he can brighten with a bottle of wine.
And even as he has, I hope, learned a bit from me; I know I have learned much from him. Not only about the depth of misconception that some Jews, sadly, harbor about the Orthodox world, but also about how deeply caring and serious about Judaism a self-described non-observant Jew can be, about how hurtful and harmful unwisely chosen Orthodox words and deeds can be to our precious fellow Jews -- and, most important, about the holy bond of Jewish peoplehood that transcends levels of observance.
Over the course of the day, the bottle of wine on my desk jogged my memory and brought back another recent interaction I had with someone not well disposed toward Orthodoxy.
A letter to the editor had appeared in a Jewish magazine. The letter, written by a teen-aged girl, had apparently been inspired by an article in an earlier issue of the periodical, in which a liberal rabbi had contended that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves. "Why," wrote the young woman, "when there is so much anti-Semitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?"
I was greatly agitated after reading the letter, deeply pained that anyone - not to mention a "Jewish leader" -- could so outrageously slander other Jews and bring such needless anguish to an innocent young Jewish soul. I simply couldn't concentrate, and so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the girl's New Jersey town.
There would probably be many listings for her last name, I told myself, too many to sift through.
There was only one; I wrote it down.
Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle*. She came to the phone and, after apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue and promising that I would not call her again unless she asked me to, I spoke my piece:
"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! We may have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you will be able to evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are precious Jewish brothers and sisters to us!"
A pause, and then she responded.
"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I'm sorry. I can't accept the truth of what you're saying."
I was stunned. "But why not?" I asked.
"Because I've been taught otherwise. For years."
"But what you've been taught simply isn't true!"
"That might be so, but we've spent many classes in my Temple school discussing the Orthodox attitude, and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught by my teachers."
I was dumbfounded and deeply hurt, but realized that there was nothing to gain by pestering the clearly intelligent and honest but resolute young woman. I begged her to take down my number in case she ever wanted to talk further but promised not to call her again. Though the memory of our conversation remains a deeply painful one, I have kept my word.
As I gazed at the bottle of wine on my desk, though, and endured the odd looks cast by those who passed by my open door, I offered a silent prayer.
Even if we Jews continue, tragically, to grow apart, I prayed, even if we insist on following divergent paths into what we dare to trust will be the Jewish future, may we all endeavor to emulate Mr. Blue - disagreeing if we must, even vehemently if it's warranted. And reject, emphatically, resolutely and entirely, the path chosen by Michelle's teachers.
* Names have been changed
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
|I, as an Orthodox Jew believe that we must do more to accept Jews of other denominations, not for what they believe in, but for the fact that they are simply fellow Jews. My friends and I have to accept the fact that some Jews dont all come from religious Jewish backgrounds, and therefore we must reach out to them with love instead of contempt |
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|I never understood much of the in family fighting except as is experienced by all families some time. I think that whe we strongly disagree with others, we should consider each other strangers, and then invoke the command "you shall love the stranger". If we saw each other as strangers whose language we cannot understand, our hearts will be more likely to soften, in an attempt to understand. |
- J. M. -1/0-/2001
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|In response to L.R.:
I grew up in a Conservative synagogue, where I was active in leading services and teaching Bar/Bat mitzvah classes. In university I was very involved in the Conservative minyan and led it for two years. After I graduated, I became committed to Orthodox Judaism. Why? It was because I recognized the validity of the arguments showing the errors and inconsistencies of my previous Jewish movement. The "frum" family life and hospitality were not reasons for me to change my system of beliefs -- they were secondary factors. And I have several friends who have gone through the same transformation for the same reasons. Perhaps you disagree with Rabbi Shafran's approach, and that is a legitimate opinion which I cannot challenge. But there are many non-Orthodox Jews out there who are searching for a coherent, consistent, authentic version of Judaism. And when I was finally willing to drop the biases and the preconceived notions, the Rabbi Shafrans of the world provided the answer.
- M. A. -1/0-/2001
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|If I had a dollar for everytime I have attended an orthodox shul or function and have felt unwelcome, well you get the idea. The frustrating thing for me is that I have come to recognize the validity of orthodox judaism and this is my goal. It isn;t because of role models, but because of the books and the help of sincere rabbi's (mostly Chabad rabbi's) who answer my questions. I would have been frum years ago had I been welcomed into shuls. PLEASE, PLEASE, if you see someone alone at shul on shabbat, IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY AS A JEW to welcome them. Talk all you want about ahavas yisrael, make a decision and do something about it!!! Be aware of your surroundings, don't make shabbat a selfish for-me-experience, look around you and see if someone is alone. All it takes is a "Hello, my name is . ." The enormity of this mitzvah and what it means to someone walking into a new shul is truly beyond words to describe, trust me. |
- J. C. -1/0-/2001
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|I applaud Rabbi Shafran's point of view. It makes no difference to me whether it is factually right or wrong and who can say? We would have to do a survey of all Jews and look into their hearts to get an accurate answer to how they feel about each other.
What I know is how they need to feel about each other--that we are one people loved by One G-d and that we are responsible for one and other. Denominations are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life and not a particularily beneficial one. Let's return to Klal Yisrael and let's proclaim it as a value as Rabbi Shafran has done. |
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