This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.
Three groups of Orthodox Jews have made several prominent appearances in the media over the last few weeks: The East Ramapo Central School District was profiled on National Public Radio because Chasidic Jews living in the district have wrested control of a majority vote on the school board even though their children attend private schools. The New York Times Magazine profiled the cycle of poverty and charity in the non-Chasidic ultra-Orthodox (Yeshivish) enclave of Lakewood, N.J. And the news media is covering a scandal involving Barry Freundel, a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., who was arrested for voyeurism and the shocking allegations that he was filming women in the equivalent of a locker room as they showered and prepared to dunk in a ritual bath.
These three stories expose the underbelly of the three major groups of Orthodox Jews in America: Chasidic, Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish. Stories are interesting when they contradict conventional wisdom, and it is unexpected that Orthodox Jews, who hold themselves up to a higher standard of behavior and conduct, would find their most sordid secrets splattered across the press.
The public feels betrayed. Innocent bystanders and victims within Orthodox Judaism feel betrayed. Orthodox Judaism just doesn’t feel as trustworthy as it should feel. Recent affairs have whittled that trust away. Trust is the foundation of every relationship, and without it, religion is doomed, whether it is fundamentalist or progressive.
Orthodox Judaism needs to earn back the trust of the public. The media and their audience need to continue to believe that it is interesting when Orthodox Jews behave badly. Orthodox Judaism needs to get its groove back. It’s not impossible to regain trust, but it requires intent and effort.
This article first appeared on The Lighthouse, my Haaretz.com blog.
Kesher Israel, a prominent Modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., is reeling from a terrible scandal. Their rabbi, Barry Freundel, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and it is alleged that he installed a camera in the equivalent of a women’s locker room where he filmed potential converts in varying degrees of undress before their ritual bath. The shockwaves in the aftermath of this scandal reverberate well beyond the District and are being felt across the entire Jewish world.
Yom Kippur is a confusing day. One of the most fundamental philosophical principles in contemporary Judaism is the concept of elevating the material into spiritual. We don’t view physical needs and pleasure as problems that need to be fixed, but as opportunities to sanctify the mundane.
This idea is embedded in the Torah, Talmud, and Rishonim. Even among the many quarrelsome flavors of Orthodox Judaism that have evolved over the last few centuries, it’s almost universally held. From Rebbe Nachman to Slabodka, from the Baal Shem Tov to Rav Hirsch, from the Vilna Gaon to the Ohr HaChaim, and from the Sfas Emes to the Ramchal, this theme is ever-present. Today, you’ll hear it in Mir Yeshiva, Yeshiva University, Beth Medrash Govoha, Brisk, Yeshivat Chevron, 770, Gush, and day schools across the world.
So how is it that on the most important day of the Jewish year, we completely ignore our physical needs and desires? It’s like a day that recalls a long abandoned ascetic form of Judaism. But why? Our Judaism does not believe in this idea of self inflicted pain. Why would we act this way on Yom Kippur?
Someone asked me a question yesterday that cuts to the core of the Shabbos App issue. It was something like this: “If the Shabbos App was halachically permissible, would you use it?”
My answer is that I would not. I like my Shabbat experience the way it is right now. I don’t particularly want to add smartphones to my Shabbat experience.
That is the real issue here. The halachic question about whether it is permissible or prohibited and why is a fascinating and important discussion, but it’s relatively obscure and esoteric. Digging into the nitty-gritty halachic nuances is enjoyable for me, but I think we have to look at the big picture and examine the social and communal issues raised by the Shabbos App.