R’ Manis Friedman and Dov Hikind Explained

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Hands on a globeWhile I was away, two prominent public figures in the orthodox Jewish world embarrassed themselves.

R’ Manis Friedman compared getting raped to having diarrhea among other vomit inducing statements on abuse and Dov Hikind dressed up in blackface for Purim. We need not reconsider the incredible stupidity of both of these decisions. R’ Friedman fake apologized and then halfheartedly apologized later. Hikind didn’t apologize and then sort of apologized later.

But what happened? Why did they make such incredible faux pas?

Orthodox Jews live in insular communities. I think that a symptom of insularity is tunnel-vision. We see things the way that our small group of similarly minded people see something. We are infrequently exposed to alternative views when our peers and community reflect very similar values and ideas to our own.

Almost every orthodox Jew must deal with this at some point. Our schools, shuls, neighborhoods, little leagues, shops and stores, restaurants, and social gatherings are almost exclusively with people who are just like us. We even have our own media (along with secular media bans to boot!). Diversity is rare and not especially valued. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But there are going to be some side effects.

One side effect is that we may be completely unaware of how the rest of the civilized world feels about certain things.

Growing up, there was a racial slur that I heard very often. I guess in the back of my mind I knew it was not appropriate, but it was part of the vernacular of the social environment I was part of. One Shabbos evening, when I was a campus rabbi at USC, I had some students over and we were talking outside as they were about to leave. A name came up and I said something like “I thought they were [racial slur – (not the N word)]. The second I said it, I regretted it. I realized immediately that it was totally inappropriate. The reaction of my politically correct college student guests was enough to send me digging a grave beneath my feet. I apologized right away, but I should not have said it in the first place.

I am not excusing my behavior. However, it was new for me to be outside the comfort zone of my insular community. No one would have looked twice if I had said that word among our community. But now I was on the outside. It was trial by fire. Saying that word in the real world is wrong and everyone knows it.

Attending Law School was an amazing experience for me. I got to meet and talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all kinds of different ideas. For the first time, I was engaging people with backgrounds that were different than my own as a peer. It changes you. It makes you a better person. For better or worse, most orthodox Jews don’t get that experience.

I am pretty sure that neither R’ Manis or Dov Hikind meant to be offensive or racist. They just had no idea how their ideas would sound or look to people on the outside. That’s a symptom of being surrounded by people who don’t interact with people on the outside.

If before he answered that question, I told R’ Friedman that sex abuse can be deadly, it can drive people to suicide, it can destroy one’s life, and he believed me, and he understood what I was saying, he would never have said what he said. But I presume that no one ever told him that. That’s becuase no one has been telling orthodox Jews the truth about sex abuse until very recently and very timidly at that. It’s getting better, but the degree of misinformation highly outweighs the appreciation of the truth about abuse in our communities. So it’s no surprise that R’ Friedman made comments that nearly caused me to lose my lunch and had me so upset for a few days. He didn’t know better. And how would he considering our insularity?

If before Purim, I told Dov Hikind that blackface was considered inappropriate in the 60’s and asked a few black people to explain why it bothers them so much, I am sure he would never would have dreamed of wearing blackface to a Purim party (and then saying “I would do it again”). I am pretty sure he had no idea and still doesn’t really get it. Whose fault is that? Partially his for not breaking out of his insular bubble, but in the end he is just a victim of his society that doesn’t really get it when it comes to minorities in general and black people in particular. In a community where no one bats an eyelash at racial slurs like the N word or the Yiddish slightly less offensive version, how in the world are we to expect any sensitivity toward racially inappropriate behavior?

Now I am not excusing R’ Friedman or Hikind for their deplorable actions. Ignorance is not bliss. I am saying that we as a community need to be more aware of what the rest of the world thinks. We need to realize that we are part of a global community now and we are going to be noticed. There is outside information that can help us and we should attempt to assimilate that information into our social structure. It’s not more frum to think that the Torah can cure sex abuse and it’s not more frum to say or do things that could be considered racist. It’s time to move on and learn from our advanced understanding of psychology and our politically sensitive society.

The same goes for how women are thought of and treated in the frum community. We are way behind the rest of the world in our approach to women. Is it really frum or necessary to keep those ancient notions that are rooted in social conventions and commonly held beliefs? I don’t think so.

We must hold tightly to what the Torah says and what Chazal require from us, but we must also integrate new knowledge and understanding that increases our sensitivity to others and our place in an international, cosmopolitan community. In this way, we can combine the best of what Torah offers with the best of what a global, sensitive society can offer.

Link to Facebook discussion about this post: Facebook.com

  • tesyaa

    Dov Hikind is an assemblyman. He’s exposed to outsiders; if no one else, his fellow assemblymen. It’s possible that he even represents a few constituents who aren’t Orthodox Jews. (Whether they voted for him or not, he still represents them). That’s why more knowledge of the outside world is expected of him.

    • AztecQueen2000

      Politicians should know better. Also, in an ethnically diverse borough like Brooklyn, there is no excuse for that level of ignorance.

    • Sure, it’s expected of him. I don’t excuse him.

      • Harry C.

        You already have excused him.

  • G*3

    > Diversity is rare and not especially valued. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Yes, it is, because it creates a community that has great difficulty seeing someone else’s point of view. I’m not talking about accepting other’s way of living, just the ability to understand where they’re coming from and why they do what they do. Instead community norms are assumed to be universal norms, and anyone who deviates from those norms is strange at best and often portrayed as evil and depraved.

    It’s unfortunately the default way all people look at the world, but those who have contact with people different from themselves can learn that the norms they take for granted are just social constructs. Those that only interact with people exactly like themselves rarely examine their
    norms. But then, that’s the whole reason for being insular, isn’t it?

    • Yes, it is, because it creates a community that has great difficulty seeing someone else’s point of view.

      That is not necessarily a bad thing. It usually will result in some egg on your face, but overall, it could be okay. Look, I don’t condone it, but lack of diversity can’t be called objectively evil.

      • tesyaa

        No, diversity objectively is a value to be embraced, and not doing so hurts the frum world even within its own insular space. Even diversity within the frum world is poorly tolerated. In many communities, people with special needs have to be kept under wraps. Some communities won’t accept legitimate converts. Girls wearing different legwear get spit on. And so on.

        • I agree. But that’s all a symptom, not intrinsic to lack of diversity. Sensitivity could be taught without diversity.

          • G*3

            I don’t think it can. At best, the sensitivity will be patronizing or along the lines of getting along with the goyim so they don’t hurt us. Real sensitivity involves understanding that the other person is a person just like you. In a community that ranks the world as plants> animals> goyim> yidden that’s not going to happen unless people experience firsthand that the other is fundamentally the same as they are.

            • Nah. There are certainly very sensitive and socially conscious charedim. It’s definitely possible.

            • Holy Hyrax

              Then it’s not the lack of diversity that is an issue, but how the religion is being taught.

        • I don’t think diversity, as it is normally understood, is an objective value. It is not an end onto itself. It is a means by which greater tolerance, broadness of mind, and empathy can be achieved.

          Diversity as a means has downsides as well. It can lead to moral relativism, it can lead to indifference to others within the community, and it can lead to ethnic strife.

          Diversity to work has to be done right. But the dynamics in every community and setting are hard to predict.

          I will say, that as far as diversity within the frum community you are absolutely right. Thankfully, the sort of viewpoints you discuss are relatively rare.

          • tesyaa

            If people embrace diversity, there will be less ethnic strife, not more.

            • If everyone embraces it, sure.

              But often when communities gain diversity it is because some new ethnic group begins moving into the neighbourhood. Sometimes things go smoothly and the good of diversity results. But many times the first group begins to view the newcomers with suspicion and animosity and this leads to fights between the groups.

      • G*3

        > I don’t condone it, but lack of diversity can’t be called objectively evil.

        Not in itself, no. But the inability to see other’s practices as anything but weird and wrong and the inability to see that others as people just like yourself is at the root of a lot of evil.

        Without taking it to that extreme, though, it’s still bad because that way of relating to the world effects the way one acts – as you point out in your post.

  • sheepdan

    Nu, what word did you say?

    • 🙂

      • sheepdan

        I ask wondering if it was a word that I still use, even after going to law school. Did you say “goy”? Worse?

        • It’s not a word anyone should use. It was a racial slur. A fairly benign one, but unacceptable nonetheless. If you MUST know, you can email me.

  • YankelYoffen

    I don’t think our “way behind the rest of the world” view of women can actually be reconciled with modern views. After all, the Torah explicitly says a father owns, and may sell, his daughter, and condones rape marriage.

    • And none of those things are practiced today. Hmmm… Seems like we are reconciling at least a little.

    • The Torah doesn’t “condone” rape marriage. It proscribes as a punishment for the rapist, that he must marry his victim (assuming she wants to get married). It is a deterrent.

      Consider the classic medieval scenario of the noble born young man that rapes the peasant girl. If he knew he would have to marry her (and not deny her any marital rights), he would thing twice about using his standing and power to take rape young women of lower status.

      • S.

        I’m pretty sure it is not merely a deterrent or a social mobility scheme for lower status women – and what about raping a higher status young woman? A good way for a guy to social climb, huh? The Torah isn’t shy about physical punishment, which also could act as a deterrent. As Rabbi Fink says, we don’t practice this any more than we do slavery. Clearly something about it doesn’t work with the world we know or our moral compass.

        • If the woman is of higher status she or her father will refuse the marriage and the 50 silver pieces (plus standard damages) fine will serve as the deterrent. The marriage isn’t forced on the girl, it is only forced on the man (evidence that it is meant as a deterrent).

          On the contrary the Torah is very shy about physical punishment in practical terms. It is extremely difficult for anyone to actually receive corporal punishment. And would be even more unlikely in the case of rape (if there was a such a punishment on the books).

          Furthermore, if the woman is an erva to the man (which in modern times applies to almost all women), the woman and any bystanders have the right and duty to stop the rape by any means, including killing the assailant.

          • Sounds great for 1000 BCE. It was abandoned 2000 years ago already. Trying to justify it to the modern ear is not productive.

            • I am not trying to justify it in modern times, I am justifying it within the times in which it was given. A modern ear has to be able to understand how it was moral and sound in that era.

              • Right but the conversation is not about that. My comment in the post was about modern ears and modern times.

        • Holy Hyrax

          What about God’s moral compass?

  • Vladimir

    One has to be blind and deaf not to see and hear what is not only black and white, but filled with infinite spectrum of emotions and deeds – outside world. Willfully or foolishly one’s acting – he/she must be confronted. Thanks, Rabbi Fink.

  • J Efram

    You’re giving them both way too much credit. There’s nothing resembling a “sheltered” defense fro wither one here; there’s no kaf z’chus to be dan. In Hikind’s case, just knowing that there’s a social media out there should have been enough of a deterrent. But Friedman is another matter: he WROTE the book on tsnius, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore?”, so his [recorded] pronouncements about his view of the nature of sex abuse [not making a bracha is worse!!!] should lead to nothing less than his being defrocked. His hashkafa is irredeemably ill, and all his rabbinic works should be considered canceled.

    • I don’t disagree with anything you said.

  • The issue with lack of diversity, is lack of understanding your neighbors, which leads to causing a major chilul Hashem as these men have done. If we truly are meant to be an “ohr lagoyim” then we need to stop being über insular and start behaving as people of the world in the world.

  • shmunky

    You have no stance

    you contradict what you wrote in the article by quickly agreeing with people that contradicted you? I think you agree with what you wrote as there is truth to “insular” notion.

    But you definitely don’t agree with everything j efram wrote!

    you write well but don’t just be smart or cute in your writing without really knowing what your stance is or you will end with egg on your face as well.

    And by the way I dont think you or any of your commentors below understand Manis or what he said. And its a shame because if people really understood him there would be a lot more healing and in a much quicker fashion than what the abused and their families are provided today.