While 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.
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