Monday, June 20, 2011

Are We Really That Bad?

I was on the train, and really had no choice but to eavesdrop on a conversation (they were practically on top of me! Really!)

Two middle-aged women sat down (judging by their skin, sun bathers in their youth, but I digress); one wore a cross. The cross lady began to chat about a program she saw about the Holocaust the other night. The other responded about how her father was Jewish, yet an atheist, but she was still raised Jewish (there was no mention of her mother being Jewish). And then the conversation went downhill.

"In Israel, the Orthodox treat you like garbage."

Cross Lady responded, "They treat you like that here!"

"They don't recognize me as being Jewish. The Reform and Conservative aren't Jews to them."

I was debating whether I should jump in and dramatically reveal myself as an observant Jew, sort of along the lines when Darth Vader says, "Luke. . . I am your father."

I wrestled with myself for the next twenty minutes, weighing all the pros and cons to interjecting myself into the conversation, but decided that saying anything would embarrass them, and humiliating anyone should be avoided at all costs. Also, I couldn't quite say, "Yeah, we only recognize matrilineal descent." Aaaawkward.

But the other point was disturbing. SternGrad's post came up a couple of days after this (I've had this marinating in "Drafts" for a while), and I continued to think about it. Sure, there are Jews who, I think from misplaced anxiety, make a point to actively mistreat irreligious Jews. And it's not like the irreligious are bias-free; I live in an area that used to be primarily irreligious while Jewish neighborhood, and there are many noses  that curl upon sight of a knee-length skirt. Anyone seen "The Thin Jew Line" segment on the Daily Show?

But in the end, we have to be above such behavior. We cannot give others any excuse to despise us. Meaning we should exhibit pleasant warmth, instead of "I'm better than you." Our behavior should also always be impeccable; no breaking traffic laws, no harassing the waiters, no financial shtick

While I am loath to quote Oprah, "When you know better, you do better." The only way to be truly Jewish is to act it. Being it isn't enough. 


Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Damn straight.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz's book Eyes to See: Recovering Ethical Torah Principles Lost in the Holocaust quotes the Sifra on Leviticus 19:36: the verse says, "Just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin, shall ye have: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.", and Sifra comments that the very raison d'ĂȘtre for the Exodus, was that we keep just weights and measures. Rabbi Schwarz then says that to have unjust weights and measures means you are surreptitiously and inconspicuously stealing only very small and insubstantial amounts, and that therefore, Sifra is making an a fortiori: if we were taken out of Egypt solely for the sake of keeping just weights and measures, i.e. avoiding the most minor form of immorality, then all the more so we were taken out of Egypt to avoid larger, more severe forms of immorality, such as outright theft and shaming and insulting others, etc.

Princess Lea said...

Great reference!

SternGrad said...

Well that sounds like an awkward experience- I have been in similar situations. I think you did the right thing by not saying anything and risking embarrassing them. You make a good point that there is negative biases on both sides- religious Jews have negative attitutes towards the non-religoius and the non-religious have negative attitutes towards the religious. It goes both ways. In fact, even within those two groups there are negative attitutes- basically, as they say, people feel that anyone to the right of you is fanatic, and anyone to the left is practically not Jewish.

Are we really that bad? Sometimes we are, and sometimes other Jews just feel judged without us saying or doing anything at all. Which is why it is important to do exactly what you suggest- go out of our way to be nice- it is not enough to just avoid being rude. Your conclusion is quite right- "We cannot give others any excuse to despise us."

Princess Lea said...

That way, if they don't like us even though we have done everything properly, then nothing is on us. We did the right thing. They can't complain.

Ish Yehudi said...

I disagree, but this may be a cultural difference.

Someone to the left of me may not be (as) religiously observant, but that has no bearing on whether I'd have them over, invite them to sit at my table and/or treat them as wonderful Jews.

Where I grew up, it wasn't about religious observance, a Jew is a Jew is a Jew and I'll feed them all the same.

Princess Lea said...

The assumption that I had as an Ashkenazi is that to Sephardim, there are no obvious lines of Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative; there is only observant or non-observant, and you live together in one community.

Is that true?

If so, it is wonderful. Ashkenazim have gotten a little too comfortable segregating ourselves into different classifications.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Princess Lea,

It would of course depend on the individual Sephardi, according to what he as an individual believes. But broadly speaking, yes, you are correct. See two articles by Daniel J. Elazar: The Special Character of Sephardi Tolerance and Can Sephardic Judaism be Reconstructed?.

Sefardi Gal said...

I totally agree with you that as frum Jews, a higher degree of behavior is expected of us (b"H)
and while I'm not saying anybody is perfect...
I don't think that Orthodoxy has to give any apolgetics for not accepting reform and conservative converts.
In the case of this story, I don't think it's a Chilul HaShem at all.

In any case, kudos to you for not responding. I also would've been soo tempted to involved myself in their conversation!

Sefardi Gal said...

Ish Yehudi - we have our fair share of crazies. I know quite a few reform/conservative sefardim who refuse to attend orthodox services.
I also know a few liberal "orthodox" types -- whose hashkafah is perhaps even worse than reform because they're presenting themselves as orthodox.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"I also know a few liberal 'orthodox' types -- whose hashkafah is perhaps even worse than reform because they're presenting themselves as orthodox."

{Ducks out of room unseen} :P

Princess Lea said...

I make a point to classify myself as "observant." Orthodox was a term used by the Reform to describe anyone religious.

My father was telling me that some rabbanim say that the observant should encourage the children of Jewish fathers to convert. While I am not going to do something that active, however, I would still hope to treat others, Jewish or not, decently. Cutting them off gives us bad PR. We can still be friendly.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"My father was telling me that some rabbanim say that the observant should encourage the children of Jewish fathers to convert. While I am not going to do something that active..."

Indeed, off the top of my head, I know Rabbis Isser Yehuda Unterman and Benzion Uziel advocated exactly that. But it should be noted that they weren't discussing going out of your way to find people whose fathers happen to be Jewish, and pressuring them. They were speaking of people who already considered themselves to be Jewish. That is, if a person already believes himself to be Jewish, and his father but not his mother is Jewish, then we should we try to convert him. But if his father is a Jew and his mother a gentile and he considers himself a gentile, then fine, let him be.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits had an interesting proposal that dovetails with that of Rabbis Unterman and Uziel: Rabbi Berkovits noted that according to the halakhah, a conversion is kosher as long as the mikvah and eidim (witnesses) and milah are kosher, even if the convert himself has no intention to be observant. Therefore, said Rabbi Berkovits, the only reason a Reform or Conservative conversion would be invalid, is because the mikvah and eidim and circumcision are (probably) invalid, but if an Orthodox rabbi with a kosher mikvah, etc. did the conversion, it would be perfectly kosher. Therefore, said Rabbi Berkovits, the Orthodox world ought to offer to the non-Orthodox world to redo all non-Orthodox conversions under Orthodox auspices, no questions asked, in order to solve the whole "Who is a Jew?" issue.

(The first authority to argue that a conversion was kosher only if the convert himself were observant, was Rabbi Yitzhak Shmelkes in 1876. Until that time, the universal halakhic opinion was that a person's personal level of observance was not relevant to the validity of the conversion.)

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

If I recall correctly, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein held that conversion required the convert to be observant - contrary to what I claim the halakhah is - but even he held that that an underage child could be converted even if he were non-observant. That is, even Rabbi Feinstein acknowledged that the children of Reform and Conservative converts and Jewish fathers (but gentile mothers) could be given Orthodox conversions even if the child were not raised Orthodox. The only objection Rabbi Feinstein had was that it made no logical sense: why take a child who is being raised non-observant and who will, in all likelihood, marry a gentile anyway, and convert him, even if the conversion is valid? But Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin responds that in Israel, the situation is the opposite: the gentile child will grow up and marry not a gentile, but a Jew. Therefore, Rabbi Henkin says that even according to the position that a convert must be observant for the conversion to be valid (which position Rabbi Henkin himself rejects), and even according to the position of Rabbi Feinstein, we should at least convert all the children of Jewish fathers (but gentile mothers) and non-Orthodox converts in Israel. All the Russian immigrants to Israel whose Jewishness is questionable, etc., we ought to convert at least their children. (Rabbi Unterman, speaking of the same Russians, advocated converting the non-observant parents too.)

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

In short, the entire situation in Israel of "Who is a Jew?", is not because of the halakhah, but rather, because the Israeli Chief Rabbinate rejects the halakhah. The Chief Rabbinate may be many things, but Orthodox, it is not.

Princess Lea said...

Very interesting. I didn't even realize there was a concept that one can be kosherly converted without the purest of intentions. Meaning, if a woman converts just marry a Jewish man, but she goes through Orthodox conversion, her children are still Jewish?

That would add up with Judaism in general. A Jew is how one acts, not how one thinks. Our own motivations can be less than true when doing any mitzvah. Why should it be different for gerim?

Very enlightening!

When I say I wouldn't actively do so, I mean that I couldn't even interject myself into this conversation; would I be able to sell the conversion package to a complete stranger? Not likely.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"Meaning, if a woman converts just marry a Jewish man, but she goes through Orthodox conversion, her children are still Jewish?"

The Gemara explicitly says yes, in Yevamot 24b, as translated in the excellent article by Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel, "Conversion to Judaism: Halakha, Hashkafa, and Historic Challenge" (HTML, PDF):

"Mishnah: If a man is suspected of [intercourse]...with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her, they need not be separated. Gemara: This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man...are not proper proselytes. These are the words of Rabbi Nehemiah, for Rabbi Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes nor dream proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted as at the present time...Surely concerning this it was stated that Rabbi Isaac bar Samuel bar Martha said in the name of Rab: The halakha is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they are all proper proselytes."

Rabbi Angel explains: "Rabbi Nehemiah argued that conversions with ulterior motives (e.g. to marry a Jew) are not valid. Only conversions motivated by pure spiritual considerations are acceptable. However, the Talmud rejects Rabbi Nehemiah's opinion. The halakha follows Rab-conversions by those who had ulterior motives are, in fact, valid. These converts are halakhically Jewish."

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

(So in the end, the halakhah is that a conversion for ulterior motives, such as to marry a Jew, is allowed. However, the marriage between the Jew and the ulterior-motive-convert is not allowed, but once that marriage happens, the marriage is valid, because in the end, the convert is still a kosher Jew. The prohibition on marrying an ulterior-motive-convert is a Rabbinic one, meant to discourage such conversions from happening in the first place. That is, such conversions are technically valid, but that does not mean they ought to happen. Just because something is permitted, does not mean it ought to be done. However, there is a responsum by the Rambam, concerning a Jewish man who was having sex with his gentile maidservant. Rambam recommended that she be converted, and he marry her. Rambam noted that this was technically forbidden, as she would be an ulterior-motive-convert, and forbidden to marry him, but Rambam considered it better that she be in a Rabbinically-forbidden marriage with him as a Jew, than that she have Torah-forbidden sex as a gentile. Rambam said this was a taqanat shavim, a lenient dispensation, contrary to the ordinary law, for the sake of making teshuva easier, in this case, the teshuva of the Jewish man having sex with a gentile; his teshuva would be easier if he were allowed to keep having sex with her.)

Ish Yehudi said...

@ Princess Lea,

My basic experience is one of acceptance. All Jews, regardless of their observance, are Jews. In my community, driving on shabbat/chag is never a reason to push away individuals or families, especially relatives.

In fact, this tendency to create and maintain closeness has impacted many extended families (including my own) to become more religious, keep kashrut meticulously (so that they can have relatives over for shabbat/chag, American holidays and family events) and so on.

@ Sefardi Gal,

While what you describe as "crazies" may exist in any given community, these outliers are often not shunned for their differences, but are welcomed into homes and the community (at least the one I grew up in) with warmth.

At least, that was my perception and experience within the community.

Sefardi Gal said...

Ish Yehudi - you're right, every Jew should always be welcomed and invited, regardless of hashkafah.
(Unless their agenda is to spread their hashkafah, which can have a terrible impact on the children, etc.)

Anonymous said...

There is, in general, a coldness from Jews to non-Jews. We automatically treat Jews with more warmth, and because we can actually do things like eat with them, we're more friendly, just by default. Yes, we're polite (except in certain extreme communities) but we're polite and distant.

I once read that as a reason why non-Jews objected to the Jewification of their neighborhood. Yeah, property values went up, etc, but there went the friendliness and camaraderie of the neighborhood.

Princess Lea said...

In terms of coldness between gentiles and ourselves, well, it's not surprising how 2,000 years of persecution can make one bitter. It took quite a lot of effort when I went to college to lose the childlike terror of "goyim."

But in terms of how we treat our other brethren, that chilliness should not be bestowed upon those that are "less religious" than ourselves.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

"It took quite a lot of effort when I went to college to lose the childlike terror of 'goyim.'"

Oh wow, where did you grow up, and in what fashion?

I grew up traditionalish but non-observant (somewhere around Reform or Conservative, give or take), and went to public school, so obviously, I never had a fear of gentiles instilled in me. But when I became a baal teshuva halfway through high school, and began associating with the local Orthodox community (in Silver Spring, MD), I never felt as if the Orthodox were very distinct from the gentiles of the area. I mean, they were completely integrated in the culture and goings-on of the area, and no one ever indicated the slightest bit of culture shock when they went off to the University of Maryland. I felt equally comfortable around my new Orthodox associates as I did around the gentiles I grew up with; they both seemed pretty much equivalent and compatible. So, I mean, while I cannot read their (the Orthodoxs') minds and see how they feel about gentiles, the fact that I felt equally comfortable around the Orthodox and the gentiles, and perceived them as being compatible and equivalent, leads me to believe that in all likelihood, likewise, the Orthodox (of Silver Spring, MD) feel the same way about gentiles as I felt about the Orthodox when I first encountered them.

I was raised somewhere around Reform or Conservative, but when I began learning Rabbi S. R. Hirsch, who was my major entrance into Orthodoxy, I felt as if he was merely saying everything I had grown up with. His entire worldview sees very little distinction between Jews and gentiles, and he constantly speaks of what the Torah teaches to humanity and people, not what it teaches to Jews, and everything he says is basically an outgrowth of Isaiah 42:6-7, " I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and have taken hold of thy hand, and kept thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house."

So while I was raised somewhere around Reform or Conservative, my entrance into Orthodoxy via Rabbi Hirsch, and my associations with the Orthodox community of Silver Spring, MD, never struck me as fundamentally new or different from what I was raised with.

So I'm just curious with where and how you were raised, because your statement severely piqued my interest.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

Speaking of Isaiah 42:6-7, call me crazy, but I like listening to Cat Stevens's "Here Comes My Baby" and it reminds me of the continuation, verse 8, viz. "I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory will I not give to another, neither My praise to graven images." You can imagine Cat Stevens as being God, singing to us. (You can also imagine the song as being the entire book of Hosea.) So that was all just as an irrelevant aside.

Princess Lea said...

My folks were of Brooklyn heritage, and I was raised in an area where finding a non-Jew was kind of hard.