The Effect of our Environment

A few months ago, my wife and I spent Shabbos in Flatbush (a Brooklyn neighborhood with a large Orthodox community) for the first time in well over a decade. At some point, my wife commented that people seemed much friendlier than she remembered from her previous visits. They were likely — for example — to offer a friendly “Good Shabbos” as they passed by on the sidewalk, while previously they would often fail to even respond to one.

Returning yesterday to the New York area, I answered my question from that Shabbos: what about the larger society? Are New Yorkers, overall, a more friendly bunch than twelve or fifteen years ago? My conclusion is most definitely “yes”, they are. Whether getting directions, finding the right subway stop, or in any other interaction, something has changed — in my opinion — over the years. The city was a far more friendly place than I remembered. I used to joke that you could tell which State you were in based on the attitude of the toll-taker — they got more friendly as you moved south through New Jersey and Delaware, towards Maryland. EZ-Pass makes it much harder to test this theory, but I would no longer assert an inverse relationship between latitude and sunny dispositions.

The Midrash looks at the statement “and Noach was a righteous man in his generation” [Genesis 6:9] in two ways. Some say that had he lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been still more righteous. Others say that had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he would have been nothing special.

Some commentators say that these two interpretations can be reconciled. Noach as he was in his generation would have been nothing in Avraham’s time — but had he been in Avraham’s time, he would have been even more righteous than he actually was. People are creatures of their environment, and even the righteous Noach was affected by his.

During the recent discussion of Shira Schmidt’s post on American vs. Israeli charedim, I objected to one comment that included a reference to Israeli charedim who “constantly attack and belittle” the non-religious. I wrote back to the author of that comment; I’ve known him for years and he’s both bright and reasonable. And I told him that “they constantly attack and belittle” could describe most every sector of Israeli society. As Moshe Feldman put it in another comment, “society in Israel… tends towards extremes.” Name any Israeli group, and you’ll find someone else whom they “constantly attack and belittle;” by comparison, charedi rhetoric is relatively tame.

My friend acknowledged that I was right, but said that he expected the charedim to be better. He’s not wrong to want better, but by focusing upon the failure of charedim alone, he’s employing a double standard. Unfortunately, you see this all the time. You have to judge people by the standards of their environment, and the fact that charedim do not rise above their environment to become angels is — while something we can hope to reverse — not a reason to point at them uniquely, as if no one else had the problem.

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1 Response

  1. Gil says:

    You should try taking the subway. It is a totally different experience than it was 15-20 years ago.

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