A Book to be Written – Or At Least an Article

Everyone knows that chareidim are hopelessly out of touch with modernity, hapless Luddites who are forever placing bans on this or that aspect of the fearsome outside world. This being so, you’d think that if from within this group of dolts there emerged a handful of individuals who summoned up the courage to, say, a) create a blog that harnesses the power of technology (=modernity=good thing), and in so doing b) reach across the religious divide to open a dialogue with other kinds of Jews as well as a window onto their own insular and mysterious lives, and c) use reasonably good prose and evince a decent grasp of contemporary culture — well, that would be a good thing, right? And it would merit coverage by the non-Orthodox Jewish media, true?

So, how to explain why, in a recent feature article on the JTA website regarding the relatively new phenomenon of Jewish blogs, the only ones that seem to draw the writer’s attention are those that are, to varying degrees, subversive of Orthodoxy from within, or antagonistic to it from without?

The phenomenon of Ortho-bashing is real, although reasonable people can debate just how widespread it is and whether specific claimed instances of it are actually that. Merely the latest confirmation of this comes from the admirably plain-spoken Jack Wertheimer of JTS, in a response in this month’s Commentary to critics of his recent article on the Jewish birthrate (and whose rumored candidacy for JTS chancellor, if not already doomed by this various politically incorrect positions on contemporary Jewish issues, was certainly not enhanced by the following):

[My critics] likewise chafe at at my positive assessment of what Orthodox Jews have achieved. In fact, they blame Orthodoxy itself, and its failure to “adapt,” for all sorts of ills besetting the contemporary Jewish community, including, no less, widespread intermarriage. There is a book to be written about the intolerance of many liberal Jews . . . who eagerly embrace Jews of every stripe except the Orthodox. (emphasis mine)

What most pernicious is the malice-of-absence, the unspoken marginalization of the Orthodox that is an ongoing feature of Jewish communal life. By virtue of their unwillingness to play the pluralism game, they get treated as if they don’t exist by the other kids in the sandbox who, ostensibly do play by that game — although we all know that no one, not even the theological mush that is G-dless, humanistic Judaism, is endlessly pluralistic (hint: can you spell M-e-s-s-i-a-n-i-c J-u-d-a-i-s-m?).

Of course, this is a large topic that deserves fuller treatment on another occasion, addressing the various motives at work in this forced invisibility of the Orthodox. Non-Orthodox clergy, for example, have an understandable business stake in minimizing, preferably eliminating their flocks’ contact with Orthodox Jews and knowledge of the reality of the Orthodox world. One of the most eloquent formulations of this was that of erstwhile (and we hope soon-returning) Cross-Currents contributor Rabbi Y.Y. Reinman, who described the prevailing non-Ortho approach thus:

So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis? Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.

Later in the same article, which he wrote to explain why he withdrew from his scheduled book tour with co-author Ammiel Hirsch, Rabbi Reinman wrote that:

Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and then they have stood guard over the people to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended. . . I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage.

Then there is another form of Ortho-related marginalization that one often finds manifested in media coverage. In this permutation, the Orthodox are indeed given their share of press, but the particular individuals and groups selected for highlighting tend to be anything but mainstream, often an assortment of people with various axes to grind, either openly or more subtly, against Orthodox Jews and Judaism. Chareidim, even more unconventional ones, are particularly invisible. That’s certainly not to say they are ignored; if anything, they are a primary source of unhealthy fascination. They are nothing so much as museum pieces, always to be viewed and commented upon, but almost never to be allowed to be heard by the public in unmediated fashion.

So, is there something invidious at work in the JTA writer’s decision to highlight blogs like the Reform Judaism Action Center, an Orthodox Jew who “strongly opposes authority, religious dogma and nationalism,” or those on which “fiery talk” and “vitriolic exchanges” are regular fare, while ignoring those (yes, there’s more than one) offering intelligent discussion of Jewish issues while striving, at least, for substance over ad hominem rhetoric, and for a spectrum of views even if all are coming, as is the case on this site, from a certain general religious or political orientation?

I don’t know why that happened, just that it did. Do you?

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12 Responses

  1. Sabba Hillel says:

    I don’t know why that happened, just that it did. Do you?

    Of course we all know why it happens. It is like the couple who wrote to Dear Abby complaining that their daughter and son-in-law would not eat the (non-kosher) food that they prepared for them on visits. Even worse, they insisted on serving kosher food when the parents came to visit and would not let the grandmother bake a (nonkosher) cake for the grandchildrens’ birthdays. Dear Abby responded that this was obviously a violation of Honor your father and mother as had been confirmed by her rabbi.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “Everyone knows that chareidim are hopelessly out of touch with modernity, hapless Luddites ”

    This seems like an overgeneralization, even if it is true o a large degree. The fact is when it comes to cell phones, I don’t trust anyone more than a yeshiva bochur.

    – JO

  3. Toby Katz says:

    I think we make them feel guilty by our very existence. We are a living rebuke to the Jews who chucked the whole Torah thing. Novody likes the guy who makes you feel guilty about your shortcomings, just by being in the room.

    Have you ever been at a Weight Watchers meeting where a gorgeous young girl in a slinky outfit strolls in because she needs to lose five pounds to be a perfect size six again? How does she make everyone else feel — just by existing, just by being there? Her celery-and-bouillon routine makes a mockery of their pathetic “how-many-points-in-a-donut?” Self-Delusion Deluxe Diet. No, she is not popular there.

  4. Eliezer Barzilai says:

    When King Ahab met Elijah, (I Kings 18:17), Ahab said, “Is that you, ruiner of Israel?” To Ahab, Elijah was the troublemaker, the man who stubbornly stood in the way of progress. Mark Twain said “History never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.” He was wrong. Our current experience doesn’t just ‘rhyme’ with our ancient history, it’s exactly the same old thing, over and over and over.

    The thing that bothers me is, if a man of the stature of Elijah, and his open miracles, couldn’t change Ahab’s mind, what strategy can we possibly employ that will make a difference?

  5. Yeshoua says:

    “Everyone knows that chareidim are hopelessly out of touch with modernity, hapless Luddites ”

    True real Charedim are not concerned about what goes on in the outside world and are not even aware that they are a subject of conversation.
    I very much dislike the term Charedim and I can’t believe true gedolei use this terms to describe people. If we have to use these terms I think you have more charedim amongst the Daiti leumi then you have in Charedi world. I live it what is a so called Charedi world and I don’t see that the charedim are any more God Fearing than the nonCharedim.
    It is hard for me to believe that moshiach can come before we stop having this divisiveness.
    My father who passed away a little over 2 years ago never labeled people as charedi or not he looked at what was important did a person go to shul and learn and was he honest that is what concerned him and this is what should concern us all as well.

    PS What are Luddites?

  6. David says:

    If you go to smaller towns that have say, one or two Orthodox shuls, and ask a local non-Orthodox Jew what synagogues are in town they will rattle off a list of all the Reform and Conservative synangogues. If you ask, “what about “X” shul on the corner of such-and-such street?” They will stare at you blankly, looking confused, mulling it over in their mind. Then, slowly, nervously, their lips moving before sound comes out they will say, “‘X’ shul? But…but…that’s ORTHODOX! Happened to me more than once.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    JTA’s bias as an organization is that of its staff, who we can hardly expect to understand us.
    We don’t need to rely on the likes of JTA to get our own message out.
    Our ideas, and our charitable contributions for that matter, do not need to be routed or filtered through groups that can’t relate to our objectives, now that modern communications technology has provided effective alternative paths.

  8. Brother Bob says:

    Joel Carpenter has demonstrated that American Fundamentalist Christians were early and eager adapters of media technology, such as Radio, TV, etc.

    I think that others have only shown that American Fundamentalists of different religions (including Judaism) are often quick to adopt new technology and new ways to disseminate information and their gospel.

  9. Debbie says:

    “I don’t know why that happened, just that it did. Do you?”

    Perhaps they feel like they have to defend their way of life. When and if they are asked well “Mr. Orthodox Cohen” over there told me he can’t do X but here you are doing it, how do they answer? Not just guilt but maybe a little shame? Answering, “Well we are more modern”, did the trick a few decades ago. Perhaps now this answer sounds like an excuse or rationalization rather than a true belief. After all, what makes refraining from eating bread on Passover modern enough to keep, but the first chametz can be non-kosher pizza since Kashrus isn’t considered modern?

    Perhaps the blogs that are highlighted are ones that they would agree with, their colleagues have shared with them, and especially ones that they think their audiences want to hear about. They obviously can’t write about all the blogs out there. It also has to be newsworthy. It has to be something different or have some emotional response from the audience. To have someone who identifies himself/herself to be Orthodox, but disagrees with parts of the movement can be taken out of context and used to beef up the arguments of why Orthodoxy is incorrect.

    Highlighting these Orthodox bloggers is analogous to a situation where a vice president says his views differ from the president’s view. All of the times that he agrees with the president won’t get a mention in the media. But this one time will be plastered all over the papers and on TV, because it is unexpected. And that is what our society has deemed newsworthy.

  10. Yeshoua says:

    I meant I live in a so called Charedi neighborhood not in a so called charedi world

  11. DP says:

    let’s get real. the oft-touted buzz word “continuity” means “keep us on the payroll”. jewish organizations who are not torah-centered,but rather “shul-” or “temple-centered” have a great vested interest in keeping the unorthodox from getting too comfy with their orthodox neighbors.

    as one baal teshuva told me, “the only thing i learned in hebrew school (reform) was that the orthodox hate us.” letting someone get too close to the scary orthodox guy runs him a risk of having that myth debunked.

    and guess what, guys? we’re actually more open minded sometimes about you than you are about us…check out the many outreach programs run by orthodox organizations. the reality is, whether you have blue hair or an unconventional lifestyle or you actually look just like me, you will be welcome to sit down and learn beside me during a partners in torah session, a shabbaton in your area, a discovery seminar…

    i’m not afraid. are you?

  12. Nachum Lamm says:

    Not to compare, but the Iranian revolution was driven by technology. Use of technology in no way equals modernity.

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