Of Anthropology and Apathy

“You have to wonder what they’ll come up with next.”

With that snide introduction, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that 20 Israeli hotels catering to an Orthodox clientele have signed a “modesty code” committing them to unplug in room televisions and block views of the pool. Was this move the result of boycotts, protests, and implied or overt threats of some sort?

Apparently not. The report notes only that senior rabbis directed a committee they had establishedto compose a list of vacation venues appropriate for the Orthodox public. Lo and behold, a little over a month later, these resorts considered their economic self-interest and decided that, as we say on these shores, “the customer is king.” Five of the hotels are under religious ownership and will be accommodating their observant guests’ wishes year round, while the other 15 sites have agreed to uphold the new standards only during particular periods when Orthodox patronage is at its heaviest.

From the snarky lead-in line quoted above and a later reference to the hotels “bowing to haredi pressure,” it’s obvious that all of this really bothers the JTA reporter. But it’s difficult to understand how this is any different from the “pressure” that consumers apply when they stop patronizing a particular store because it no longer carries the kind of shoes they prefer or has priced itself beyond their budgets. Once the market has voted with its feet, the merchant has several choices: to stock the desired item himself or drop his prices; to try to win his customers back at the higher price with superior service, convenience, etc.; or to reposition himself and develop another market.

In America, we call that good old-fashioned market-driven, self interested capitalism, and we tend to think it’s a good thing, or at least a benign thing, as American as apple pie — or peach pie, if that’s what sells. But for others, apparently, this constitutes nefarious “pressure” to which these poor hoteliers can do nothing but helplessly “bow” (or is it bow-wow?). But then again, “pressure” is a favorite, and vastly overused, word in the secular Jewish media’s reporting on the Orthodox, who, it seems, are forever pressuring anyone and everyone to their left to do this and not do that.

So much for the means employed; what, though, of the goal of this “pressure” campaign and the values and principles at stake? Rather than reciprocating the JTA reporter’s condescension by asserting that he just doesn’t understand the great emphasis we place on modesty and women’s dignity — which, in any event, would make me guilty of “triumphalism,” another cardinal sin of the Orthodox in the secular media’s view — I’d like to believe this young Jewish journalist might actually share, to a large extent, the values that underpin our views on this subject.

Put another way, this story is an opportunity to apply what Professor Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach refers to as the Great Axiom of Anthropology, which goes like this: An action, practice or institution can be understood only in terms of the relevant background of facts, beliefs and values of its home culture. To illustrate this concept, Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb considers the widespread practice of human sacrifice in ancient pagan societies. To believe, he writes in The Informed Soul, that they ascribed no value to human life or fell prey to periodic irrationality is to completely misunderstand at least some of these societies.

Rather, the belief systems of these ancients held that absent such sacrifices, the gods would, for example, withhold rain, bringing misery and death to the entire community. Thus, in opting for such barbarous rites, they faced an excruciating moral dilemma not unlike the famous lifeboat cases of modern times: whether a few individuals should be treated as expendable for the overwhelming good of a great many others.

As Rabbi Dr. Gottlieb concludes, given their belief, “we understand their practice in an entirely different light. … Instead of appearing as primitive savages enormously removed from our perspective, they appear almost modern,” save for what we regard as their mistaken belief that rain depends upon human sacrifice. He then proceeds to elaborate on many aspects of traditional Jewish life that seem, at first blush, exceedingly foreign to contemporary minds, but, viewed through the prism of the Great Axiom, ought not be so.

Now, the secular Jewish media have, to date, stopped short of accusing the chareidi community of human sacrifice (although, on occasion, not that far short…), but the Axiom remains useful in seeing that we and our critics from without (the well-meaning ones, that is) are not quite as starkly divergent as they, or we, may think. In the case at hand, I’d like to believe that the young Jewish journalist who filed this report actually affirms many of the principles that are at the heart of our conception of modesty and our resultant firm resistance to the blandishments of the media and entertainment industries and certain other trappings of today’s society.

I can’t but believe that someone with his modern, open-minded sensibility, would concur with a whole gamut of propositions that are embedded in Jewish law and thought throughout the ages:that human beings, male and female alike, have innate self worth; that it is one’s spiritual/intellectual self in which such self-worth largely inheres, and thus it is that self that deserves primacy over one’s physical self; that men in particular are naturally challenged to relate to women on the basis of such primacy; that the things, large or small, we see, hear, do and say either foster or hinder the ability to grant both ourselves and others such primacy; that women ought not suffer exploitation by men, nor ought men be exploited by those seeking to profit by appealing to our lower selves, and finally, that such exploitation is pervasive and precipitously worsening in modern society.

If I am correct that the JTA reporter accepts all this, why is he so troubled by his report? Two possibilities come to mind. First, he may, sadly, be bereft of both a rich Torah education and close familiarity with Torah-observant life. Lacking an accurate picture of both relevant text and context, he may have hypothesized incorrectly, and/or uncritically accepted the incorrect assumptions of “knowledgeable” others, about the laws and philosophy of tznius. Well-intentioned as he may be, he
thus lacks the basic tools for utilizing the Great Axiom (the essential validity of which I am quite confident he accepts).

Alternatively, he may agree that he and we share many of the values outlined above, but thinks the way we go about actualizing them is excessive, bizarre or simply just so very – shudder! – unmodern. If that’s indeed his mindset, this would reveal him as having a significant tolerance deficit, and a problem with live-and-let-live pluralism, and that would be very unfortunate.

Whatever it is our intrepid newsman believes, I do have one question for him. To introduce my query, I note the following deeply disturbing, yet amply documented, facts about contemporary Israeli society:

· A 2006 United Nations report listed 137 nations that are destinations for criminals trafficking in humans, mostly women and children, for sexual exploitation and forced labor. Israel was among the world’s top 10.

· Writing several months ago in the Jerusalem Post, Merav Michaeli asserts that women “once believed that in an ‘army which has a state,’ the inclusion of women would serve as a basis for equality. . . . But reality and research prove otherwise. In reality, military service is an impressive study on the subjugation and coercion of women. . . . . . [T]he army creates a society far more patriarchal than it would have been had it not been crushed by this hierarchical steamroller. It is a hierarchy with the exalted warrior at its head, and women rendering services at its tail: folding parachutes, offering coffee and consolation, and providing legitimacy for sexual harrassment. . . . Sociologist Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy . . . has shown in her research that even those women serving in traditionally male positions don’t escape this trap. Instead, they imitate the behavior of the male combat soldier, distance themselves from other female soldiers and disregard the significance of sexual harassment. . . . Indeed, my female friends, the time has come. . . . Don’t draft women into the IDF.”

· But surely, are things not different in the enlightened echelons of the intellectual elite? Consider the words of Elana Sztokman in a 2008 Jerusalem Post piece: “The culture of exploitation, back-stabbing, self-serving, intellectual theft and cutthroat competition saturates universities here, frequently reaching appalling degrees. I could probably write a book about this culture based solely on my own accumulated experiences. . . . But for women at the university, this ruthless culture is compounded by the inherent sexism entrenched in every corner of the institution. . . . Over the past few weeks, women have started to speak up about the most horrific forms of aggression and manipulation around, including their ‘sleep with me to get your degree’ situations. . . . Dr. Na’ama Carmi offers a brilliant textual analysis of the reply of senior administration, revealing how the powers that be come to support abusive practices. . . . . This weekend, Haaretz reported that following [Hebrew University’s] ongoing ineptitude in dealing with issues of sexual harassment and the status of women, the Committee on Gender Issues is breaking up. . . . Patriarchy is so deeply embedded that the struggle is getting nowhere. After four years, the committee has given up hope.”

There is, unfortunately, much more to say, but I believe the emerging picture is clear, and deeply revolting.

And it is with this societal portrait in mind that I address the JTA reporter: What sort of moral apathy and studied disinterest in human, and Jewish, misery leads one to avert his attention from the degradation of women that is pervasive and institutionalized at all levels of secular Israeli society, yet receives scant, if any, attention by his news service, and to, instead, patronizingly denigrate the efforts of religious Jews striving, within their democratic rights and without denying anyone else’s, to uphold what they believe to be Jewish tradition’s timeless system for honoring and protecting the rights and needs of women?

This article previously appeared in Hamodia.

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20 Responses

  1. Joel Katz says:

    JTA’s reporter Ben Harris included only one sentence of editorial comment in his post: “You have to wonder what they’ll come up with next.”

    The article you refer to was written by Ynet.com reporter Kobi Nahshoni.

    In the original Ynet.com article, Nahshoni mentions a “claim that the ‘Committee for the Character of the Jewish People’ is acting out of its own self-interest that is not always connected with modesty.”

    In addition, the article states that rabbis granting kashrut certificates “claim that the modesty demands being made are exaggerated and will only lead to unnecessary revocation of kosher certifications since rabbis would not dare grant certificates to establishments that are not on the committee’s modesty list. The implied linkage between modesty and kashrut, they claim, will bring unnecessary economic damage to hotel owners.”

  2. Nathan says:

    “A 2006 United Nations report…”

    In 1980, I worked at the United Nations.

    They displayed map of the world in which Israel did not exist at all.

    The legend of a map explains the symbols used on that map.

    Most global maps position their legend over uninhabited parts of
    the Pacific Ocean.

    The United Nations map positioned their legend on top of Israel, thereby erasing it from the map.

    That was the only time I ever saw a map that deliberately erased an entire country.

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    We all have the natural tendency to defend our own group when it is attacked by the outside. Thus, the same people, myself included , who find fault with certain chareidi norms will defend them when we read a nasty critique of them. Two points.The Israeli media are notably lacking in professionalism, they are very obvious in their lack of balance when it comes to covering religious Jews. Haaretz has a reporter who searches out dirt on frum Jews, unfortunately there is what to find. The TV reporters are so secular and ignorant that they have no idea what they are covering. My best example is when the Belzer Rebbe celebrated his grandson’s bar mitzvah, the TV reporter concluded the short video of the huge crowd by saying that one chasid said it would go down in Gueiness Records as the largest bar mitzvah in the world.I doubt that any Belzer chasid said that , it is a figment of her imagination and shows a total lack of understanding of the real meaning of that bar mitzvah. They are both ignorant and prejudiced.
    Secondly, why are we normal orthodox Jews submissive to the strong arm tactics of the fanatics. Whoever said we can’t have a female’s picture in a newspaper of magazine . Why are they taking over our media?

  4. Future Jew says:

    While one can agree with the general sentiments of the article,that the decision was market driven and of the overall value of “Tznius”,one must still confront the idea,that from a secular point of view the actions of the hotel management result in diminished “choice”.This perceived reduction of “choice” and its concomitant feeling of lack of control over ones life, whether relating to Shabbos,Kashrus ,Marriage etc constitutes a large component of the secular- religious divide.

  5. Nachum Lamm says:

    OK, so they did it out of their own free will, due to economic considerations.

    Why aren’t people free to get angry at that?

    American corporations do all sorts of stuff out of free will and/or economic pressure- enthusiastically support affirmative action, illegal immigration, government healthcare and bailouts, etc. etc. Just because the government isn’t behind it doesn’t mean I have to support it. Maybe some people just don’t like the Charedi lifestyle or worldview. Is that so wrong?

  6. Nachum Lamm says:

    By the way, I have to love how Charedi spokesmen have adopted post-modernist multi-culti catchwords to defend their lifestyle and views. This is a nice extension of the observation that it was the sixties that contributed to a great degree to the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy.

  7. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Yes there is a certain self-centredness to some people and the way they feel their values are “universal”. Unplug the TV? But I don’t have a problem with Tv. What weird would?

    But I could suggest two reasons for the snideness:
    1) The fear that these accomodations will not remain limited to Orthodox clientele. Many secular folks might worry that the next time they check into their favourite hotel they’ll be told “Oh by the way, no TV for you! It’s because of those Orthodox folks!”
    2) Why does the hotel have to do all this in the first place? Why can’t the guest unplug the TV and avoid the window, thus showing actual self-restraint?

  8. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Given the sparse quotes from the original article (which is neither sourced nor linked to) one must assume that the quoted sentence and a fragment are the worst that the JTA author could muster in Eytan Kobre’s eyes.

    If that’s that’s the case then Mr. Kobre’s 1700+ word piece is a massive overreaction.

    For starters, in addition to the secular Jews Mr. Kobre implicitly pillories, many, if not most, normative orthodox Jews in Israel actually do “wonder” on a regular basis “what they’ll come up with next”. From the religiously fanatic right-wing of Judaism we are constantly bombarded with new Chumras, bans, and edicts which are attempting to suck us back into an era long gone and anthropologically incongruous. Therefore, it was neither “snide” nor “snarky” for the JTA reporter to open with what is a relatively innocuous and quite relevant comment.

    Further, Mr. Kobre fails to share with us some of the details of this latest attempt to “accommodate” the Chareidi public. One of which is that, under the agreement, Chareidim will be prohibited from having TVs in their rooms. That’s right, if a Chareidi businessman wants to watch Fox News or CNBC he’s out of luck. Of course there is an exemption for a Modern orthodox Jew “who who claims he has a television at home and his looks prove this,” according to the agreement. This has little to do with the “innate self worth” of humans and much to do with authoritarian control which is more and more becoming the hallmark of the things they keep coming up with next.

    Mr. Kobre then creates “straw men” by guessing the reporter’s motives (rather than actually calling and asking him) and knocking them down with a litany of charges, some real but most based on fanciful anecdotes, leveled against the broader Israeli society. In effect Mr. Kobre is attempting to dictate to the reporter what he should write about, i.e. how can he write about Chareidim using their clout to pressure hotels to accommodate their extreme modesty codes when women are being subjected to unspeakable horrors in the broader society? Please, does Mr. Kobre really want to enter a tit-for-tat on the ills of various sub-groups, especially in light of what’s been going on the Chareidi world lately?

    Anthropologically one can argue that we should not judge people of another time and place based our current societal norms. It does not, however, excuse modern man, even modern Jewish man, from behaving here and now as if he was living there and then. The beauty of the Torah is that it allows us to live in the here and now. More and more we’re seeing an anthropological perversion of that beauty.

  9. YM says:

    My mother, who is not Orthodox, commented to my wife and I about changes she heard about in Great Neck, NY where the Orthodox community has convinced or coerced Jewish (and Non-Jewish?) storeowners to close on Shabbes and Yom Tov. My mother thought this was terrible; I thought, well, if all they threatened was to boycott their stores if they were mechallel Shabbos, wasn’t it their right to do so? I know this will cause resentment on the part of the storeowners either way, but I am sure that a few of them will end up keeping Shabbos eventually because of this.

  10. jr says:

    Mr. Kobre,
    Do you support the opening of the Jerusalem parking lot? After all it’s secular taxpayers “voting with their wallets”.

  11. Nachum Lamm says:

    “I doubt that any Belzer chasid said that”

    Why? You think no Belzer chasid (especially the type who would agree to be interviewed) ever heard of the Guiness Book? It’s in all the bookshops in Israel, in Hebrew.

    Of course, it was a joke. Come on. And if you have a lavish event, of course lots of people are going to miss the “real meaning” of it. Many times it’s clear the organizers (not necessarily the Belzer Rebbe, of course) do.

    “but I am sure that a few of them will end up keeping Shabbos eventually because of this.”

    Keeping their shops open, most will likely violate some d’rabbanans or gezeirot. Closing, they’re likely not going to go to shul, and d’oraytas will be violated. Add in the resentment, and it’s a net loss at least.

    I live in a city that’s had “pro-Shabbes” demonstrations at least every week for a while now. I’m sure not a single person has become Shomer Shabbat as a result, I’m almost certain lots of people have been turned off of the idea, and lots of actual chillul shabbat (police, reporters) has resulted. Why don’t people think? Or do they just not care?

  12. Adam says:

    As always, there are rights and wrongs in the article and responses. Here’s my tuppence worth:

    Clearly the media in Israel are anti-Chareidi. Watch Amnon Levy’s programme on Channel 10 which is obsessed with nefarious chareidim. a recent example was a story about a Ba’alat t’shuva (to what seems to be a particulrly extreme sect) who abducted her child from the secular father. Fair enough, good story but the programme was an exercise in propagand with menacing clips and stills from the riots (which have absolutely nothing to do with the story).
    However, the behaviour of some of the chareidi community, the pashkivilim, the continued depiction of the Israeli state and police as ‘Nazis’ and ‘Gestapo’ is to be deplored as well and only serves to distance the public ever further from Torah.

    Also, Eytan, I would be very circumspect about quoting ‘research’ by sociologists or university professors as proving ANYTHING! A recent learned report from the Hebrew U concluded that Israeli soldiers not raping Palestinian women only proves the inherent racism of Israelis… go figure!!

    p.s. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the quote about the biggest barmitzvah in the world is accurate. 🙁

  13. Sarah says:

    Adam, why does it make you sad that the Belzer bar mitzva might have been the largest in the world? It certainly wasn’t the most lavish or expensive. There b”h happen to be a lot of Belzer chassidim, there aren’t so many Belzer smachot (the Belzer Rebbe has only one son, so there hadn’t been a bar mitzva since his own, nor any major simcha since this bar mitzva boy’s bris), and to a chossid, his rebbe’s simcha is like his own – so of course, every chossid who could attend, did. Are you ch”v sad that there are so many chassidim? Are you sad that they all decided to come and celebrate? Why are you sad?

  14. Mr. Cohen says:

    The secularist media will always focus on the real and imaginary wrongdoings of Orthodox Jews, because it makes secular Jews feel good about themselves.

    Many secular Jew intuitively suspect that they aredoing something wrong by not observing mitzvot. When they hear news about wrongdoings of Orthodox Jews, this helps them to feel that their failure to comply with mitzvot is justified.

    But this is a mistake, because no person can justify his sins by publicizing the sins of another person. Logically, this makes no sense because nobody can justify deeds that are intrinsically unjustifiable; but emotionally, it make people feel good, and 99.99% of people are ruled by their emotions 99.99% of the time, not by logic.

  15. Ori says:

    Mr. Cohen: But this is a mistake, because no person can justify his sins by publicizing the sins of another person. Logically, this makes no sense because nobody can justify deeds that are intrinsically unjustifiable;

    Ori: You’re assuming that secular Jews know they should be Orthodox. But that is not necessarily the case. It’s more likely the secular Jews know they should improve themselves, but not how. This leads to searching for various paths that promise self improvement.

    Orthodoxy is a path that claims to offer self improvements. If you follow the laws of the Torah, you should become a better person – not just by the standard of Halacha (that’s tautological), but by standards that are common at least across western culture. The question, for secular Jews, is whether there is sufficient evidence that being Orthodox is conducive to becoming a better person, by their standards.

  16. Adam says:

    Sarah: I’m not sad AT ALL if the Bar Mitzvah was celebrated in style. Ken Yirbu – and it is perfectly reasonable that chassidim wish to celebrate with their rebbe. I was merely commenting on the posting by L. Oberstein who expressed disbelief that a Belzer chassid could possibly claim that it was the ‘biggest barmitzvah etc. etc’.

    The “sad” icon was, perhaps, unfortunate but it seems to me that a chassid shouldn’t really be bragging about how lavish the celebration was. either way, it’s not really my main point which is why it was added as a footnote.

    May we all celebrate smachot together. 🙂

  17. Rachel W says:

    Adam- I think you missed Sarah’s point. The Bar Mitzvah was in no way lavish – I think the participants were served cold-cut sandwiches for the “dinner”. (The total cost was probably less than many lavish bar mitzvahs.) It was a celebration of the continuation of the Belzer Dynasty which had nearly come to an end in the Holocaust. And that, was, indeed, an event worth celebrating with thousands of participants.

  18. L. Oberstein says:

    My point, as several people pointed out, is that there is a different mind set.the secular reporter did not grasp the real significance of the belzer Bar Mitzvah and what it really meant. To her, it was just a huge party with a massive number of people. My guess if that she asked a chasid”do you think this will make Guieness Book as the biggest bar mitzvah” and the guy said “huh”.
    On the topic of Belz, they have a real rebbe. You won’t find chassidim who have a real leader doing counter productive destructive things.If some belzer kids burned a trash can, the rebbe would see to it that they were dealt with in a way that it would never happen again.
    The question is why so many people of various ages,including American yeshiva students, engage in this behavior. Who leads these groups and why can’t they identify and chastise,internally, their malfactors. I know that there has finally been a lowering of the violence,but,look how long it took and how much of a chillul Hashem these Holy Warriors caused.

  19. Adam says:

    Dear Sarah, Rachel and L (!), I think I am getting myself in a pickle here! I welcome L’s clarification and accept his (her?) explanation of the comment as being more than possible. My original post was critical of the secular Israeli media and their propensity to distort religious stories.
    Please understand me – I wish nothing but a hearty mazal tov to the Belzer Rebbe and his family and community on this simchah.
    I feel like we’re magnets of the same polarity – the same but not quite being able to come together…..

    Shanah tovah to all of Klal Yisrael.

  20. Zach Leiner says:

    Nachum Lamm wrote:

    “This is a nice extension of the observation that it was the sixties that contributed to a great degree to the growth of ultra-Orthodoxy.”

    As an FYI, Rabbi Avi Shafran (Agudah) once commented that as a yeshiva bachur in the late 60’s and observing African-Americans wearing dashikis and other traditional clothing, he became less self-conscious about his yarmulke and tzitzes.

    That said, the use of catch phrases could just as likely be utilized to get one’s point across to an audience that’s used to it. I can’t reconcile how use of those phrases adds to “growth” of the Orthodox while I can see the logic behind Rabbi Shafran’s autobiographical example.

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