In a recent post on Jewschool, I explained the issue of Ben Niddah (Jews whose souls are considered by the ultra-Orthodox to be defiled by menstrual blood. Such a category includes the vast majority of liberal and secular Jewry) in the baal teshuvah world, and why this encourages and justifies discrimination against Jews from liberal and secular Jewish backgrounds who join the ultra-Orthodox ranks.
In an essay in the Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Shafran seeks to minimize the problems of baal teshuvahs marrying into haredi families, even as he calls for an increase of such marriages. That is, unless the haredi family doesn’t want to, which just happens to usually be the case. He writes of an anecdotal case where a baal teshuvah (a person from a non-Orthodox religious background becomes haredi) named David marries into an ultra-Orthodox family. This is offered as a situation where a boy meets a girl, nothing more. But we should immediately have some questions even to this singular anecdote. Does the girl’s family have any known converts or baal teshuvahs in her lineage? Is “David” from an exceptionally wealthy family? If the answer is yes to either situation, this story is useless even as an anecdotal case, as in the former situation, the lineage of the ultra-Orthodox family is marred in the eyes of other ultra-Orthodox Jews, and in the latter case, the drawback issue of Ben Niddah was literally compensated for by a tangible positive–wealth, which is rare in the ultra-Orthodox world, particularly in Israel.
Rabbi Shafran writes,
David’s new in-laws were enamored of both him and his parents, and overjoyed at their daughter’s marriage. They hoped, moreover, that their example might perhaps, in a small way, inspire other traditional Orthodox Jews to entertain the possibility of such matches from outside their own community.
That’s very sweet, but it is also a concession that it does not happen very often.
The importance of “family” – i.e. the “pedigree” of a current and well-established Orthodox background – is an understandable concern for many, to be sure; and there are other Halacha-related issues that also come into play in such cases. To some, such concerns may even be paramount, and that stance is their prerogative.
This is an allusion to the Ben Niddah issue.
At the same time, though, it cannot be denied that there is something real and valuable that is gained, too, when an observant Orthodox Jew from an Orthodox family marries an equally observant Orthodox Jew from a different background – gained by the latter, by the former and by the Jewish people as a whole.
Some haredim might in fact deny that the observant Orthodox Jew from an Orthodox family gains anything valuable. But even if they do, what they will more likely be concerned about is whether or not said “benefit” is worth the cost and the risk of bringing in an outsider from a foreign background. Clearly, most do not believe this to be a compelling tradeoff.
“They had hardly been the first “ultra-Orthodox” Jews to welcome a baal teshuva and his family into their own.”
They were not the first. And just as those before them did not change the norm, so too this family will not change the norm. And I’m not saying that this should be the norm. I don’t believe that it is usually appropriate for Jews from liberal and secular backgrounds to marry Jews from insular ultra-Orthodox ones. But then, I don’t believe ultra-Orthodoxy is appropriate for most Jews from liberal and secular backgrounds to start with. However, I certainly accept their choice, as well as the ultra-Orthodox right to recruit adults (as opposed to recruiting underage Jews under false pretenses), provided it is done candidly, and without deception, and they understand issues such as Ben Niddah going into haredism. Which they usually don’t. As I noted previously, the issue of Ben Niddah is not revealed until the recruit is far into the haredi “teshuvah” process. It is concealed, and even here, Rabbi Shafran does not directly address the issue of Ben Niddah, a status that justifies discrimination against and bolsters negative stereotypes about baal teshuvahs. And it is precisely why most haredim from normative haredi backgrounds will never feel a need to eliminate a general negative bias towards baal teshuvahs. All else is wishful thinking, an exception that proves the rule.
If Rabbi Shafran felt this was not such a difficult problem, he would not have been afraid to address the Ben Niddah issue directly. Well, defending a quasi-caste system to liberal and secular company based on the premise that a soul is tarnished by congenital defiled menstrual blood is certainly an undesirable task. But not addressing it directly is really no defense at all.
It should be understood that the issue of Ben Niddah is not pragmatically an issue in the Modern Orthodox world. Since it is not halachically binding, the Modern Orthodox world has little use for casting aspersions upon the masses of Jewry today. This is an ultra-Orthodox outlook, and generally the further right-wing one goes, the more intense the theologically based aversion to “b’nai niddah” becomes.
Never the less, all haredi outreach organizations seeking to craft haredim out of Jews from secular and liberal Jewish backgrounds are concomitantly creating “b’nai niddah.”
The concept of a Jewish quasi-caste system surely seems something foreign and far away to the mainstream secular and religiously liberal Jewish community, which increasingly is giving a nod to the more visible success of instilling Jewish identity and Jewish engagement to teens that the Orthodox outreach groups offer.
But is Ben Niddahism really that far away?
The haredi organizations that attempt to assimilate baal teshuvahs into communities which view them as B’nai Niddah include (but by no means are limited to): Aish HaTorah Jerusalem (at least all branches in Israel), Ohr Somayach (all branches including Neve Yerushalayim), and Kol Yaakov.
NCSY directs secular and liberal American teenagers to all of these haredi organizations, and does not inform them or their parents about the issue of Ben Niddah, and how they wouldn’t assume such a status in a Modern Orthodox community. The Ben Niddah issue is just one of many problems that a baal teshuvah faces in joining an ultra-Orthodox community, but does not face when joining a Modern Orthodox community. There are so many others…the haredi rejection of scientific method, the haredi preference for maximum halachic (Jewish Law) compliance, the oppressive haredi garb (both for men and for women), haredi hostility to higher western culture, and socio-economic downward mobility. In the right-wing of the ultra-Orthodox world, who dominate the Israeli haredim and correspondingly comprise a large percentage of Israel’s baal teshuvah movement and its institutions, the work ethic itself is rejected.
Under its ecumenical front, the Jewish Student Union, NCSY is now operating in over 170 public schools. The primary youth group beneficiary of their work to whom students are directed is (no surprise), NCSY proper.
NCSY’s public school outreach organization, the Jewish “Student” Union, is increasingly funded by Jewish Federations throughout the country.
Although NCSY has been quickly creating and bolstering right-wing Modern Orthodox options to counter recent criticism that it has favored predominantly haredi options for their alumni from liberal and secular backgrounds, NCSY has declined to break their ties with these haredi organizations that offer a Ben Niddah status (and all the other problems) to their students upon successful integration into a haredi community.
It is ironic that a liberal and secular Jewish community that prides itself on its disproportionate role in the Civil Rights Movement apparently has no qualms about funding and facilitating a quasi-caste system for its own teenagers. Defenders will note that only a portion of the teens NCSY works with ever go to NCSY’s haredi partner institutions after high school. But what if a Jewish organization recruited black teens, and the most interested 5% of them were to become second-class citizens because of their birth status? Would that be okay? After all, it’s only 5%…the other 95% don’t have that problem, and they get so much out of it.
It is inconceivable that the mainstream Jewish community would greet such am operation with anything less than outraged protest. But apparently, not for our own. Not because we don’t care about our own, but because we simply don’t understand how real this stuff is to the haredim, or that NCSY directs our teens to these haredi institutions, or that the Jewish Student Union is NCSY controlled.
The liberal and secular Jewish community should demand that NCSY either break its ties with its haredi partners, or lose all Federation support, both monetary, and the rampant corresponding puff pieces in the Federation controlled Jewish weeklies.
NCSY is burning the candle at both ends. They are rapidly infiltrating our public school system, even as they continue to work with organizations and direct their alumni to haredi organizations that recruit Jews into haredi B’nai Niddahism.
NCSY has to choose one or the other. Or the mainstream Jewish community must make that choice for them.