Culture, Identity, Politics, Religion

Romanticizing our extremists

I do not hate orthodox believers. I do not hate Orthodox Judaism. I do not hate the haredi or their Judaism either. I like and dislike them as much as I dislike orthodoxy (lower case “o”) in any stream of Judaism, including Reform and Conservative and (yes even!) havurah hippyness. Which I think is why the vociferous, self-contradictory and abusive comments left by self-identified Orthodox Jews on Eli Valley’s latest comic at The Forward are missing the point. Then again, those commentors always miss the point.
Extremists are bad for Judaism. But the romanticization of those extremists — meaning views that put them at the top of the Jewish authenticity scale — is like admiring Islamic extremists for their “authenticity.” The vastness of religion is always shamed by a minority who will excuse their human desires through theology. Women are barred from leadership and study. Xenophobia is granted a divine rubber stamp. Social contract obligations are ignored. The rule of law is disregarded. I would think we can all agree on this.
Which is why I think anybody should be able read Eli Valley’s comic and see the truth of it without going berserk. No where does Eli say all Orthodox Jews are like this. If you feel defensive, then I recommend a particular course of action: speak up not to Eli but the speakers whose words are quoted. (Citations are here.) But the speakers of these words are not kicked out of communal leadership, shunned or defunded. In fact, quite the opposite.
If these speakers had no authority or little influence, they would remain our crazy uncle. But in Israel, the haredim control the Official Stamp of Judaism. And the Modern Orthodox bloc is the home camp of the settlers. And in America, as Eli rightly points out, starry-eyed and naive Jews leave a boring Judaism for another Judaism that at least has a mission. Because of this, we need to (and are) pulling down the boring Judaism and building something better. But we also need to point out that authenticity is a sham. And that evil is evil, especially if it’s authentic evil.
Eli Valley's "The Odd Couple," published in The Forward

22 thoughts on “Romanticizing our extremists

  1. i was a brian greenstein once. i’ve met plenty of others, too. the commenters are missing the point. this isn’t a criticism of orthodoxy, it’s a criticism of liberal Judaism, or rather, the lack thereof.
    tell me this: why can’t liberal Jews go out and put tefillin on Jewish men AND women in the streets? Liberal Judaism relies on the steam of youth classes and clubs and occasionally “Israel advocacy”, and that formula will only get you so far.
    Where are the gung-ho liberal Jews? Are there any? Our teenagers could be studying Heschel, instead, their studying Schneerson. Liberal Judaism doesn’t believe it has anything to offer except “Judaism Lite” for those who aren’t comfortable with an Orthodoxy. If it believed in itself, it would work on making the works of its theologians accessible to the laypeople. Liberal Jewish theology is an ivory tower.
    It’s not that liberal Judaism doesn’t have anything interesting to say; it’s that it’s not very interested in saying it.
    teach enough hebrew so they can fake their way through their bar/bat mitzvah, then hopefully see em again when it’s time to get married and repeat the process with their own progeny. doesn’t work my friends. you’re losing people for the worst of reasons. those who chose charedi judaism over liberal judaism are making an uneducated decision. and that’s the sad part.
    i’m posting on Shabbos. But is using electricity melacha? There was once a debate about this. I know the arguments for and against. But do the folks in your shul? If not, why not? And if you don’t teach them, who will?

  2. He’s answered ugliness and gross stereotyping with ugliness and gross stereotyping. That’s mudslinging, not debate.

  3. Eli Valley is a prophet! This is one of the best ones yet.
    Though I notice a (strategic?) mistranslation in the first panel of the third line. Don’t back down, Eli! Tell it like it is!

  4. Shmuel – I’ve been asking these questions for years. I think the answer is that we’re too afraid of their accusations and insufficiently willing to make accusations of our own.
    Siviyo – we need to be willing to call evil “evil” when we see it, and we need to be willing to fight on the Enemy’s terms. If we just sit around singing Kumbaya, they will continue to kick dirt in our faces.
    Miri – what are you seeing there? I’m just seeing a transliteration of the kid’s name.

  5. The first panel of the third line contains a translation saying “it is permissible to kill somebody who will one day become evil.” But the Hebrew says that “it is permissible to kill a goy who will one day become evil.”
    So, you know…

  6. Nice catch, Miri. (Rich — it’s the 7th panel, in the third row.) Yes, I toned down the translation because the original — the actual words spoken by a leader of Orthodox Judaism — were too reminiscent of the blood libel. Not only did Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro refer to the murder of Gentiles, but Gentile babies.
    I knew that I would (deservedly) garner serious outrage for perpetuating the blood libel myth even in a fictional comic. What’s outrageous to me is that those who in reality perpetuate and encourage the myth continue to be lauded as “leaders” by the ultra-Orthodox world — and, through our passivity, by the Jewish world in general.

  7. But where’s the “evil”? The kiruv rabbis? The neglectful parents? The ignorant Jew? The quotes Eli uses by and large are not those of kiruv rabbis. (If you didn’t see the original inthe Forward check out the quotes:
    He’s conflated kiruv work with extreme viewpoints, which is a popular idea among non-religious Jews, but it’s not fair. I think that what he’s getting at- the kiruv/religious education themes articulated on jewschools pages by DK and others- is important and worth a lot of discussion, but I don’t like the demonization. It’s inflammatory, it’s ugly, and it’s inaccurate.
    It’s just as ugly to portray the 30-something non-religiously-educated Jew as the undiscerning fool.

  8. “But where’s the “evil”?”
    It depends on the Kiruv organization. If I were to point to one underlying evil, it would be the deception. Deception is part and parcel of almost all ultra-Orthodox kiruv organizations, and certainly critical to NCSY’s JSU.
    But for a small and incomplete list of extremist positions of Ohr Somayach, one of the institutions targeted in see this:

  9. Actually, DK, you’ve made my point. And you’ve raised my suspicion that you and Eli Valley are indeed the same person! You have references to real evils attributed to Ohr Somayach rabbis (although you could use more citation). But you include a few items that are simply reflections of the rabbis belief in miracles and wonders and the power of prayer. (E.g.: Ohr Somayach’s Rabbi Weinbach has claimed that a prayer to a dead tzaddik in Tzfat turned black chickens into white ones. He claimed a famous Israeli rabbi’s ancestor experienced a “miraculous crossing of the sea from Jaffa to Constantinople on a mat.”). How is that claim re: chickens, which is one of only two references made in Eli Valley’s cartoon that are actually attributed to kiruv rabbis, an indicator of “evil”? Our history is full of stories of the supernatural- conception at advanced ages, people turning into salt pillars. Our ancestors are said to have done lots of things wilder than crossing a body of water on a mat- such as parting a sea. A lot of us believe that G*d answers prayers and while the context is missing, a chicken’s feathers turning color seems to be in line with hashem’s abilities. 🙂
    Note also, the quote attributed to the Chabad rabbi was admittedly “widely condemned” by Chabad.
    My beef is that there are plenty of sh*tty things being said and done throughout the world, including the Jewish and ultraorthodox worlds, but this is scapegoating. The vile words of others have been placed in the mouths of a kiruv-worker stereotype.

  10. Siviyo:
    I was at an Aish HaTorah high holy day service in Jerusalem near the Kotel in 2004. Throughout the weekend, they offered “Ask the rabbi” sessions, which I participated in. Among my favorite recollections:
    – “Better to be a bad orthodox Jew than to be a Reform or Conservative Jew and believe you’re practicing Judaism,” and something about Reform and Conservative Jews giving Hitler a posthumous victory.
    – Lots about Arabs being the descendants of Haman and only understanding violence.
    – Several moments of “God made us better than the goyyim with this and that” and another of the territories belong to the Jews, but only the obvservant Jews.
    These are pretty outrageous statements and they were said by a two kiruv rabbis. You can’t so cleanly draw the line between them and the extremists. Point is, they are the extremists.

  11. Regarding the evil, EV is not saying that orthodoxy is evil by nature. Neither am I, neither is DK. But the use of religion to get one’s way at the expense of others I consider nefarious at least, definitely evil in certain extremes. Evil in this case is the rejection of the humanity of others — women, other Judaisms, Arabs, non-Jews — and the willingness (expectation!) to force it upon other people.
    So quickly we excuse these evils, yet so quickly we impune Islamic fundamentalists for their radicalism.

  12. How is that claim re: chickens, which is one of only two references made in Eli Valley’s cartoon that are actually attributed to kiruv rabbis, an indicator of “evil”?
    Because it is a symptom of a larger problem: of a deification of rabbis beyond the scope of interpretation of ritual Jewish law.
    This does not stop with chicken feathers. It does not stop with whether a chicken is kosher. It spreads into invasive aspects of the (young) baal teshuvah’s life, where he is taught not to trust himself on anything, but only to trust in (haredi) rabbis.
    As the former mashgiach of Ohr Somayach Monsey, Rabbi Kokis, noted,
    “This is one of the most crucial, yet painful, stages in a baal teshuva’s development: the realization that in the world of Torah he cannot follow his own hunches in deciding what is right and what is wrong. The average baal/baalas teshuva grew up in a culture where there were no, or precious few, moral absolutes. Very often, society places pleasure and gratification as the only criteria for choices in life. Even when a sense of moral correctness is sought, the main standard of judgment is the dictates of his own conscience: are you being true to your own sense of justice and decency? Suddenly, having made a commitment to a life of Torah, things are no longer so simple. He may very likely find that compared to the past, he is having a much harder time making decisions, because he no longer can think only in terms of what he thinks is appropriate, but rather what is really right, through the eyes of the Torah.
    Even questions which would seem to call for a purely subjective evaluation are not left up to the inclinations and preferences of the individual. Defining beauty, for instance, becomes a complex proposition when a lulav or esrog is concerned; the Torah’s requirement of “hadar – beautiful –” is not left up to one’s aesthetic instincts. On occasion, the opposite is true: the esrog which you may consider “pretty” may be barely kosher by the halacha’s standards, while the real “m’hudar” could be less than dazzling in everyday terms. The more one becomes conditioned to the world of halacha, it would seem, the less valid individual preferences become.”

  13. Sorry to drag this out, but DK you did it again. What’s wrong with the Rabbi Kokis quote you’ve excerpted? That’s the essence of religion, right? Adopting tenets of a faith means subverting your will to some degree, whether it’s fasting, eating kosher, making a pilgrimage doing unto others, whatev. Is your objection to the quote an objection to halacha?

  14. What’s wrong with the Rabbi Kokis quote you’ve excerpted?
    That essay demonstrates the invasive and amputative role of “daas Toyrah” and the rabbi in a BT’s life after “becoming frum.”
    That’s the essence of religion, right?
    No. That’s the essence of quiescent fundamentalism.
    Is your objection to the quote an objection to halacha?
    No. He isn’t talking about the esrog. He is making all aspects of a BTs life an esrog, and up for veto by the BT’s rabbi. The nullification of the recruit’s will is evident, and keep in mind, within the B’nai Torah world, Kokis’s position is a moderate position, because he is challenging how much the rabbi must amputate of the student’s vocational opportunity.

  15. I don’t know. I think what you’re troubled by is the essence of halacha-subscribing Judaism. We ask “what would torah do?” Halacha and tradition have an answer for almost everything- down to how we take our clothes off at night and the position we sleep in. Lots of people have a problem with that. I just think that if your problem is with halacha then you should acknowledge that and not limit your beef to those who promote the spread of halachic observance.

  16. Siviyo,
    Pretending there is no difference between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox is risible, including both the scope and severity of halacha. You are clearly operating from a barely dressed up version of, “YOU JUST HATE FRUM PEOPLE!!!!!!!!!!”

  17. No, I’m just asking where you’re coming from. I’m not observant, so I don’t really have a dog in the fight. But I’m legitimately unclear whether you take issue with kiruv workers or “ultra-Orthodoxy” in general. It makes a difference in how we approach the debate.

  18. And really, it’s not just “ultras” that have to buy into the definition of a beautiful etrog. Keeping Shabbat, eating kosher, making time for prayer- these are also major subversions of the individual’s will.

  19. And really, it’s not just “ultras” that have to buy into the definition of a beautiful etrog.
    You are completely missing what he is saying. He is not talking about an etrog at all. He is talking about how baal teshuvahs cannot trust their instincts on anything.
    In terms of where I stand on Kiruv, I am against deceptive and predatory practices. Sadly, this is not restricted to the ultra-Orthodox, but includes right-wing Modern Orthodox Kiruv orgs as well.
    NCSY has finally publicly conceded in their internal documents (the most current Jewish Action issu) that the JSU (Jewish “Student” Union, their “cultural” club) is an allied agency of NCSY. It should not have taken years to extract that concession from them.

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