In my life as a rabbi, it’s quite common for me to hear Jews passionately expressing their dissatisfaction with the latest portrayal of Jews in the mass media: from the Netflix film “You People” to The New York Times coverage of Hasidic schools to Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s gleeful promotion of Jewish anti-LGBTQ influencer Chaya Raichik.
While representations of Jews do, indeed, vary, I believe the reason my community so often gets so fired up by these depictions is that we know most people watching, reading and scrolling won’t get to witness the actual nuances of Orthodox Judaism.
Having been a seeker all my life, I found myself long ago trying out the whole array of flavors of Jewish life, from living as a Religious Zionist in the West Bank to ultra-Orthodox in a black hat community, ultimately landing, when I was 25 years old, as modern Orthodox. I was seeking a deep and divinely commanded commitment to religious practice, yet at the same time, I required a high degree of openness to the non-Jewish world. I was looking not for seclusion but for the opportunity to learn from and contribute to society at large. And yet, due to Orthodox Judaism remaining a relatively small world, I still find myself frequently hearing the concerns of people across the wide spectrum of congregations.
My experience makes me both hopeful and deeply concerned. In the last several years, I have witnessed a frightening slip of the Orthodox world toward the American far right. Still, I feel I have no choice but to work for the betterment of the community I love. There are too many wonderful things about Orthodox Judaism for me to consider jumping ship, and I think the rest of the world should know about them too. And so, as someone who feels he has a foot in many worlds, I’ve been thinking about some things that I wish everyone knew about Orthodox Jews. Here are some:
Increasingly, we care about social justice: The stereotypes tell us that religiously liberal Jews are universalistic and concerned with the betterment of life for all humanity, while Orthodox Jews are particularistic and parochial. I’d like to point out that the situation is more complicated and dynamic.
While it’s certainly commendable for any minority group to preserve its culture, many of us in the Orthodox community have recognized that there is also a time to look outward and be, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “a light of the nations.” To disregard the needs of those outside the community, many of us has come to recognize, is a dereliction of our moral duty.
We take the notion of good deeds seriously: Perhaps the best example of this is our extremely high rates of what is called “altruistic kidney donation,” the donation of a kidney to a stranger. Despite making up 0.2% of the American population, we represent 18% of altruistic kidney donations.
We’ve made progress on LGBTQ issues: I do not want to, God forbid, sugarcoat the hardships that LGBTQ members of Orthodox communities face. At the same time, I do want to point out that being an LGBTQ Orthodox Jew is, in many spaces, becoming more and more possible for those who desire the Orthodox path. As Jews, we know that the dignity of every human being is of the utmost importance, and we’ve witnessed enormous progress in the last 10 years on LGBTQ inclusion, although we still have a long way to go.
We’ve made progress on women’s issues: Similarly, the flexible rigidity of traditional Judaism has enabled — though we’re not where we need to be yet — an overall empowerment of women in modern-day Orthodox life. Orthodoxy will never have identical participation between genders, and thus it’ll seem opposed to the cherished egalitarian ethos to outsiders, but Orthodox women have continued to blaze their own unique path.
Orthodox Jews, because of our minuscule population and need for small, walkable communities, are often seen as a mystery, even to others in the larger Jewish population. Orthodoxy has so many facets, from the Sephardic tradition to the modern Orthodox to the Hasidic and Yeshivish, each with its own distinct cultures and subcultures. What unifies this vast range of interests and identities under the often-unhelpful umbrella term “Orthodoxy” is our very traditional allegiance to the Torah and its commandments.
Because there are relatively few Orthodox Jews, it does not surprise me when the pervasive, ugly elements of my world are displayed to the public. There are significant problems in the Orthodox community, as there are in all communities.
I know we cannot fully demonstrate the diversity within our community to everyone. But I, for one, would like to try.