For all its outward vigor, the Orthodox community, which is my own, appears to harbor a sickness. You don’t have to be an ideological critic of traditional Judaism to wonder if the cause should be sought in Orthodoxy itself.
The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.
Of course, not every allegation turns out to be true (and you certainly cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet with its bias in favor of grudges and witch-hunts). Yet the pattern of accusations can’t be coincidental.
For a convert or a baal teshuvah, like me, the greatest stumbling block to faith may indeed be the Orthodox community itself. If Torah is true, why do Torah Jews not stand out as particularly impressive? Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation’” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?
The answer, I think, lies in the nature of Torah that has allowed its adherents to persist for millennia. While liberal Jewish movements inevitably fade into the broader gentile society, traditional Judaism survives thanks to a hedge of religious laws that keep Jews somewhat separate from others: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Paradoxically, our ministering to and illuminating humanity as the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) that God calls us to be is conditioned on this apartness from other people.
But insularity also has its risks. For communities, as for individual human beings, there’s a madness that often goes with spending too much time by yourself. Reality becomes a little unreal. So too, alas, in our Orthodox world.
At times you feel you are on Planet Frum, where eccentricities and trivialities — “Orthodox” jargon and accents, minutely observed quirks of attire, tribal foods — loom large, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. This is pronouncedly so on the East Coast (which is one reason I moved to Seattle). For example, not long ago I was talking with a young woman who grew up in a Hasidic community. I was trying to get clear what exactly distinguished her former community from other Hasidic groups. Her answer kept coming back not to beliefs but to styles of socks and hats.
I recall another conversation with a New York woman, Modern Orthodox, who was seeking to locate another woman along the spectrum of religiosity. “Basically, she wears pants and eats fish,” was her summary statement that would sound insane to any outsider. (She meant the other woman doesn’t strictly observe rules regarding modesty in attire or not eating in non-kosher restaurants.)
In an insular community, Torah can easily be reduced to cosa nostra — merely “our thing,” a game of chess with arcane rules that bear no meaning outside a narrow context. The serious danger lies in Judaism becoming a hermetically sealed environment, irrelevant and indifferent to the world. The highest ethics and values to be found in the wider society — which Judaism praises as derech eretz — are then minimized or even discarded as somehow goyish.
The visionary spokesman of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, warned of the peril Jews face in living up to our calling. In his Torah commentary, Hirsch wrote, “The sanctification of certain persons, things, times or places can very easily result in the pernicious idea that holiness and sanctification are limited to these persons, things, times and places. With the giving over of these things to holiness, the tribute has been paid, and the demand of holiness for everything else has been bought off.”
If you have “bought off” the Torah’s call to be holy by sanctifying yourself and your community, while ignoring all else, it becomes easier to overlook behaviors that run the gamut from silly to grotesque or worse.
When I lived in New York, I saw countless instances of Orthodox Jews behaving in public with little refinement or dignity. Visit the Kiddush table on Shabbos morning at many a shul. Grown men and women push and grab for food with all the manners and elegance that I regularly observe in my 2-year-old twins. Isolation from outsiders has something to do with it. In our bubble floating undisturbed through the world, we forget how to behave.
With our childishness goes a naiveté that may also explain how abusers are able to get away with it. Rabbis are regarded with childlike reverence. There is a guileless, ingenuous failure to confront reality.
The picture of a tragedy is complete when you consider how our unimpressiveness, our mediocrity, assures that even if we suddenly decided to accept the priestly role that God commanded us to fill, the world would hardly take us seriously. The credibility we might have, we have squandered.
I note this in sadness and frustration, not because I have any immediate remedy to propose. However, we can at least put the matter into its proper spiritual context, understanding that God appears to have built directly into the Torah the dilemma in which we’re caught. There is a necessary separation between clergy and congregation — the Jews and other men and women. Without it, there can be no priesthood. But isolation carries with it a risk that must be vigilantly guarded against.
By our observing Shabbat or kashrut, the Torah intends to remind us of our high calling, not to dispense us from it. It’s hard to avoid the impression that this year has been, as a rabbi friend suggested to me, a wake-up call from God.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and the author of “The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy” (Free Press, 1998). He writes the Kingdom of Priests blog on Beliefnet.