Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Walking the Walk

I've often wondered if people who are identifiably religious Jews in public are held to a double standard.
No, I don't mean when it comes to embezzlement and organ trafficking. I mean with the little things. Technically speaking, going 120 kmh in a 100 kmh zone is against the law. You're not allowed to bring anything across the Canada-US border if you've been out of country for last than 48 hours without paying duty on it. You have to report all income to the tax folks, including cash sales.
The reason I bring those examples is because of their pettiness in today's society. Yes, they're all illegal but everyone does them at one time or another. Is it therefore wrong for a frum Jew to do them as well?
One could argue that if everyone's doing it, then it is de facto okay. I was once told by a police officer that they don't care about speeders who are holding their lane and going less than 20 km above the limit. Another conversation with a border guard yielded important information on how to keep them on one's good side so they wouldn't direct one to the custom's office to stand in line for an hour. I could postulate that in our secular society, a law is only as good as the will to enforce it. If there's no will, is it still really a crime?
On the other hand, should that matter to us? After all, within the Jewish sphere of halacha, there is no real enforcement. The Neturei Karta and their misguided beliefs aside, God employs no formal policemen nowadays. A person who desecrates the Shabbos has about as much risk of something going wrong in the coming week as the most meticulous frum Jew. That's how it has to work, else what happens to free choice? Yet frum Jews keep God's halacha to the best of their ability with only the thought that God is watching to keep them in line. Perhaps we should apply the same standard to our observance of secular law.
What's more, I could note that we are not that infamous a group in many parts of North America (naturally this is not true about Israel). I've worked in many small towns where people have no clue why I am wearing a knitted beanie. All they know about Jews is that we're constantly fighting with Arabs over in Israel. Of our laws, customs, traditions and strictures they know nothing. So when I'm out there, is the standard for my public behaviour different than, say, downtown Manhattan?
I muse about this because of Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest contribution to Cross Currents which I believe is excellent in its analysis:
What gentile looks at us and thinks, “Perhaps they really are the Chosen People?” What non-religious Jew looks to the Torah world and finds his curiosity aroused about the source of such refinement and simple mentschlikeit? The janitor in an Orthodox-owned factory recently asked his boss, “If you really are the Chosen People, why are you all so corrupt?”
We each carry around a set of adult pacifiers to grab onto at such moments. Who has not repeated many times Rabbi Berel Wein’s famous line, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” But the Torah is judged, for better or worse, by the behavior of Torah Jews. Meeting a Torah Jew who exemplified something he or she has never before encountered serves as a major impetus for virtually every ba’al teshuva.
Rabbi Zev Leff likes telling a story of the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai (Mottel) Katz. A non-religious Jew once asked him, “Rabbi, how do you explain all these religious Jews who lie, steal, and cheat on their income taxes.”
Reb Mottel replied, “I have the same question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don’t keep kosher.” The man looked perplexed. “Those aren’t religious,” he said. “Well, neither are those you mentioned,” Reb Mottel replied.
Unfortunately, writing all those who lie, steal and cheat out of the ranks of Orthodoxy only takes us so far. For one thing, the former view themselves and are viewed as others as frum Jews.
Nor can their self-image be dismissed as simply a bluff. An Orthodox prison chaplain relates how he once brought a prisoner a set of the Four Species for Sukkos. The prisoner, however, rejected the esrog, telling the chaplain, “I’m makpid (strict) on a pitom.” The chaplain could not resist asking, “About a pitom you are strict, and about defrauding widows you are lenient?” But obviously the prisoner did feel some connection to Hashem. Otherwise, why would he have cared about the pitom either?
If we carried Rabbi Katz’s answer to its logical conclusion, where would we draw the line? Most of us are not candidates for federal penitentiary. But how many would feel comfortable having Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, examine our books, if he were still alive? A rabbi once called Rabbi Schwab and began his question, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” He had gotten no further when Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!”
Thinking that Rabbi Schwab was hard of hearing, the rabbi began again, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” Again, Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!” After the third try, Rabbi Schwab explained that running a cash business – i.e.., evading taxes – cannot be reconciled with being a frum Jew.
Even if we could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test, how many of us can say that we have never lowered the respect for Torah Jews by our public behavior – e.g., the way we drive, reacting angrily when irritated by a sales clerk? I know I couldn’t pass that test.

Yes, there is a double standard but it is one we must impose on ourselves. By wearing garb that publicly identifies us as Jewish, we are creating an impression. For folks who know what Judaism is, that means we are responsible for exuding an image of Judaism as a religion that brings civility and decency to a person. For folks who don't know any Orthodox Jews, then it is out responsibility to create a positive impression so that they think that there is something special about why we wear those beanies.
It's not fair. Any other ethnic group can do what they want in public without any real reprecussions. A Pakistani man can spit on the street, a German can shout at his wife, a Costa Rica can get caught robbing a bank and nobody says "Well, all of them are like that. What a terrible lifestyle. What a terrible culture". But when any of us do that, those are exactly the statements that get made. And as the Gemara notes (Yoma 86a), when we behave badly, then a chilul Hashem happens and that is something any sincere believing Jew must avoid at all costs.
Why is this so? Well for one thing no other ethnic group makes an intrinsic claim to moral superiority like we do. As a result, the higher the podium, the harder the fall as the old saying goes.
But more than that, the Navi notes that we are the only nation that God has directly known and as a result, we have a connection with Him that no other group on Earth has. Because of this, we have a responsiblity no other group on Earth has to live up to our ideal moral standards. Any stumbles we make are more horrendous, any impression we are not keeping the faith is more disasterous, specifically because of this. Having accepted the Torah and the sublime reward that goes with it, we must accept the other side of the coin: the tremendous responsibility to be positive role models for the world. It's not enough to be like everyone else. That misses the point.

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