Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Separate but Equal?

In a poignant post last week in honor of Independence Day, Rabbi Harry Maryles expressed deep gratitude and hakarot hatov (recognition of the goodness bestowed upon us) to our current host in galut, the United States of America. Indeed, the U.S. has been by far the best secular milieu in our long history of exile, and thank God we have been able to find a place to rest our weary feet and regroup as we prepare for Moshiach.

As Rabbi Maryles expressed it, the U.S. has been an accepting and accommodating host, allowing us to enjoy religious freedom without fear of persecution (although there have been threats to certain religious liberties - especially in the recent past - by those who would see our beautiful mesorah relegated to the dustbin of history, mainly coming from within our own, these attempts have largely been marginalized and quashed); as a matter of fact, it is becoming increasingly more common to see religious Jews in the public eye, cast in a positive light as role models for society or as budding young talent with an uncanny ability to rally support around their causes.

Rabbi Maryles' post was actually written in the context of such an occurrence: one of the popular American reality TV shows has bee featuring a young Orthodox boy who is blowing past all of the competition while dazzling audiences and judges alike with his beautiful singing and musical talent. People have been captivated by this young fellow's undeniable gift, and with the exception of some cringe-worthy comments by one tactless judge, few have made any real fuss about the large leather yarmulke that he wears proudly on his head.

Many have triumphantly pointed to this singing phenom and the welcome he has experienced as indicative of our implicit "acceptability" in society; not only do we not live with antisemitism in this enlightened day and age, but quite the opposite - we are seen as equals, or at the very least as "regular people" who have the same hopes and dreams as any other person trying to make it today. This is usually presented as a good thing, but whenever something like this comes up, I have my reservations.

One of the oldest questions that I have concerns this dichotomy: we all know what constitutes the typical chillul HaShem, and to some degree the concept has taken slightly skewed proportions (although that is a topic for another essay). But what I always find myself thinking about is whether there is a possibility that there exists a different kind of chillul HaShem: when the other nations of the world think to themselves "Hey, these Jews aren't so different after all. They're just like us."

Don't get me wrong - this is not an attack on young Edon; I wish him the best of luck, and pray that his success presents itself as a positive opportunity to affect a real kiddush HaShem, not to mention a source of parnassah. But my issue is how it is perceived by the secular world, and our hand in reinforcing that perception. We are meant to be distinguished from the rest of the world, not only superficially (as some groups ensure) but in thought, values, and deeds. The whole concept of a talent show (as an example) seems to go against our ideals of modesty and humility; yes, we are supposed to develop our individual characteristics, but in a very different way - a way that enhances the collective goal of the community.

Now, maybe it's presumptuous to maintain that anybody is thinking "Those Jews share our values about what is considered success and important in life," but on some basic, visceral level, that is exactly what's happening. When that association is made, it undermines the ideal of being a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" - instead of insisting on our separateness, we show them that we're not so different. after all.

Perhaps that is an even greater chillul HaShem, God forbid.

I would appreciate people's thoughts on this one; if you don't feel like commenting in an open forum, feel free to e-mail me.


Neil Harris said...

You are bringing up a n interesting point that would probably best be discussed over an iced drink or bourbon at the Shabbos table.

Last night I heard a lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum (hearing him again tonight, actually) about "Reconnecting in a Disconnected World". He mentioned (among other things) the idea that the popularity of reality TV is based on people wanting to be famous. In fact, he sited a recent study done in Israel where "school age children" were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. R Rosenblum said that 80% of the kids answered that they wanted "to be famous".
(As an aside, he also expressed a message that I have heard a few times over the past few weeks that is prompting me to lighten my digital footprint.)

I think that any role we play, no matter if it is that of a kollel guy, a career in chinuch, working the the business world, teaching in the secular world, social sciences, etc., comes with the responsibility of making a Kiddush Hashem to those Jews around us (since technically Kiddush/Chillul Hashem is based on Jews seeing other Jews) and accepting the mission of the Jewish people to be "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" within the world.

It is possible that a non-Jew would look at, for example, Edon, and think, "They are just like us". Rav Yom Tov Schwartz zt'l writes in is book, EYES TO SEE, that the lack of achdus among Klal Yisrael causes non-Jews to say, "See, those Jews cannot get along, that is why their Temple was destroyed, they were exiled, and their redeemer has yet to arrive."

If we are going to worry about non-Jews think that we are "just like them", then we all have a choice to make. Either we all pursue learning full time and accept the fact that when Moshiach come and we all return to E"Y that we will not have frum Drs, lawyers, dry cleaners, chefs, IT people, accountants, artists, muscians, etc. or we attempt to fill the world with those learning full-time and others who are invovled in making a Kiddush Hashem outside the beis midrash.

Karma Dude said...

Firstly, with all due respect to Rabbi Maryles, he really ought to take his head out of the sand and wake up and smell the coffee. It is dangerously naive to think that anti-Semitism is dead in America just because we’re allowed-and even encouraged- to compete in some mundane talent show. In the Obama world we live in, people feel the need to let us compete in their games (or run an election), and sometimes even let us win (hello El Presidente), just to prove to themselves that they aren’t anti-Semitic (or racist). But the fact remains, in the deepest corners of their hearts and minds, they are. And they hate us.

Regarding your thought on chillul Hashem, you are absolutely correct. Reaching the point of actually being accepted by the nations of the world as one of their own is certainly a chillul Hashem. And if history can teach us anything, it’s that left unchecked, the punishment for this particular chillul Hashem is swift in coming. From the Eygiptian exile to the Persian palace of Achashvairosh to the Parliament of Germany, the more accepted we became, the harder we were quickly rejected.

Finally, I’m not sure what you mean when you say, “The whole concept of a talent show (as an example) seems to go against our ideals of modesty and humility.” What does modesty have to do with talent shows? In most Jewish schools, children are taught that modesty is the dress code of Jewish women. Nothing to do with talent shows. In my opinion you’re way off the mark on that point.

Just to clarify, the last paragraph was written tongue-in-cheek.