Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ultra Orthodox Judaism in America

The following story, I think, provides a good illustration of how religious thinking can corrupt human decency.

A man I know lives in a fine, well-appointed house, with a pool and fancy furniture, most of which he acquired dishonestly. He's a crook, plain and simple. He needn't worry, though, about the approbation of his neighbors, as he attends a shul led by a Rav who is mostly preoccupied with sex and irreligious Jews. His speeches are straight from the Agudas Yisroel playbook. They rail against malls, and the internet and improperly dressed women and modern and heterodox Jews, but never say a word about honesty, manners, hard work and decent living. This suits the crook fine. His wife dresses correctly , and he has no television or computer. Despite his financial corruption, the crook retains the respect of his Rav and community, a community that in the past has made women with uncovered heads and children who attend co-ed schools feel unwelcome.* (This is not so unusual, by the way: The typical RW Orthodox shul prefers a crook in a hat, to an honest man in a knitted kippa.) 

Last week, the crook and I were seated together at a bar mitzvah. He washed for bread, and found the salt was out of reach. A man with manners would have gestured for the salt, or allowed himself to take a nibble from the bread without salting it. Not our crook. Unwilling to forgo an opportunity to look frum - or perhaps so deeply in the grips of his own corruption that he thought what he was doing made sense - our crook dipped his bread - three times! - into the communal pickle plate.

I take offense, not merely at his bad manners or at his criminal activity, but at how frumkeit is allowed to answer for all sins. Its the triumph of style over substance. He looks frum - he dipped his bread - but via something disgusting. Same as with his bewigged wife and internet free household, all paid for with stolen money, but which make him a welcome member of the community. Can't we learn to look at the book and ignore the cover?

*I can't report him due to confidentiality rules. Or maybe I already have reported him. Or maybe he's blackmailing me. Or maybe he's my brother. Not the point.

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