Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Us and Them

I remember reading Joseph Aaron's article, "Terrifying," and thinking he was a genius.

Because what he had written was what I had been trying to say, but could not yet verbalize.

Today I want to discuss this:

Letter Portion 1
Letter Portion 2

This is a letter I received in eighth grade. At the time, I really admired this person. I felt like she was truly pious, really religious, someone to look up to and to learn from. She and I started up a correspondence that took place everywhere- we'd write each other letters during boring classes, or at home, or whenever we found the time, and would slip them into the top of each others' lockers. We'd read them, consider the opinions found therein, and come up with our own answers to the dilemmas.

For the purposes of this discussion, we'll call my correspondent Rachel.

Rachel led a very different life than I did. While extremely well-versed in Torah, she did not read very often. She thought secular studies were a waste of time, for the most part, and that the majority of our time, if not all of it, should be devoted to learning Torah. She felt that the Goyim, as she referred to them, were all that was evil and bad in the world. They were distractions, temptations, lures and snares. I, even at that time, didn't agree with her, but in the end, we agreed to disagree.

While I don't know whether she still retains exactly the same beliefs she wrote in this letter, this eighth grade version of her personality is still important in order to distinguish between what I believe and what other members of Orthodoxy/ the fold believe.

Let's address some of the issues she raises.

"You write that once I'll leave from the Jewish community into the real world, I'll have to face outside influences daily. But Chana, why is there a need to leave the Jewish community? Baruch Hashem, the Jewish communities have been flourishing, and there's no need to leave."

Why would it be necessary to leave the Jewish community? For a host of reasons. Firstly, to make a living. Although there are many people involved in the professions of teaching, this doesn't mean that all Orthodox Jewish girls must be teachers. What if I work as a secretary? As an assistant? As a teacher at a non-Jewish school? It's not realistic to assume that we can all remain in the Jewish community. More importantly, how can we grow, mentally, intellectually, and spiritually if we do not learn? There is so much to learn in the world- everything ranging from fantasy and fiction to science and mathematics. Should we simply ignore all these disciplines to focus on our own secluded group?

More importantly, I suggest that one look at the Torah itself. Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, in his book 'Explorations' has a fascinating take on Moshe (Moses), leader of the Jews.

Who was Moshe? His very name suggests contact with those who are not like him!

    "This was the woman who saved, and named, Moshe. Her father was "god of the Nile," she was daughter of "god," and she pulls a son out of the Nile and names him Moshe, "For from the water I drew him out."

    Bityah, in naming Moshe, was making a claim which had theological meaning as well as political implications. She was claiming that the Nile had given birth to her son. ....Moshe emerges from the Nile alive, which has theological significance for Bityah. He is therefore declared "son of the Nile." She is obviously priming him to become the next Pharaoh...Moshe's name is not merely Egyptian; it is steeped in idolatrous connotations."

This is Moshe, the prophet whose like we have never seen and will never see, the man who led the Jews from Egypt.

There are certain aspects of the Jewish culture that Hebrews in Egypt were reputed to have kept during years of slavery- their names, their clothing, and their speech. Obviously, Moshe does not have the correct name.

In terms of dress:

    "When it is revealed to Pharaoh that Moshe has killed an Egyptian, Moshe escapes Egypt and makes his way to Midyan, where he is described as "ish Mitzri- an Egyptian man." (ibid., 19). What was it about Moshe that made him seem Egyptian?

      Was Moshe an Egyptian? Rather, his clothes were Egyptian, but he was a Hebrew. (Shemot Rabbah 1:32)

Last but not least, theHebrew language:

    Moshe said...."I am not a eloquent man...I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. " (Ibid 4:10)

    "Later, Moshe describes himself as "aral sefatayim" (ibid 6:12), which literally means, "uncircumcised lips," referring to some other sort of impediment. Taken literally, it emerges that Moshe does not feel that he has the right to represent the Jewish people because his tongue is 'uncircumcised": Moshe's speech is too Egyptian.

Now the question is- why would a man be chosen, even after he attempted to refuse the post, to lead the Jewish people from Egypt? Isn't he the one man you wouldn't think of choosing, the one man who is far too close for comfort to Egypt and the Egyptian style of living?

Here is the answer:

"What better teacher than Moshe, the ultimate "insider"? At one point he had dressed like them [Egyptians] and talked like them, and they had even been prepared to worship him....Moshe, the unlikely hero, emerges from the very epicenter of the civilization which must be rejected: As the crowning glory of Egyptian culture, Moshe's rejection of Egyptian life spoke volumes to all who knew him or of him."

If you will, I still believe the power of this applies today, especially if you are a Jew. If you remain secluded inside your own corner of the world, part of your own sect, how can you possibly fight/ debate/ discuss/ reject the ideas of others? You don't even know what they are! It is always the people who are actually part of another sect or group, or who at the very least mingle among/ amidst them who are the leaders.

For example, look at the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3.

Nebuchadnezzar blessed the God of the Jews after seeing what they had done. Now, it is obvious that these four youths did not willingly choose to attend Nebuchadnezzar's court, but once there, rather than assimilating/ converting/ being lured by the dangerous ideas out there, they sanctified God's name.

Or consider Daniel, Chapter 6, where because of Daniel's prayers, he was thrown into the lion's den, and saved. He continued praying, even though he had heard the command- there was no assimilation or conversion or any other sort of giviing up or in!

And Abraham's father was an idol-worshipper, and what is more, an idol-seller! We even mention this in the Passover Haggadah! Abraham understood idol-worship, he had learned it and been taught about it, so when he chose to smash the idols (Midrash) he understood the full parameters of his actions, understood this might lead to death or worse. The forefather of our nation had much to do with non-Jewish ways of life, because he could not have become a Jew and a believer in a monotheistic God unless he first understood the polytheistic idolatrous way of life.

Tzipporah, Moshe's wife, who was a daughter of a High Priest of Midyan, a man very much involved with other gods and idols. And recall that when Zimri mocked her (a Medrish about Zimri and Cosbi, where he stated that if Moshe took a non-Jew for a wife, why couldn't Zimri sleep with Cosbi) it is Zimri who is deemd wrong as opposed to Moshe.

My point is simply that the idea of a secluded existence is indefensible from the Torah. Yes, there is certainly the idea of killing out the seven nations of Canaan so that they will not influence Bnei Yisrael badly. There is the fact that the Hebrews desired to live in Goshen as opposed to living amidst the Egyptians. But one cannot say that Judaism can only exist under these conditions, when so many of our leaders were formed or at least remained Jewish underneath them.

As for the Tefillin/ Tzizit idea, that was a misunderstanding on her part; she probably understands this better now.

"How do the disgusting ideas of the world help us do Mitzvot? They don't!"

There are several problems with this sentence. Firstly, how dare you state that all the ideas of the outside world are "disgusting"? That is an extremely broad assumption. As is the emphatic, "They don't!" that Rachel pens.

I can think of so many instance where the ideas of others, gentiles, non-Jews, anyone and everyone else are helpful; I'm not sure where to begin.

I will say that in the case of my own life, books, especially fantasy and fiction books, bring up so many parallels/ allusions/ ideas that work with/ meld with ideas found in the Bible, that I am simply fascinated. I gain so very much from reading...

Rachel and I separated after eighth grade, the two of us walking very different paths and going to different high schools. We did not keep in touch. Until...

When Rachel learned that I was switching schools, choosing a Non-Jewish school over Templars, she was immediately alarmed. She called me up (for the first time in about three yeasrs) and asked me whether the rumors were true. I said "Yes," and Rachel replied with, "I'm scared for you." "Why?" I asked. Rachel went on to enumerate the many ideas the gentiles and non-Jews would infect me with, the way in which I would be brought under their influence, how I was going to succumb to them, and so on and so forth. I was angry that she thought it her place to judge me- she had no idea what had happened at Templars, but still insisted she was right.

She called me back once more, this time telling me that she "davened for me every day." I must say I'm not too pleased about this prayer for my soul, but if she feels it helps me...good for her. (She was a bit surprised by my lack of appreciation for this...but it's strange for someone to call you and tell you they're davening for you-)

The idea that Non-Jews are "out to get Jews" is ridiculous. My new school has been extremely supportive of me, entertainingly, I'm even a commodity. (They're very big on diversity, so were extremely glad to have me- an Orthodox Jew? No way!) They allow me to take off for the holidays, understand that I need to leave a bit earlier on Fridays in order to get home in time for my Sabbath, were very good about any kind of religous restrictions I have, and even, on this year's Outdoor Ed activity, planned it with me in mind (they packed kosher fod for me- bread and cheese and so on.) My school is multi-cultural so little chldren sing songs about Chanukah and Santa, old favorites like "Un Candelika" to "A Hannukah Wish-Shalom." I was astonished to see they were singing them in Hebrew! They also send out Candygrams at school, and you have a choice between sending a Candy Cane (Christmas), Chanukah gelt (Jewish) and assorted candies (anything else.) They're very good to me...

It's sad that we must war between "us and them." For religiosity, especially Judaism, need not fear the world! It can conquer the world, it is there with us always, it will not be shed in front of the watching eyes of an alien nation. Indeed, it will be strengthened! There, in front of those who are different from us, will we fulfill the words of the Torah, and through our behavior, our education, and our words, make an impression- if not upon them, then upon ourselves. Judaism is not a religion only able to be practiced in isolation, while sheltered by the walls of a school, the walls of the Jewish community, or any walls at all. No matter the time, no matter the place, and no matter the atmosphere, Judaism is eternal, Judaism remains, Judaism is ours, in public, in private and anyplace in between. We need not fear, for we believe, do we not, that this is the truth.

Or do we? Our teachers teach us to fear, to cower at the approach of those who are different from us, beware of those who have a different doctrine or theology than us, turn and run in terror in the face of those who may be atheists, heretics, liberals, or simply an adherent to the American culture. Yes, of course we believe that Judaism is the true religion, they will counter, we simply do not believe that you are the appropriate one to be dealing with these people. Rabbis, Gedolei HaDor- they are the ones who may interact with the nations and fear no hurt, spiritual or otherwise. Their faith is rooted, they will stand firm. But us? We are weak, we are not on a high level, indeed we are on a very low level. Who are we to go outside the barriers, to interact with gentiles, to arrogantly believe that our belief is strong enough to withstand the test? Indeed -who are you?

If Judaism is the true religion, it will stand the test of time. It can be practiced anywhere, everywhere- and not simply in a hidden corner of the world, amidst our own kind. We need not fear others if we believe in our own religion.

But perhaps that's what it is. How many believe? How many know what they are doing? Those who desire to be sheltered, protected, probably do not. They wree born Orthodox and they know they must keep to those rules, but they don't know why. Judaism is a blood gift, but it is not a choice. They can only stand firm where others watch them and keep an eye on them, but outside...in the wide world....why would they remain Jewish?

If this is the state of affairs we have reached, it is sad indeed.

You may wonder, perhaps, why I've chosen to discuss the words of an eighth-grader as opposed to a great Rabbi? Because I think these words are more dangerous. If an eight-grader believes this, has been taught to think that she can only, should only, remain within the Jewish community, all the more so this person as an adult, and many others like her.

If you do not teach people to function within their environment (in this case, the wide world) they will die.

Perhaps these people are not dead, not physically dead. But in terms of thought and the ability to think, they are. New ideas are to be distrusted. Everything is a trap. The whole world is temptation. Paranoia reigns rampant.

I used to just be angry at these people. Now I'm sorry for them. I know that being sorry implies that I see myself on a higher plane than them, because I'm able to pity them. But it isn't an issue of who is higher up. It's simply an issue of being sorry for people who cannot think- and being very angry indeed at those who propogate this teaching. The problem is, oftentimes it's the person who cannot think who grows up to pass on these ideas. So what to do? Rail at them in anger? Tell them they are hurting people? Or realize that they themselves were never taught properly?

What to say?

I don't know....


Masmida said...

I want to comment further but, I'm in the middle of a paper.

Consider though, all the cases that you cited from tanach. Did any of those individuals have a choice about where they were born and raised?

It is an adequate proof that one may survive the world around us, but not that one should enter and involve one-self intimately with it.

again, distinguish between the priori ideal and the posterori response to a less than ideal situation.

Jewish Blogmeister said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jewish Blogmeister said...

I'm not taking sides here but merely pointing out it all comes down to how you understand the concept of esav sonai es yakov. In Germany the Germans were an extremely civilized society but many turned their backs on their Jewish neighbors at the first opportunity. There is a concept of ger toshav etc. It all comes down to interpretation.

DiffAnon said...

For the life of me, I don't understand how Jews think they can be "a light unto nations" by being entirely insular, distrustful, and openly contemptuous of outsiders.

I'm not saying there needs to be acceptance of everything in the outside world, but openly rejecting it all does not do anything except isolate Jews from the world God put them in. Does anyone truly believe that self-imposed isolation is a patern of behavior that will convince the nations of the world of the truth of God's rule over the world?

A very thoughtful post Chana.

Anonymous said...

I clearly remember when I entered the "real world" as a professional and realized that I was way over my head without any adequate preparation from my yeshiva or day school education. The irony is that I am a Jewish communal professional as a fundraiser but I work in the secular community and the challenges are frequent and often complex.

Chana, best of luck on your new journey and I look forward to reading your material. Your obvious intelligence and sophistication will make you a great Jew and professional. Without strong Jewish leadership in the secular world we would be in big trouble. Just think Mordechai in the story of Purim.

My blog is catered to Jewish communal professionals. Feel free to stop by: www.jewishpros.blogspot.com.

Irina Tsukerman said...

Perhaps, instead of trying to argue with them, you could discuss interesting ideas (philosophy, literature, etc.), without mentioning who is behind it. See if they find the ideas compelling, and then, later, reveal to them that not all of them are from Jewish sources. It might be interesting to discuss how different ideas of the Jewish and Gentile world were influenced by each other. For instance, Maimonides was influenced by Aristotle.

Masmida said...

Another fast thought...

Last week's parsha: Yosef, first Jew ever in exile. Acheives dominion over all Egypt. Gets an egyptian name, egyptian clothes and an egyptian wife, but it's not tzfnat paneach that walks out of the audience chamber, its yosef.

In short, the Torah seems to very consistent with the concept of insulating and differentiating oneself from the inimicable enviroment. And to describe the world of the avot as anything but inimicable to a flegding is to ignore all the history that we've learnt of that time.

Ezzie said...

As with much in life, it all comes down to balance.