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Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes

Leah Vincent as she appeared on Katie Curic's talk show.

Leah Vincent as she appeared on Katie Curic's talk show.

If there is anything that could turn someone off from Yiddishkeit it is the following , reported by Rabbi Yair Hoffman in the 5 Towns Jewish Times (republished at Cross Currents):

Recently, Yeshiva World News reported that one of the Rebbes of Satmar has been reporting an increase in cancer in his community rachmana litzlan. While no one can vouch for the accuracy of what was actually said, it seems that after some examination they (it is unclear who else was involved) concluded that it might possibly be due to a breach of tznius in their community – highlighting that it may be the wearing of excessive make-up. To this end, a new Vaad was created accompanied with a solicitation for funds.

I can’t believe that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence would ‘buy’ the suggestion that an increase in the incidence of cancer in a particular community is due to the fact that some of their female members (not the ones suffering from cancer) wear too much makeup. And yet the leader of one of the largest segments of Orthodox Judaism has actually suggested that might very well be the case.

I mention this in light of an article published in Jewish World Review (JWR) by Rabbi Avi Joseph. He wrote an open letter to Leah Vincent explaining why he did not ‘become her’… meaning why he did not abandon Torah observance despite having had a similar background and similar ‘yearnings’.

While I appreciate his perspective which in many ways mimics my own, I have to take issue with the implication of his words. He seems to be judging Ms. Vincent and claiming authority to do that by revealing a shared adolescent experience. From JWR:

Like you, as a teenager, I was drawn to the opposite sex. Like you, I experienced an engine humming in my gut with brakes nowhere in sight. It was new and it was engaging.

Like you, my parents and educators told me that following primal attraction at that age would be destructive. Boy girl stuff was wondrous — two human becoming one was magical — they said, when courtship was a dance that led down the wedding aisle. Otherwise, they opined, women tend to pursue love and men tend to chase sex, all while using the language of the other. Without the maturity of age and the grounding of marriage, both men and women are often left alone and adrift, broken hearts held together with anger and suspicion.

OK. Let us concede that these are indeed experiences that they had in common. But it takes quite a bit of Chutzpah to imply that these shared experiences nonetheless could have had different results as his personal situation shows. The the truth is that they did not have same experiences. Not even close. The mere fact that Rabbi Joseph is a man and Ms. Vincent is a woman in a world where male / female roles are so clearly defined and separated is enough of a reason to reject this comparison. The educational experiences of Charedi men and women are vastly different from each other even as their Hashkafos are the same. The pressures on them entirely different and not comparable.

In the Charedi world boys are subjected to intensive Torah study in subjects like Gemarah. Girls do not study any Gemara at all. Boys are required to spend an excessive amount of time in the Yeshiva. Their day typically at 7:30 AM and lasts until 10PM or later if they are Masmidim (diligently dedicated to Torah study). Girls start their school day later and end it much earlier – typically at 4 or 5 PM. Her curriculum will include a wider variety of religious and secular subjects. Many Girl’s high schools offer offer extra curricular activities like participating in a school play. This is unavailable to Charedi boys.

For girls, there is a constant emphasis by the teachers on Tznius (dressing modestly). They are taught to dress in ways that are not only in accordance with letter of Halacha but to go well beyond it and dress in ways that are not attracting to boys. They are taught to avoid all contact with them until they are ready to get married. And then a Shadchan takes over. Casual contact with the opposite sex is frowned upon and can ruin a reputation if it happens.

Of course the young men in Yeshivos get the same kind of Mussar, but they hardly have any time to act on it. Although they do in fact think about it. Which was Rabbi Joseph’s point.

There are so many things left unsaid by Rabbi Joseph that could clearly have made a difference in why each made their respective choices. First he does not account for individual differences in intelligence and personality. No two people are alike.

It is also impossible to know how each set of parents reacted to rebellion or even thoughts of rebellion. It is impossible to know the exact precipitating point – the so called straw that broke the camel’s back – that caused Ms. Vincent to reject her religious heritage.

Isn’t it possible to say that Rabbi Joseph had parents who were more understanding and sympathetic to his ‘unkosher’ yearnings while at the same being role models for him to eventually follow? Isn’t it possible that Ms. Vincent had the kind of rigid parents who could not countenance even a hint of rebellion – treating her ‘unkosher’ yearnings with stifling rejection? Perhaps her experiences were similar those Charedi teenage girls who were thrown into the streets by parents described in a series of recent articles in Mishpacha Magazine

I don’t know just how much Ms. Vincent suffered. But it is clear to me that the level of rejection she has made so public is the result of such suffering. And probably a lot of other factors all combining to cause her to depart from the ways of her parents. I’d be willing to bet that Rabbi Joseph – even with all of his ‘unkosher yearnings’ of adolescence – did not suffer anywhere near the way Leah Vincent did.

There are many things that can by themselves or cumulatively lead someone to reject their religious heritage – even under the best of circumstances. Like asking ‘forbidden’ questions about belief; or seeing a religious leader involved in money laundering or tax evasion schemes; or seeing how survivors s of sex abuse (and their families) are treated by religious communities in places like Satmar, Skvere, Lakewood; or even YU; or hearing the kind of ridiculous statement attributed to the Satmar Rebbe in my opening paragraph.

This is not to say that I condone what Ms. Vincent has done in her ‘tell all’ book or in her interview with Katie Curic on her nationally syndicated talk show (now defunct). It is only to say the following: Al Tadin Chavrcha Ad Shetagia L’Mkomo. This sage advice from Meseches Avos (2:5) is as valid today as it was when it was first spoken by the sages. Do not judge your fellow until you walk in his shoes.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah .

About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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