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Taking Judaism Public


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Every year at around this time, my husband and I have the same spirited debate: Public Displays of Judaism (PDJs) – good or bad?

Simchas Torah sparks the first round of discussion. In our community, as in many others, the festivities on Yom Tov eve extend outside the synagogue. A portion of the street is closed to traffic, and dancing and singing echo in the chilly air. Then comes Chanukah. As the rest of the world is abuzz in Christmas lights, giant menorahs are lit with great fanfare in public squares all across the city. A few months later, it’s Purim, with kids (and some adults, too) parading through the streets in costume.

Whatever your instinctive position on PDJs, the issue is well worth reflecting upon, as it raises important questions about the proper posture of Torah observance in galus and the sources of anti-Semitism.

Let’s take Simchas Torah. As an initial matter, closing the street does inconvenience motorists (i.e., non-Jews and non-observant Jews), but it’s usually just one block and not a peak traffic hour, so the imposition is minimal.

Of greater concern is that any time people gather in a large group with license to celebrate, there is the risk of some individuals taking things too far. Over the years, I am sure we have all seen Simchas Torah festivities lead to uncouth, sacrilegious, downright offensive behavior. It is bad enough when this takes place inside the shul. But outside in the street? Beyond the pale. One year, my husband and I were visiting family in another community. When the dancing moved outside, one man, apparently well past the point of inebriation, keeled over and vomited into the street. I was appalled – especially because of the police officers standing a few feet away. If I was so turned off, what could they have been thinking?

Assume for a moment, however, that the outdoor festivities are not unduly boisterous, and that there is no intoxication or inappropriate behavior such as mixed dancing or lewdness. Such a decorous scene might not be the norm, but it is not implausible – it’s more or less what takes place in my neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

If, like my husband, you find dancing outside with the Torah objectionable even under these assumed conditions, then it is not the particulars of the setup that raise a problem but the idea of bringing even the sincerest expressions of Jewish observance into the public sphere.

We are in exile. Although we are (most of us) tax-paying, productive, fully integrated citizens, we do not own the place, so to speak. Outside of Israel, we are not masters of our domain – “am chofshi b’artzenu.” For this reason, my husband argues, it behooves us to keep a low profile. The rationale is not simply to avoid stirring up anti-Semitism (more on that in a moment). It’s more basic than that – a matter of good manners almost. Don’t make a spectacle. Don’t invite commentary. Don’t give fodder to the cultural voyeurs, the wisecrackers looking for a good punch line. Let’s maintain our privacy and thereby elevate the spiritual quality of our Jewish rituals.

Then there is the concern about anti-Semitism. With PDJs, there’s always a risk of chillul Hashem. Someone inevitably will do something that could be perceived in a negative light. This not only tars Hashem’s name but the image of Jews everywhere, as anti-Semites paint with a broad brush. To further generate resentment, add noise pollution, traffic disruption, and diversion of police resources to the list of grievances an onlooker might have.

Setting out the anti-PDJ argument, I have almost persuaded myself. And yet I do not believe we should forswear PDJs altogether.

A public gathering in the name of Torah creates a level of achdus, a sense of shared identity and purpose, and a groundswell of Jewish pride rare in our everyday lives. Private venues are inherently self-limiting, at least in terms of crowd capacity. More important, however, they do not have the open call, “Mi LaHashem Ailei!” dimension of a public staging. What an incredible sight it is to see a cross-section of Jews coming together in service of God. From their first Uncle Moishy tape, our children hear the message: You are Hashem’s foot soldiers; you march to a different beat. Be proud of who you are! Celebrate your Yiddishkeit! PDJs make this lesson come alive.

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