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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.

We are fortunate to live in a society of relative tolerance, where most of us can walk down the street with the markers of our faith plain to see without fear of attack, verbal or otherwise. In other countries, even today, Jews are not so lucky. Why should we pretend to be living under duress, as if the Grand Inquisitor is breathing down our necks? Why should we yield the public ground to every other -ism, to all the other slices of the American pie?

I should note that in defending PDJs here, I do not mean to include public displays of personal piety – shuckeling on the subway or an airplane (except El Al, perhaps), swaggering down the street in a tallis. The latter make me uncomfortable, probably because they seem to serve no purpose other than to call attention to oneself.

If conducted in the right spirit and with proper decorum, PDJs have the potential to be a great kiddush Hashem. Jews of all stripes, even the unaffiliated, might find themselves inspired. Non-Jews who are positively inclined toward us might find themselves inspired also; at the very least, they will respect our right to convene publicly within the boundaries of the law. Those who are already hostile to us will continue to be so. Move the hachnasas sefer Torah indoors, cancel the Chol Hamoed carnival, and they will find something else to scorn, another reason to hate us.

Yes, we must conduct ourselves honorably – not to win over anti-Semites (a futile endeavor), but to bring glory to Hashem’s name and light into the world.

What about the risk of chillul Hashem by individuals behaving badly? For one thing, shuls and yeshivas should limit the flow of alcohol in their hallowed halls (which inevitably spills over into the street). This is important whether you like the idea of PDJs or not. Second, although even the most respected rabbi cannot control the conduct of an entire congregation, he can preemptively and repeatedly drive home a message of restraint, sanctity, and respect for one’s neighbors. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own behavior as well as our children’s. Beyond that, I have no perfect answer.

May all Jews soon be reunited in Israel – where we can and should feel free to express our faith in complete openness, throng the plazas, let our voices ring from the hilltops, and not even think twice about PDJs.

Ziona Greenwald is a full-time mother in Manhattan. She has worked as an editor and a court attorney.

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