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October 10, 2015 / 27 Tishri, 5776
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Let’s Connect…Diversely

Secular woman talking with ultra-Orthodox youth

Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90

Living in 2012 means being ‘connected.’ We are ‘connected’ to our cell-phones, our emails, our Facebook ‘Friends’ , and various email lists of interest.

In a world of so many ‘connections’, it’s hard to believe that connecting to our own family- our fellow Jews, would be such an elevated challenge. Indeed, on one such email list, the following story was posted on a few days ago:

” ….my grandchildren, who look quite obviously Haredi, came to visit me in my town, which is overwhelmingly of a National Religious character. My 13 year-old son took them to the park and immediately, the resident children at play, began to shout epithets at my grandchildren, ‘Stinky dirty Haredim,’ they cried. ‘Go play in your own parks.’…grandchildren who immediately left the park and returned to my home to spend the rest of their visit indoors and safe from the hatred extended toward them during what should have been a pleasant visit to Grandma.”

While kids will be kids (and yes, kids can be cruel even if their parents are far from it), and while the same has happened in (so-called) Haredi communities to those not complying with their local fashion of dress, and while these may just be isolated incidents in a park that usually portrays unity and friendliness, I am still profoundly appalled and disturbed to read of such an event.

“Why bad things happen to good people” is the cardinal question to which even Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t get a clear answer (according to one opinion in Tractate Berachot 7a). Thus, I am not about to say that the above incident is a ‘heavenly sign’ of sorts. However, when bad things occur, all will agree (ibid, 5a) that it’s a good time for a wake-up call – to ask if our actions, deeds, educational system, and general behavior is where is should be.

While I feel remain deeply privileged to be part of such a special community, “perfection” is a word that only exists in the dictionary. As we head deeper into these Three Weeks of mourning, a time still upon us due to the “Sinat Chinam” – senseless hatred – that dominated the eve of the 2nd Temple destruction (Tractate Yoma 9b), allow me to bring up three issues that I humbly believe should be reiterated, and refurbished in our actions, when such an event can transpire during such a sensitive time of the year:

Tolerance to some – Jews have usually been tolerant to groups that stand far from their own vantage point and lifestyle. Thus, I can naturally see the very same kids in the park acting cordially to secular Jews, and even to non-Jews as well. Ironically, the “challenge” of tolerance begins when we meet a group of people who share 85% of our own lifestyle; they daven thrice daily, they keep kosher homes, they devote time to learning Torah, they adhere to a standard of modesty and of course, they are Shomer Shabbat. It’s here that, for some reason, we don’t have the same “tolerance” that we bestow upon those that seem far our own lifestyle! Is it a sense of danger, lack of self-confidence or something else, that naturally allows us to be “tolerant” towards groups far from where we stand, and yet so judgmental and intolerant towards ones that are so similar? If we are to be tolerant, then it should be directed to all sides of the spectrum, especially those that are within the realm of Shemirat Torah Umitzvot. Yes, the 15% of dressing differently, our relationship towards the State of Israel, secular endeavors, joining the army and more, will still be “dividers” between our respective communities, and strong debates will yet go on. But will our level of tolerance towards groups who have passed the 15% mark be extended to those closer to it?  If we believe in Tolerance, it can and should run the entire gamut.

Diversity is not a dirty word – Beyond the need for tolerance towards those closer to us, I believe a deeper challenge lies before our communities, one that is not being spoken about enough in the “heat of the debate” in Israel of late; diversity is not a “b’diavad” – it’s not an Ex Post Facto of “three Jews, five opinions,” or the hardships of our long exile! Rather, it’s my view that, after accepting and fulfilling the “Yoke of Heaven,” – the dictates of Jewish Law -that God never intended for all of us to be the same:

–God commanded us (Bamidbar 26:52-56) to ” …apportion the Land among these (that is, the above 12 tribes, only semi-counted previously).” If we are all supposed to be the same, why live in specific inheritances, based on your tribe? Why should the leader of each tribe come forth (ibid 34:18)? Why not rather just divide up the land based on family units  and needs, amongst all the Jews? Moreover, if they were already “divided” then why categorize them yet again, in the era of our future redemption (Yechezkel 47:13) into tribes?

–Why have the Jews (at least, according the description of the Midrash, quoted in the interpretation of the Rambam to Mishna,Tractate Avot 5/3 and others) walk through the Sea of Reeds in 12 different columns – corresponding the 12 different tribes – if we can “all be the same” and thus walk through it together as one?

–Why would there be a positive commandment (Tractate Sanhedrin 16b, and see it being practiced in Tractate Pesachim 4a) for “each tribe to judge it’s members” rather than have courts based on locale and convenience?

–Why would the Magen-Avraham, one of the primary interpretations of the Code of Jewish Law (O.C, “Forward” to Chapter 68), state that the various customs that we have in prayer (i.e. Ashkenaz, Sefard, Sefaradi, Temani, and permutations of each) are so vital that one is forbidden to change one’s custom, as “…there are 12 gates in heaven corresponding to the 12 tribes, and each tribe has a gate and a custom of it’s own?!”

–And finally, why would the Psalmist state (Tehillim, Chapter 122:3-4) that: “…Jerusalem is like a city that was joined together within itself. There ascended the tribes, the tribes of God, testimony to Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.” Wouldn’t Jerusalem be more “joined together” – unified – if “the entire Jewish people without division” went there, rather than state their appearance on it divided and looking differently as “tribes”?

It seems clear that God never wanted us all to be in the same “tribe”; rather diversity for the Jewish people – after accepting the fulfillment of Mitzvot – is the ideal way God intended us to live. Based on the above, I believe that it’s incumbent upon us all to look out the window frequently, together with our kids, point out the (legitimate) differences between the people walking the streets, and then say, “this is the way God wanted it to be, a diverse Jewish world!” I don’t believe statements, like the ones uttered in the park, would be repeated if the above exercise was a constant re-occurrence in our homes.

Perceptions…not based solely on the media – First impressions are very powerful. It is very hard to change a first impression, even when there is logical proof that it was wrong. However, beyond subjective first-impressions, there is one more kind of impression –that of the media. The media  will usually speak about this or that community because of some “juicy” story that occurred there, be it very good or very bad. Thus, the first impression one would have, if his/her knowledge of a community is based solely on the media, is that the communities members are either the greatest Tzadikim alive, or the most repulsive, degraded people living. After all, these are the nature of the stories that the media usually report about a community. It’s seldom, almost non-existent, to have a news report stating: “Minyan was on time today, the Chazzan davened at a normal pace, and nobody complained.” Therefore, while the media is a vital tool in our day and age, and while I wouldn’t want to live in a country without free media, let’s be careful not to formulate opinions about communities based solely on their reports and descriptions.

Mind you, living in the same vicinity doesn’t mean that you will become intimate friends. It’s even safe to assume that your closest friends will still be those that share the same world-view as yourself, share the same dress-code, and even send their children to the same stream of schools. But, at the very least, a basic relationship may exist. Can it be safe to assume that in such a scenario, “agreeing to disagree” will be much more natural and easier than mutual name-calling? In a generation of so-many “connections,” yet ones that are not “tight” enough, I end with the following challenge:    perhaps the time has come for us to live in mixed communities?!

As a frequent traveler abroad, I rarely see a community where everyone is alike. Though the comfort of “living with your own” is understandable, there is much to be said for a Jewish community in which Streimlach walk on the same sidewalk with Kippot Serugot, and girls wearing heavy stockings walk to shul on Shabbat together with those wearing sandals without any socks. While davening in different shuls, attending different schools, having different leaders, and living in different homes, they frequently see one another on the street, and wish a mutual Good Shabbos and other such salutations.

I would submit that if such a reality was more common in Israel, they would also play in the same park, and the incident above would hopefully not have to be posted on a “list,” precisely at the time of the year in which we should be engaging in “senseless love” rather than the opposite.

About the Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is Director of training and placement at The Straus-Amiel Institute at Ohr Torah Stone.

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