As someone who has waited on customers for close to 30 years now, I have had the unique opportunity of meeting people from all walks of life. This past summer, I forged a relationship with a successful chassid who was very jovial and open.
At a certain point, he started asking me questions about the Modern Orthodox community, but I could tell he was holding back – as I was – for fear of crossing the line. So we finally agreed to ask each other any question we wanted about our respective communities, no matter how offensive, as long as the other one agreed not to be insulted. We sealed our pact with the now famous Covid elbow tap, and the games began.
I went first. I asked him why it wasn’t unheard of to hear about chassidim getting caught in financial scams or even with another woman. He responded that the number of chassidim who commit these sins is way smaller than one would think, but since they stand out – the incongruity of a chassid sinning is greater than a non-chassid sinning – the numbers seem much greater.
I had to agree. Truthfully speaking, I remember going to a march with hundreds of thousands of Jews in Washington, DC, year ago. Naturally, though, the news stations only chose to interview the one Neturai Karta nutjob protesting at the march, giving the impression that all chassidim hold anti-Israel beliefs, which isn’t true.
And then he hit me with the second part of his answer, explaining that the few chassidim who commit these sins do so in hiding because they know it’s wrong and are ashamed of their behavior. Never do they claim their actions are permissible, even if they might justify them in their own minds.
As I was satisfied with his answers, he then said, “May I now ask you my question, Avi?” Bracing myself, I said, “Go for it.”
He smiled and said, “Avi, I noticed many young Modern Orthodox teenagers this winter break at the Fontainebleau Hotel who were dressed completely inappropriately, sitting on each other’s laps, touching and holding hands. I even saw a few teenagers unabashedly texting on Shabbos.
“I’m completely confused. After all, it’s one thing to do something wrong and be ashamed of it and try to hide it, as we sometimes do. But with you, it’s as if all these laws in the Torah that you’re violating don’t even exist given that you can do these aveiros publicly without any guilt or shame whatsoever.”
Ouch! Talk about a full-body slam. I wanted to come back with my signature Muhammad Ali combination punch, but this guy had me cornered. And no matter how frustrated I was, I knew he was right. I thought back to when I was in high school and how I was never embarrassed to hold a girl’s hand; I assumed it wasn’t a big deal. So I said to him that many Modern Orthodox Jews don’t know the seriousness of what they’re doing and therefore don’t hide it.
But using his logic, I realized that I was just as guilty as this generation of teenagers who disregard certain commandments because they don’t appreciate their value. And it occurred to me that while it’s very easy to see someone else’s shortcomings, have I examined my own?
All sins are wrong, but a person who hides his sin at least knows he’s doing something wrong. But what about a person who doesn’t even hide it? And if you don’t think you’re doing something wrong, how can you ever change yourself?
The Yerushalmi says the one sin for which G-d can never forgive a man is not learning Torah. At first glance, this statement seems strange. After all, aren’t there more unforgivable sins than not studying Torah? Yet, the rabbis understood that as long as a person learns Torah, there’s always a chance he can change. When a person shuts the door to Torah, though, all bets are off. He will never change.
True Modern Orthodoxy is defined as a synthesis between Torah and the secular world, and there are many communities and families that do it proud. But many of us sometimes pick and choose what we deem important.
Before the chassid and I departed, we agreed everyone would benefit by treating all laws with equal respect. We could have both made excuses and defended our respective communities, but, instead, we both rolled up our sleeves, took the high road, and grew from the encounter.