This seems to be the best of times for religious Jews.
Our numbers grow constantly, as do our achievements. We have an array of attractive and impressive newspapers, magazines and websites. Yeshiva and day school enrollment expands each year. The advancement of formal Torah study in yeshivas and day schools is matched by the advancement of informal Torah study in shuls and at home, as tens of thousands of adults devote significant time to shiurim or to study with chavrusahs or alone at home. The ArtScroll phenomenon is a singular achievement in Jewish history.
Orthodox Jewry has a remarkable number of chesed activities – many and probably most depending entirely or primarily on voluntarism – reaching out to needy Jews, whether their needs are economic or emotional or physical.
Religious Jews have succeeded in business and in professional life, earning respect for their firm adherence to the principles and requirements of our Torah. Secular Jewish organizations and leaders pay attention to our community, as do public officials.
Surely, this is the best of times for our community and for our people, and the outlook is for further growth and new accomplishments.
There are, of course, problem areas, some of them serious. We have significant pockets of poverty that have an impact at home, in schools and at other communal institutions. Many of our schools seem unable or perhaps unwilling to meet the needs of children who do not do well academically or families that do not conform almost perfectly to religious expectations.
We experience the defection of too many who were raised in religious homes and who no longer are observant. There seems to be a steady flow of bad news about the bad behavior of Jews who are readily identified as Orthodox. Although the eagerness of the general media to pounce on every Orthodox misdeed is inexcusable, at least as inexcusable are the misdeeds themselves.
While not excusable, these defects can be explained as inherent in the territory called life. As the Torah teaches, poverty will never be eradicated, nor will our obligation to assist those in need. We live in an open society, so that inevitably there will be the abandonment by some of religious life. In fact, the degree of attrition from Orthodox Judaism appears to be far below the attrition rate for other religious and ethnic groups. (Racial groups are an exception because while all other groups experience significant assimilation, race, for obvious reasons, is a barrier to assimilation.) As for our schools, even the most perfect will not be perfect for all students.
And character defects that result in wrongdoing are an aspect of each of us having the ability to choose, at least to an extent, the path that we take.
In the aggregate, it remains that we religious Jews have much to be proud of, especially when we consider predictions less than a century ago that we would be extinct on these shores. Our religious life may not be perfect, but surely this is the best of times.
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Or is it? Does the reality correspond to the rosy picture? For a long time, I thought it did. Now I wonder.
In New York, long identified as the leading Jewish city on the planet outside of Israel, City Hall appears to be engaged in a determined battle to challenge religious practices. The most serious issue is metzitzah b’peh, which refers to the oral suctioning of blood from the wound during the bris. New York’s Board of Health believes the practice raises serious health concerns and that every effort must be made to curtail it. Parents must be forewarned that if they opt for metzitzah b’peh, they will be putting their son’s health at risk.
There are, of course, risks associated with a bris milah and they are clearly recognized in halacha. The problem with the Board of Health is that it is engaged in overkill, to an extent suggesting that its dislike of the procedure generates highly questionable statistics about the degree of risk. It needs to be underscored that the issue is not whether I or any reader would choose metzitzah b’peh. A great number of religious Jews do not and, even in the yeshiva world sector the estimate is that about fifty percent do not utilize it. However, there are many Orthodox Jews who insist on the procedure and their religious rights should not be trampled on.