On March 8, the New York City Department of Health issued an advisory titled “New Case of Neonatal Herpes Following Ritual Jewish Circumcision.” Some media outlets noticed the story and ran with it, as we would expect. Then it appeared as if the floodgates opened.
Just a few days after the metzitzah b’peh story, the New York Post featured an article, with thinly veiled pictures, about a chassidic couple who use Tinder to act out some wild fantasies. This was almost immediately followed by a piece in The New York Times about a Yiddish play, “God of Vengeance,” staffed with actors who had openly abandoned their Chassidic roots.
These stories were picked up by people on social media and made it to some of the Facebook sites that are online meeting places for people who have left, or are thinking of leaving, or are sympathetic to those who have left the fold.
This theme of highlighting the peccadilloes of some Orthodox individuals tends to play out in the media every now and again, especially after something in the community goes wrong or someone acts in a counterintuitive manner.
Some of the people highlighted in these human-interest stories stay in their community and hide their transgressions, choosing to lead secret lifestyles while acting as full community participants. Others openly cut all ties with family, friends, and community, moving on to lifestyles completely different from what they’d known.
There is always some discussion in the community about what motivates such people, but much of the anger and many of the complaints are directed, unfortunately, against the media.
Journalists love to tell stories that feature the kinds of people who hold a reader’s attention. This is nothing new; it’s a phenomenon that has existed as long as people have told or written stories about other people. (Jewish writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem specialized in stories about individuals who are different, decidedly not run of the mill – “people next door” who lead titillating lives that stir our imaginations and at the same time elicit our sympathy.)
The religious communal response to these stories has always been to condemn the “evil” media and an “awful” secular culture that is always portrayed as an overwhelmingly negative influence – perhaps the most destructive influence. While this approach may make superficial sense, blaming the media or any other “outsiders” goes counter to some very basic psychological principles.
Belonging to a group is an important part of one’s social character. It even enhances one’s quality of life. However, when outside groups are positioned – or are portrayed as being positioned – in direct negative opposition to the internal culture, it inevitably increases tension and discomfort. But reacting to that tension and discomfort by blaming the outsider is a regressive technique that offers only a black and white response when nuance is far more important when it comes to fostering a strong sense of belonging.
This type of regressive thinking is very common and may be at least partly responsible for the increasing number of fallouts we see in our communities. While we do not have hard and fast numbers, some of the available data indicates that more individuals than ever are opting out of religious observance. It’s not that they don’t want to belong – they want to belong to something that has more meaning for them. In their eyes, the group they were raised in offers no response to the their questions other than suggesting ever more rigid doctrine.
This is an inside problem within the community and the micro-culture, not an outside one. When the problem is internal, the best cure is internal as well, rather than one predicated on blaming outsiders. Setting boundaries that are increasingly rigid, attempting to maintain a wall between a community and the world, only enhances the “forbidden fruit” attraction of the environment outside that wall.
Enacting more chumras or stringencies only serves to tell people who question their level of connection and adherence, regardless of the reasons, that they are behaving badly. When given only a completely unyielding option, the answer too often becomes to move farther – even completely –away.
There are times I am asked to assist in dealing with an “off the derech” teen. When I inquire as to whether the teen has asked for something from the family that the family has refused to give, I almost never get a radical answer. What I hear is something like, “He wants to go to a baseball game” – followed by “we don’t allow that.”
I then ask, “Have you ever been to a baseball game?” Inevitably, the answer is yes.
“So take him,” I say. “Point out to him how a good person behaves, how we behave at the game.’
Do not make life so fearful, frightening, and paradoxically enticing that he will deliberately betray you, because one betrayal may lead to many more.