Religious Jews are obligated to be obedient, an obligation that was embedded in our essence as a sanctified people at Sinai. Obedience means we accept what we do not understand and practice what we prefer not to do. Being obedient is emphatically not an exercise in following what we agree with. While there are occasions when we may unfortunately stray from what the Torah requires of us – which is why teshuvah is also an aspect of our being a sanctified people – it can be said that religious Jews are obedient to Torah authority.

Whether in the home or in governmental actions or ordinary social relationships, obedience can be achieved through teaching or example. It can also be achieved through one or another form of coercion – through the use of physical force or the threat to use such force or through other kinds of threats. It should be obvious that it is far more effective when obedience is brought about through teaching and example, when those who are obedient come to understand and accept that what is wanted of them is something that they truly want to do. This, too, was imparted to us at Sinai. Although we understandably regard religious obligations as being distinct from other arrangements where authority is accepted, the principle that teaching and example are preferable to coercion pertains as well to our religious life.

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There has been in the recent period a flurry of charged issues affecting the Torah community that raises the fundamental question of whether the path taken to lead us achieves the most desirable results. We have been occupied with new prohibitions, milah procedures and whether certain books by religious authors are appropriate. There are bans against computers and we are witness to what seems to be an endless stream of prohibitory pronouncements, at times expressed in exceptionally sharp language. We are ordered not to read this or that and not to do this or that. We seem to be caught up in a process that we cannot escape, a process which guarantees that more of the same awaits religious Jews.

I do not have a shred of competency to discuss halachic matters and I do not have the spiritual stature to discuss those that are hashkafic. For this reason alone – and emphatically also because we are obligated to be obedient – I cannot and will not challenge what we have been told. Ever since I first sat at the feet of the great rosh yeshiva of Lakewood more than fifty years ago in the last decade of his exalted life, I have endeavored to be obedient.

I am competent to feel the pulse of the community, to sense what is being said and felt. What I, and I believe others, sense is disquieting and I have decided to write in the hope that our Torah authorities will pay heed. Whenever there is a new ban, there is a cascade of jokes and ridicule among religious Jews, as if humor might serve as a surrogate for how many feel but are wary to put into words. L’tzanis – idle talk and jokes – is, of course, base behavior, yet it is there in our community and we ought not avert our eyes from this reality.

Perhaps worse, there is the element of lashon hora, a practice we are constantly enjoined to avoid. An entire religious Jewish industry has been created to expel lashon hora from our homes, conversations, messages. Yet, in a regrettable but remarkable way, bans provide substantial grist for the lashon hora mill. There is much talk about intra-rabbinical conflict, about this rabbi being left out or angry or doing or saying something that is critical of other rabbis. Like tsetse flies carrying disease, prohibitions beget the disease of lashon hora, as bits and pieces of gossip are transported from person to person and from place to place.

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Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at mschick@mindspring.com.