The moment the rabbi walked through the door all the students jumped to their feet… and I looked about desperately for a way out of the room.
The rabbi wore a long coat, a wide, antiquated black hat, an untrimmed beard, Coke-bottle spectacles and, incredibly, sidelocks. I knew â€” I just knew â€” what was going to happen next: the rabbi would lecture us in a thick German accent and tell us we were all damned to hell. There was no way I could sit through such an ordeal.
But I had taken a seat in the far back corner of the room and now found myself trapped by the crowd of glassy-eyed acolytes eager to drink in the torrent of demagoguery that was about to come our way. I would have made a spectacle of myself climbing over people to get out. Instead, I slumped back in my chair and told myself that I could survive anything for an hour.
Then the rabbi began to speak. I leaned forward, immediately drawn in by an introduction as elegant and articulate as if he had been an Ivy League academic.
Which he was, despite his Chasidic garb: a former professor at Johns Hopkins University, in fact. Over the next two months, he systematically shattered my stereotypes and dismantled my arguments against the existence of G-d and Torah from Sinai, drawing upon proofs from science, history, and human psychology, which he wove together in a tapestry of irrefutable logic. Three decades later, my mind still returns to his lectures as I teach my own students.
Imagine how differently I might view the world today had I seated myself nearer the door on that fateful morning half a lifetime ago.
The kind of ignorance of which I was guilty was far more excusable than that of the Forward’s contributing editor Jay Michaelson, whose selectively documented hit-piece against traditional Torah observance proves Alexander Pope’s famous observation that a little learning is a dangerous thing.
In a drive-by “editorial” not worthy of a hyperlink, Mr. Michaelson spews forth with an eruption of pure vitriol prompted by the most egregious violation of politically correct jurisprudence: non-conformity to liberal ideology. Here are some representative excerpts:
Call them what you will â€” ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophicâ€¦
[M]ainstream American Jewish organizations must stop pretending to have common cause with Jewish fundamentalists. Just as mainline Christian denominations recognize Christian fundamentalism to be a threat to their religious values, so the mainstream of Jewish denominations â€” including Modern Orthodoxy â€” must recognize that this distortion of Judaism is actively destructive to Judaism itself.
Like Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is extremely new. It arose in response to modernity, and it radically changed Jewish values. Formerly, the Jewish mainstream balanced strictness and leniency: In the battle between the strict Shammai and the lenient Hillel, Hillel always won.
But the Haredi world is a phalanx of Shammais. The strictest is always the best. Moses wore a shtreimel, the fur hat that many married Haredi men wear, at the Red Sea. Scientific knowledge is evil. These are radically new Jewish ideas presented as radically old ones. Those of us who do not share them must recognize them as a threat.
Of course, human nature being what it is, the Torah community is not perfect. We have our lapses and even our outrages, like the indefensible violent zealotry against the so-called women of the wall. We have those among us who succumb to the same superficiality that characterizes popular culture and those who cross legal or moral boundaries under the burden of financial pressure.
But to overlook the Torah community’s extraordinary acts of kindness, charity, and devotion to the traditions handed down over a hundred generations in apoplectic rant against back hats and Talmudic scholarship is disingenuous at best and pathological at worst. What Mr. Michaelson denounces as “fundamentalism” is in truth the selfless commitment to the path of our forefathers, without which the Jewish people would have become extinct many centuries ago.
And no, Mr. Michaelson, no one believes that Moses wore a fur hat when he split the Sea.
Neither does the Torah community have any quarrel with science. Indeed, a growing community of Orthodox physicists, biologists, and chemists make an articulate case for reconciling Torah and science, and they convincingly expose the myopic fallacies indulged by secularists unwilling to concede the limits of their own understanding.
Finally, before Mr. Michaelson repeats his condemnation against the philosophy of the great sage Shammai, he might want to do his homework. One of Judaism’s most famous maxims in Talmudic literature is recorded in the name of Shammai: Greet every person with a cheerful countenance. “Every person” â€” even those who froth at the mouth and defame you without cause or justification.
It is sadly ironic how the self-appointed defenders of free speech and ideological tolerance consider themselves exempt from both tolerance and civility toward those whose values might force them to question their own. The Forward does its readers a disservice by providing a platform to drive the stake of senseless hatred ever deeper into the heart of the Jewish community.
Originally published on Jewish World Review here.