By Rabbi Avi Shafran
One thing I was not prepared to find when I scanned the op-ed page of The New York Times this past Friday was reference to the perennial dilemma of what berachah, or blessing, to make on Crispix, the breakfast cereal whose morsels each consist of one side rice and one side corn. (No authoritative decision was offered; two separate blessings are the recommendation I’ve seen in more reliable sources.)
That oddity (for the newspaper, that is; the Crispix question has been revisited numerous times in the Shafran home) was mentioned in the context of an article by columnist David Brooks entitled “The Orthodox Surge.”
Despite the nervous-making title—when I think “surge,” hurricanes and armies come to mind—the piece was a welcome respite from the sort of coverage of the Orthodox Jewish community more commonly found in the media. Orthodox-related happenings regarded as news fit to print usually consist of actual or alleged criminal acts committed by individuals in the community, or practices the paper’s readers are likely to find socially illiberal or bizarre. Even reportage of wonderfully positive happenings, like the gathering of 90,000 Jews this past summer at MetLife Stadium to celebrate Talmud study, are carefully tarnished with negativity.
The Times’ article about the Siyum HaShas was peppered throughout with things like the substantial cost of the mechitzah (curtain separating the men and the women present) at the event, and the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud. Instead of interviewing any of the tens of thousands of such traditional women of all ages present at the event who fully embrace the concept of religious gender roles, the reporter managed to ferret out the rare feminist Talmud-student instead to quote at length. The piece deserved a prize, the “Agenda-Driven Journalism Award.”
Back, though, to Mr. Brooks. As a columnist—not to mention an uncharacteristically conservative one for the paper—he does not have to toe any liberal line. And so he was free to approach his subject, the growth and values of the Orthodox community, without the usual mud-colored glasses.
Taken by his guide, Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik, to a large Brooklyn supermarket catering to the Orthodox, he found the religious safari enlightening.
He describes being impressed by how Orthodox Jews hew so carefully to their “collective covenant with G‑d,” by how “deep down” observant Jewish life “is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.”
“They go shopping,” he writes, “like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.” Their religious laws “give structure to everyday life . . . infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance . . . build community . . . regulate desires . . . making religion an everyday practical reality.”
All in all, a straightforward, accurate depiction of the community and its values. And so, predictably, it stuck uncomfortably in the craw of some, chagrined that Mr. Brooks had dared focus only on beauty and not warts.
And it wasn’t only the usual bloggerei who simmered, but even as accomplished and respectable a person as Jane Eisner, the editor of the Forward. Ms. Eisner complained that the Brooks column hadn’t noted that “ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, while experiencing an enviable surge in population, is also weighted down by increasing poverty, enhanced by the large families and devotion to pure Torah study that Brooks extols.” And she didn’t miss the opportunity to remind the paper’s readers that scoundrels exist among the Orthodox as elsewhere, heralding accusations of improprieties in the community—and, of course, her paper’s brave dedication to ferreting out and publicizing them.
Graciously acknowledging that, indeed, “there are magnificent aspects to the devout practice of religion,” she made it clear, though, that there are “troubling ones as well,” and that Mr. Brooks did a disservice to his readers by presenting only “one gauzy moment.”
I’m reminded by the Talmud’s teaching that one can gaze upon something or someone with either a “good eye” or a “bad eye,” with benevolence, that is to say, or with something else. It is unfortunate, but some of our fellow Jews seem ill-disposed toward us Orthodox. Part of the reason may be that the image of halachah-committed Jewish life inherently discomfits them, makes them wonder if traditional Judaism’s core belief system may still be relevant, even . . . Divine. Another part, perhaps, is simple fear, of something else Mr. Brooks notes, that the Orthodox community’s growth is positioning it to be “in a few years . . . the dominant group in New York Jewry.”
We’re sorry. We’re really not trying to take over, of course, any more than Jews as a people are aiming at world domination, as some anti-Semites contend. We’re just trying to live our lives as we believe G‑d wants.
I think there’s a takeaway for us Orthodox Jews from Mr. Brooks’ recent column: Despite the determination of some to portray our community in dark hues, and despite the fact that there will always be individuals in our own midst who will provide them fodder, if the rest of us, the vast majority, endeavor to just live our lives in consonance with what our religious tradition teaches is G‑d’s will, at least an objective observer will see the verdant forest for the occasional sickly tree—will see our community for what it actually is. v
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.