By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Following the time-honored if somewhat irritating tradition of speechmakers who begin by announcing that they are departing from the scheduled topic, I informed those present that instead of focusing on the media’s coverage of Orthodox Jews, I would make my presentation on cloud-seeding.
The venue was Agudath Israel of America’s recent 91st national convention, which took place this past weekend at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton in New Jersey, where thousands converged to hear words of inspiration and admonition from some of the Orthodox world’s guiding elders.
And, for some of the attendees, to hear words of lesser gravity from people like me, at various smaller sessions. Still, the Sunday-morning one in which I participated, along with Agudath Israel executive director Rabbi Labish Becker, the session’s chairman; respected educator Rabbi Aaron Brafman; and accomplished attorney Avi Schick, drew nearly 500 souls.
A few voices in the back of the hall demanded that I repeat myself, for surely they had misheard. So I did, but, before puzzlement could turn to consternation, I launched into a pretty funny joke. No, I’m not going to repeat it here. If you’re really curious, you can get the CD from firstname.lastname@example.org.
But I will offer here the gist of my words that morning. (I’d love to do the same with those of my co-presenters, but don’t have their notes. So, again, please just order the CD.)
Orthodox Jews seem to be in the news a lot, usually in stories focused on the wrongdoings of Orthodox individuals. That usually begins with the Jewish media, which make yeomen’s efforts to find anything scandalous—or even innocent but which can be presented in such a way as to imply something dark—in the Orthodox community. And larger media pick up the baleful ball and run with it.
Needless to say, there are truly egregious crimes that have been committed by members of the Orthodox community, as by those of any community. But the powerful lens aimed at the Orthodox world is sui generis. (I’m not a psychologist, but have my suspicions about why some Jewish media are so bent on ferreting out Orthodox misbehavior; it has something to do with Jewish guilt. But let’s not go there.)
And yet, there are times when a stream of positive news about Orthodox Jews seems to burst forth from nowhere.
Recently, we were treated to Professor Noah Feldman’s Bloomberg News ode to the scholarship and democratic meritocracy that is Beth Medrash Govoah, the Lakewood Yeshiva; and reports about the political alliance and personal friendship between a chassidic woman (elected to a town council) and a Palestinian one in Montreal, a man with a yarmulke riding a New York subway who allowed a young man in a hoodie to use his shoulder as a pillow, and a Connecticut rebbi who discovered nearly $100,000 stashed in a desk he had bought and unhesitatingly returned it to its owner. (She had forgotten where she had put the cash, which is a lesson to us all: Whenever we stash a hundred grand somewhere around the house, we should write where on a sticky note and put it on the fridge.)
What, though, precipitates the negative Ortho-news, and what the positive? A believer in chance wouldn’t have the question. But a believer in Judaism does.
And “precipitates” is the right word. My stab at an answer was where cloud-seeding came in.
I picture a spiritual cloud of sorts, an amorphous mass of minor acts of chillul Hashem, or “desecration of G‑d’s name.” Any time a visibly Jewish Jew blocks traffic by double-parking, or is impatient with a clerk at a supermarket, or cuts corners while doing his taxes, a bit of malign moisture is added to that chillul Hashem cloud. And when it is sufficiently heavy, it rains down on our heads, and into the media, in the form of a large and public desecration of G‑d’s name.
And conversely, when enough visibly Jewish Jews are considerate, polite, scrupulously honest and proactively friendly to others in their daily lives, their actions feed another cloud, the cloud of kiddush Hashem—“Sanctification of G‑d’s name.” And then the media are presented with un-ignorable examples of public actions of kiddush Hashem, and are forced to report them.
So by our own actions, each of us helps seed one cloud or, G‑d forbid, the other; whether acid rain or blessed rain results depends, in the end, on us all.
The most valuable thing I shared with those present, though, consisted of a sentence from the Rambam, what I believe is his definition of kiddush Hashem.
“Anyone,” he writes, “who refrains from a sin or fulfills a commandment not for any earthly reason, not fear nor trepidation, nor to seek honor, but [entirely] because [it is the will] of the Creator . . . has sanctified G‑d’s name.”
And so, even—perhaps especially—in our quietest, most private moments, we all have opportunities to seed the right cloud. v
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran.
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is available from Judaica Press.