What Is Jewish Unity?

September 4, 2013
Despite our differences, can we get along?

This year, the Torah portions Nitzavim and Vayelech were read together on Aug. 30. However, Nitzavim is considered to be related to Rosh Hashanah and Vayelech to Yom Kippur. Both parshiot have similar messages — they speak about Jewish unity. According to Torah commentators, on Rosh Hashanah (in Nitzavim), the Jewish unity referred to is unity above, in Heaven. Yom Kippur, in contrast, is about unity below, on Earth.

Vayelech begins by saying that “Moshe went and spoke the following words to all Israel,” meaning he spoke to all Jews in the same way. The portion concludes with Moshe addressing “the entire assembly of Israel” — all Jews, together, in a united manner. (In that portion, we learn about the mitzvah of hakhel, the commandment to gather the people; the term is translated as “congregation.”)

One major Yom Kippur Jewish law and tradition is reuniting with those from which you are estranged — a coming together, a reconciliation and rejuvenation. In this spirit, the JT approached a diverse cohort of Jews and asked them for their perceptions, possible misperceptions and nagging questions about Jews who they see as different from themselves. Then, the JT asked area rabbinic figures for clarification and answers. (See “Myth or Fact?”)

The not-unexpected revelation: The Jewish world is not black and white. However, neither is it gray. The Jewish people are many colors.

Finally, five local rabbis — one mainstream Orthodox, one Modern Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist — were asked the following questions: “What is Jewish unity? Despite our differences, can we get along?”

The answers: Yes, no and maybe.

Herein lies the debate: Is Jewish unity the uniting of disparate levels of Jews or is it that all Jews are entirely equal?

The answer is inconclusive; we welcome your feedback.

The JT team wishes you an easy and meaningful fast.

— Maayan Jaffe

 

Myth Or Fact?

Assumptions About The Orthodox

By Maayan Jaffe
All Orthodox women shave their heads
“Absolutely not,” said Rabbi Chayim Lando, director of the Learning Institute for Torah Empowerment.

Rabbi Yitzchok Lowenbraun, director of the Association for Jewish Outreach Programs, seconded that statement, explaining that this is something many Chasidic women do. He noted that in the areas of modesty and intimacy, many women strive to go above and beyond what is required by the Torah. He also conjectured that it might derive from the practice of ritual immersion; a woman cannot have any tangles in her hair when she dunks in the mikvah (ritual bath).

Rabbi Lando surmised that the source of the tradition might be a story in the Talmud, which notes that one man, Pinchas, had “a whole bunch of sons who were Kohanim Gedolim. The Gomorra says that Pinchas was rewarded because the beams of the house never saw [his wife’s] hair.”

All observant Jews are Republican
“On any number of ethical, moral and political issues, the Orthodox community is naturally going to be more on the conservative side,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken of Torah.org. “But that is by no means monolithic.”
Rabbi Menken cited several local Jewish leaders who are registered Democrats and said this is a personal decision.

So, too, did Rabbi Lowenbraun, who noted that “people should vote their conscience and for their ideas and values. You vote for people, not parties.”

Rabbi Lando said with regards to some major issues, the Republicans’ viewpoints tend to better jibe with those of the Orthodox community, especially those concerning pro-family values and Israel.

“Take abortion,” said Rabbi Lando. “I would not agree with the way the Christian right approaches abortion. It is a misnomer to think the views of Orthodox Jews on a lot of issues necessarily correlate with the Christian right. There are some similarities, but this is not across the board.”

Orthodox parents don’t want their children to associate with non-Orthodox children
“Yes, no and maybe,” said Rabbi Lowenbraun.

The rabbi explained that while his children have played with children from many different backgrounds, there are “some people who are afraid of being involved with something they are not exactly sure of. What do you do when your children go into the home of someone who doesn’t keep kosher? What if you go in [to someone’s house] and they have the TV on, and it’s Shabbos. … It is a complex issue.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun said that people who don’t allow their children to mix with less observant kids do so to help protect them from “negative influences or values they don’t want their children exposed to.”

Rabbi Menken said that it is less challenging for an adult than a child, who may be tempted by what he sees and have a harder time saying no. He did say that he has encouraged his own children to have relationships with his less Orthodox neighbors, and those have been mutually rewarding.

In traditional Judaism, women have a lesser status than men
All of the rabbis who commented on this statement quickly noted that this is a question best asked of women, but they also all felt confident that this is certainly not the case — “not better or worse, just different,” said Rabbi Lando.

“Women are more likely to become Orthodox — and less likely to leave it — than men,” explained Rabbi Menken. “So if Orthodoxy is really that stacked against women, then Jewish women [who choose to be Orthodox] are mentally limited or are more spiritually attuned with what is important; I would assume the latter.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun said that what is often perceived as inequality is Judaism’s way of protecting and elevating women. He cited several laws that work to ensure women are treated fairly and noted that women command respect. For example, women cannot testify in Jewish court, something considered disrespectful to the subject (King David was not allowed to testify in court for this reason). He said that in his estimation modern society puts women in competition with men and squelches the importance of family and the home.

“If a woman’s role in the home is looked down upon [in secular society], we have the opposite value [in Judaism],” said Rabbi Lowenbraun. “The family is the most important thing.”

Rabbi Lowenbraun noted that mothers influence the next generation of Jewish leaders by instilling Jewish values in the children. He also noted that modesty does not degrade women but “just the opposite.”

Orthodox Jews do not watch or read anything not Jewish
According to Rabbi Lando, like with all of the above, here you “find a continuum.”

“There are those Orthodox Jews who have absolutely no problem being influenced by secular culture — books, movies, television, sports — all the way to your most right-wing Chasidim who try to keep out such influences.”

The goal, said Rabbi Lowenbraun, is to be close to God.

“We keep Shabbos to be close to God. We learn Torah to be close to God. Based on that goal, everything falls into place. If it helps me be closer to God, it is a good thing,” he said, noting that Jews in America read English and that there are secular books and programs that are of “great value.”

Rabbi Menken said that there is nothing that says Jews should not be aware of the world around them (the news, etc.). He cautioned, though, that Orthodox Jews should use prudence in selecting which secular
influences to be involved with and bring into their home.

Said Rabbi Lowenbraun: “Torah includes everything, everything around us.”

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