Last week, the prestigious SAR High School in Riverdale, N.Y., made waves and headlines with the announcement that its leadership had allowed selected girls to don tefillin during morning prayers. It led many within and outside of the “Orthodox” world to take sides; some suggested that the decision could well lead to a deep schism between the haredi right and the more liberal streams of Modern Orthodoxy.
But those who identify as Orthodox aren’t the only Jews ever to face off over questions of ritual, interpretation or politics. In the not-so-distant past, the Conservative movement faced its own internal challenges; the same can be said for the Reform and Reconstructionist movements as well. What’s interesting about the whole affair isn’t so much what happened — several strains of the Orthodox movement have been moving toward greater inclusion of women in traditionally male-dominated ritual for quite some time — but what people’s reactions to the SAR decision say about themselves.
There are Reform Jews who wear kippot all day, every day, just as there are those for whom wearing a head covering would be anathema to their Reform identity. There are Conservative Jews who would never think to drive on Shabbat, and there are self-identified Orthodox Jews who are strict about kashrut at home and not so much outside of it. No movement is monolithic.
To borrow from an oft-used phrase: You really can’t judge a book by its cover. But is it really our place to judge at all?
Intolerance, in whatever form, breeds contempt. Left unchecked, such destructive disregard for the rights of another can lead to outright violence. And while sociologists uniformly peg poverty as the underlying cause of violent crime — the scourge of which you’ll read about in this week’s cover story — we can’t discount the idea that if people would respect each other more, they would be less likely to resort to arms to settle their differences.
Far be it from this column to suggest that people not have an opinion or that the threat of violence looms behind genuine communal religious disputes. But it behooves us to learn lessons from the outside world. With the chaos that exists on the outside, we as a global Jewish community would be much better served by figuring out ways to live in harmony instead of searching out and capitalizing off of the things that divide us.
February offers an excellent opportunity to develop and demonstrate that spirit of inclusivity and harmony. Jewish Disability Awareness Month calls attention to those so often ignored or prejudged by society for no fault of their own. As highlighted in these pages, organizations throughout the community are hosting events on behalf of adults and children with special needs; and an advocacy day in Washington, D.C., will show legislators just how important special-needs issues are to the physical and spiritual health of countless individuals and their families, friends and communities.
Reaching out and supporting these special souls and their caregivers is truly an admirable task. The verses in tefillin declare that “Hashem is One.” There is no better way to affirm that oneness than by revealing the unity of the Jewish people.