The Sin Of Religious Intransigence


In a Pennsylvania town where I lived for more than eight years, a small, struggling Orthodox community fights to remain viable.

Market conditions and lack of certain amenities such as a kosher restaurant and eruv [ritual enclosure to allow carrying on Shabbat] cut into the fiber of this once tight knit stitch.

Yet, there is something else fraying at the seam.

The Orthodox community is splintered.  A bubbling, young Chabad community grows while the established, traditional community that built the statuesque shul, neighborhood school and adjacent mikvah, ages with frailty.

The scenario calls for cooperation. For the Chabadniks to support the institutions and show respect for those who built the brick and mortar and the soul within. And for the tenured neighbors to embrace change and gradually integrate the new families into their ritual and administration. 

Yes, the cultures are different as may be their religious outlook, but the town’s resources are limited, best equipped to sustain one shul, one yeshiva, a united Orthodox community appreciative of its various perspectives.

Instead, in-fighting governs. Now, there are two schools, two shuls (well, actually three), extra Torah scrolls, and endless uncertainty and finger pointing.  The day school, possibly in its twilight after more than six decades of educating generations of young, could shutter in the next year or two, with the shul’s moribund future looming in death’s shadows.

This is one story about one community in one marketplace.

There is another story, told with ubiquity to the point of cliché and misrepresentation.  That is the story of Beit Shemesh, the cluster of vigilantes who on a December day cascaded epithets on a young girl for failing to meet their definition of modesty in an Israeli city.

This incident struck the carotid artery of Jewish consciousness. Numerous statements of condemnation emanated from mainstream Orthodox mouthpieces.

What was missing from this hailstorm of words was a solution. Like the situation in that Pennsylvania town, I fear this incident too will brew to increased tensions. What we don’t see happening is communication – talking and, more importantly, listening among the combating parties.

 In this span of less two weeks, two other incidents, or more precisely articles and their reactions, caught my attention and an epiphany of sorts.

The first occurred in this publication. It was Gary Rosenblatt’s compelling piece about a respected Sephardic rabbi known for his scholarship and intellectual honesty. Rabbi Moshe Shamah, founder of The Sephardic Institute, has released a voluminous commentary on the parshiot entitled “Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah.”

The book is exceptional in its straightforwardness and sober approach to our Biblical text based on Pshat, defined either as the straight or proper meaning based on the narrative’s context.

Remarkably, many have not only dismissed Rabbi Shamah’s dialectics, but disparaged his unapologetic understanding as outside the bounds of what is acceptable Orthodoxy.

A similar backlash has recently materialized against another Orthodox rabbi, Zev Farber of Atlanta, who recently wrote a courageous and, admittedly, controversial article on what should be the Orthodox view on homosexuality.  [He suggests we should apply the classification of Ones Rahmana Patrei – God shows compassion for what is beyond a person’s control.]

Like Rabbi Shamah, Rabbi Farber has been scathed like a skinned tiger, with many not just attacking his argument but casting doubts about whether such a thinker should have residence within the Orthodox tent.

So, we have the Pennsylvania town, the attack in Beit Shemesh, and the reactions against Rabbis Shamah and Farber.  Four seemingly isolated stories.

Yet, in them resides a shared chemical imbalance: religious intransigence. 

In my 20-plus years as a news reporter and 40-plus years as an Orthodox Jew, I would define religious intransigence as simply, “I’m right and if you disagree, then you must not only be wrong, but you’re also not welcomed here.”

When did we become so narrow minded and nasty? We have an extraordinary legacy of diversity within the bounds of traditional thought. Where is today’s tolerance for those differences?

The Ramban (Nachmonides) had no difficulty calling out Abraham and Isaac for misrepresenting their wives as “sisters” to avert potential harm. Were Ramban living today, no doubt he would have been castigated for not reinterpreting the verses from their Pshat to ensure the mythical shine of our forefathers.

What are we lacking today? I would suggest both moral nuance and basic civility.

That is not to say there are no firm lines that cannot be crossed. There is no basis to defend molesters of children. There is no Jewish law that condones debasement of women.  There is no rationale to advocate willful violation of civil laws.

But while we have a long, codified history of the concept of Tzeniut (modesty) as it relates to clothing (and behavior), there is room for different traditions and views.

For Torah commentary, we have a rich legacy of diverse approaches, all of which occupy an essential space in our tradition.

Somehow, we’ve lost our way. We’ve more concerned about protecting our own turfs and imposing fences to prevent outsiders from entering, even when the outsider is us. The idea of cherishing diversity in our schools, shuls and prayer services is put down for being, heaven forefend, tolerant. 

Just as in politics and blogs, where we have stations and websites to affirm our views, we are loath to share space with those with different thoughts and different practices.

Today, it’s about my neighborhood and not permitting a school across certain demarcations.   So yes, we will talk about achdut (unity) on Yom HaShoah, and we will give our annual tribute on Tisha B’Av to Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred). 

But at the end of the day, do we really believe what we are saying?