I have sympathy for religious mavericks like Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, who for ordaining a woman as a rabbi, or “rabba” as he calls her, is under fire from Orthodox rabbinic colleagues on the Rabbinical Council of America. To be Avi Weiss takes guts. Unfortunately for him, as the New York Jewish Week‘s Jonathan Mark is anticipating, his gutsiness could result in Rabbi Weiss’s expulsion from the RCA.
My Forward op-ed is out now seeking the meaning behind the scandals that have plagued my religious community, Orthodox Judaism, with increasing intensity of late. The first comment over at the Forward website illustrates the extent to which many of us Orthodox Jews don’t seem to get what the problem is. A “Rabbi Dr. Rosenberg” complains, “There are good, bad and ugly among all peoples. Do not pick on Orthodoxy alone.”
For all its outward vigor, the Orthodox community, which is my own, appears to harbor a sickness. You don’t have to be an ideological critic of traditional Judaism to wonder if the cause should be sought in Orthodoxy itself.
The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.
Of course, not every allegation turns out to be true (and you certainly cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet with its bias in favor of grudges and witch-hunts). Yet the pattern of accusations can’t be coincidental.
For a convert or a baal teshuvah, like me, the greatest stumbling block to faith may indeed be the Orthodox community itself. If Torah is true, why do Torah Jews not stand out as particularly impressive? Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation'” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?
I’d never heard these two wonderful anecdotes, reported in a review by Michael Weingrad in the brand new (and quite impressive) Jewish Review of Books:
Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and–ever the professor of philology– lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”