Fitting in: finding your place

A Jewish community - representing the Jewish nation as a whole - is expected to be an inspiration and guide to its members and to anyone it encounters. It's not enough to quietly and privately observe God's Torah: the Jewish people's example must elevate the entire world (Yeshaya 49:6).

We must live lives of morality and justice whose wisdom enlightens and warms all around us (Devarim 4:6). We are instructed to take an active interest in the health and well being of all our neighbors, Jew and non-Jew (Yirmiya 29:5-7). Individuals who don't actively work for the general good of society (אין עוסקין בישובו של עולם) are deeply mistrusted.

How closely does your community fit that vision?

Isolationism

I understand why Jews might want to cut themselves off from the secular world. There's plenty out there we'd be wise to avoid. But as with anything in life, it's important to weigh a possible solution against its consequences. Cigarettes might help you manage stress, but there's a very good chance they'll also kill you.

What's the negative side of isolation?

Consider this. If you're raised to believe that you can't engage with the world around you because the people who live there are טמאים ומושחתים, how likely is it that you'll grow up treating them with respect? Isn't it more likely that you'll look at "goyim," "freiya," and "modernisha" as subhuman "untouchables"?

Here's another thought. If you're raised to believe that they're all טמאים ומושחתים who unjustly impose their unholy laws and taxes on us (and prosecute "tzadikim" who they think are criminals), then how likely is it you'll grow up to respect your country's laws and practices? Isn't it more likely that you'll instead choose to live in a shadow economy where "goyishe" laws and safety standards are ignored and various flavors of theft and fraud are rationalized?

One more thought. No community gets everything perfect. We can all improve. And in a world that's constantly changing, the need to intelligently address new challenges becomes all the more urgent. But if you're convinced that you're surrounded by טמאים ומושחתים and that you've got a permanent monopoly on the truth, then you will probably lack the basic psychological capacity to change and grow.

All this happens. Not everyone living in isolated communities is involved of course, but far too many are. Stories describing the proliferation of violence, crime, and corruption in many Charedi communities regularly reach me. In disbelief, I often ask friends and relatives who live in Israel whether those stories are exaggerated and they all sadly tell me "No. This is the way it really is."

Millions of dollars are regularly stolen from both American and Israeli government programs to fund non-existent or non-compliant yeshivos. Charedi politicians and public officials are frequently arrested, tried, and imprisoned for serious crimes. Public riots involving violence and shocking disregard for the rights and needs of others are common.

I'm well aware of the many wonderful things that go on in even the most isolated kehillos. And since every group has its criminals it should hardly surprise us to learn that Orthodox Jews have them, too. But that doesn't excuse any bad behavior. Should being "no worse than anyone else" be enough for a nation that's supposed to be nurtured by God's Torah? And besides, some of the crimes we're seeing here require the cooperation - or at least complicit silence - of hundreds or even thousands of neighbors. To some degree, the crime seems to be embedded within the culture itself.

There is in many communities a stench not only of burning garbage dumpsters and diaper-strewn streets, but of disgusting moral corruption. And of a society where many have lost their moral bearings and others are too frightened to say anything.

Where's the kiddush Hashem in all that ugliness?

Where do you stand?

Whether you like it or not, you do actively benefit by living within your country, state, and city. Each time you take public transit or drive along a safe, well-lit highway, you're enjoying the fruits of taxation. (Subway fares, you might be surprised to learn, don't fully cover the actual cost of your ride: the service is subsidized.) And who can say he's not protected from some pretty nasty enemies by his country's military and police forces?

The fact that you willingly accept benefits acquired through taxpayer-provided funds means you acknowledge your government has the legal and halachic right to collect those taxes. After all, if they didn't have that right, you'd be benefiting from stolen goods (שו"ע חו"מ שס"ט ב). And the fact that you accept a country's currency as payment for goods and services, means that you recognize its legal status (רמב"ם גזילה ואבידה פ"ה הל' י"ח).

The government, representing its citizens, provides you with valuable services. In return, your fellow citizens have the right to expect you'll behave responsibly. At a bare minimum that would require you to observe the law and protect the common good. Ideally, you'll do all this freely and with a generous spirit. Your attitude, in fact, may count for more than your actions.

So building a healthy relationship with the people around you is definitely something worth working on.

Given the fact that governments and secular institutions are themselves no strangers to corruption and crime, there's nothing to be gained by pretending this will be easy. In the face of often justified cynicism of the public sector, maintaining a healthy idealism in your communal activities can be a challenge.

But whoever said doing the right thing would be easy?

Eretz Yisrael

Everything I wrote in the previous paragraphs applies equally to Jews living in Eretz Yisrael. But for a thousand more reasons, your relationship with Israeli society must be pleasant, cooperative, and mutually satisfying.

It's true that the Israeli government - like all governments - does stupid things from time to time. And, as far as I can tell, it's also true that there were serious abuses of power and a conscious effort to harm Orthodoxy in the early years of the state. But that was a very long time ago.

Everything I see and hear tells me that there is no official or unofficial campaign to harm the study or observance of Torah. Nor has there been for decades. That's an old war that's now over and it brings no one glory to pretend otherwise.

"Wait!" I hear you scream, "Isn't the government trying to shut down kollelim and force the chedarim and yeshivos to learn kefira? How is that not a campaign to harm Torah?"

I haven't seen a shred of evidence that the government has ever tried to shut down a kollel. There is, however, a reasonable debate over whether the country can afford to fund so many kollelim and whether it's healthy for society at large for the talmidim who are unproductive (and we all know who they are) to remain "learning" for so long. You may disagree, but it's a reasonable position to take.

No one in the Israeli government has, to my knowledge, ever threatened to shut down or limit the activities of any kollel that finds its own legal source of financial support. The kings Dovid and Shlomo, with all their fabulous wealth and power, didn't support a single avrech in kollel. You can hardly fault a secular government for wanting to limit their support to only a few tens of thousands of talmidim!

Ok. What about forcing the teaching of kefira in chedarim? Well I don't know how you define "kefira," but I'm unconvinced the curriculum guidelines are that bad. Even if I'm wrong, the education ministry is well within its rights on this one. Once a school system accepts government funding, it's a chutzpah of historical proportions to claim that the government doesn't now get some say in what should be taught. The inner moral confusion that could inspire a rational adult to make such demands is disturbing.

Finding a balance

How should things work? Torah values and halachic behavior must always dominate our lives. If we ever find ourselves forced to choose between the Torah and a clearly conflicting social requirement, then we'll unquestionably stand firmly on the side of Torah.

But seriously: how often is that going to happen? Remember, the conflict has to be clear. Most of the time, discussing the issue with a talmid chochom will show you that you'll be better off keeping your head down and avoiding a confrontation altogether. Sometimes halacha will allow - or even require - you to "compromise" just a bit. And sometimes you've just misunderstood the conflict...or the true halacha.

The bottom line: you must always be a ben Torah. But who said ostentatiously flaunting it in public will lead to kiddush Hashem?