Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 8 May 2010 / 23 Iyyar 5770

Jewish Cold Shoulder

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Sheldon
Dear Rabbi,

Judaism is important to me, but I am not observant. I think the Jewish people should be united, despite differences between them. There are enough who hate us from without that we don’t need hate from within. That’s why it irks me so to see Orthodox Jews who are so stand-offish to their non-observant brethren. They seem so arrogant as if they have a monopoly on being Jewish. G-d can’t possibly condone this type of behavior. What’s it all about?

Dear Sheldon,

To the extent to which your description is accurate, you are entirely right – G-d, the Torah and Judaism do not condone that type of behavior to Jews, or to anyone else for that matter.

However, before offering some possible explanations as to why some may act that way, allow me to differ with your generalization.

The overwhelming number of Orthodox rabbis, individual Jews, synagogues, institutions, websites, organizations and events are very open and receptive to non-observant Jews. Ohr Somayach, whom you chose to direct your query to, is just one of a myriad of such institutions.

So, if you’ve encountered such behavior, I would sooner attribute it to the misbehavior of individuals than to the shortcomings of Torah Judaism. As in every group or society, some people are arrogant or condescending, which are common human character traits that everyone is prone to and everyone must strive to overcome. Perhaps you are more sensitive to seeing these traits in Orthodox Jews because they are more conspicuous to you or because you expect more from them (which you should).

If your impression is that this is not limited to individuals, but is rather more a general phenomenon, other explanations may be more accurate. For one, unfortunately, historically the Jewish People have experienced animosity and even existential threat from the outside world. Over millennia, this may have resulted in a subconscious suspicion and fear of anyone or anything “unorthodox” or “outside the fold”. Another point to consider is that it has always been very difficult to preserve the unique Jewish way of life, and in many ways the challenge is even greater in modern times.

So, for these two reasons, on a certain level, there may be a general reticence or reluctance among many Orthodox Jews to intermingle with their general surroundings, and even with other Jews. But if so, it’s not out of arrogance, but rather out of defensiveness bred by generations of persecution and/or out of a desire to preserve the unique Jewish way of life of a tiny minority from dissolving into the vast majority.

Either way, if and when you encounter this Jewish cold shoulder, don’t take it personally. Express empathy and admiration for this segment of your brethren and what they’re trying to do for the Jewish People. I guarantee you that more often than not your respect and tolerance will be returned in kind.

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