WHERE WERE THE JEWISH UNIFIERS? The pre-Siyum HaShas coverage in the Forward was, by its standards, rather benign. It even claimed that, “no non-Orthodox organization claimed to be capable of staging an event on any theme, religious or nonreligious that could draw Jews in anything approaching such numbers.”
And yet, the article cites the events billing as a “once-in-seven-in-a-half-year Jewish unity opportunity,” and then proceeds to wonder whether, “despite the huge numbers the event will draw, the 90% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor ultra-Orthodox may well ask themselves: a unity opportunity for whom? … The majority of affiliated American Jews, who belong to more liberal streams of Judaism, will be unrepresented, not to mention unaffiliated. So, too, will leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America.”
But I wonder: Was there something I’m unaware of holding back any Jew anywhere on the religious spectrum, leaders and laity alike, from seeing this as precisely a “Jewish unity opportunity” and attending? Why did virtually no secular or heterodox Jewish leader attend , not in an official capacity but simply as Jews seeking to make a statement about the cherished ideal of Jewish unity of which they speak so often? True, they wouldn’t have been invited onto the dais, but is Jewish unity worth to them the minimal price of four hours of ego suppression? I don’t believe they would have been received with anything other than warmth and genuine goodwill by everyone in MetLife Stadium that evening.
And finally, a question for the reporter: How is it that as a good journalist, you didn’t think to ask any of these questions of any of these leaders? You saw fit to quote Reform’s president as saying, “I think the Siyum HaShas gathering is terrific. I hope that it is richly rewarding for all who participate.” But where was the follow-up of “so where will you be sitting?”
It’s worthwhile to file away the siyum experience for the next time one reads of how it is the Orthodox, especially those ultra-insular ultras, who keep their distance from other Jews who are just pining away to bond with their fervent brethren. At least when the ultras are absent from general Jewish gatherings, there is often a religious principle at play that makes their attendance difficult, if not impossible.
It may be women’s singing, mixed seating, or immodest dress, or an unwillingness to share a podium with those they regard as religious imposters (which the heterodox ought to know all about from their refusal to do the same with “Messianic Jews”). One need not agree with these reasons to realize they are rooted in principle, not disdain for other Jews. But no such principles existed to keep secular or heterodox leaders from joining in the Siyum HaShas celebration. So what was their excuse?
But the reporter, apparently dismayed at the thought of ending his article on a note of unalloyed success for the Orthodox in drawing nearly 100,000 celebrants of traditional Talmud study, devoted a full one-quarter of his article to all the alternative Talmud study being done by women and the non-Orthodox. An expert he consulted reports that chareidi and Modern Orthodox women are “studying Talmud — and teaching it — in unprecedented numbers.” Well, perhaps, if we consider that even one chareidi woman would qualify in this case as an “unprecedented number,” too. And then there’s this: “Anecdotally at least, there is evidence that Talmud study has spread even more broadly,” referring to a Reform clergywoman who runs an online program that “teaches [non-Orthodox] Jews about Talmud.”
But here’s what’s curious: An editorial in the same issue of the Forward discusses a recent lengthy article on Judaism in The Economist reporting that the Jewish faith is “alive and well.” The report, says the editorialist, is “surprisingly upbeat about the growth of the Hareidim … ascendant in number and intensity.… but we wish [it] had paid more attention to optics. Most of the photographs in this special report were of the Hareidim, a sliver of the population.…”
I suppose it’s easy to put a foot in one’s mouth when the shoe is one the other foot.
BARGAIN HUNTERS This past week, we experienced the Great El Al Cheap Ticket Frenzy. My family didn’t get in on the deal, but I was enriched by the episode nonetheless. That’s because at precisely 12:10 p.m. on Tuesday, as all the hullabaloo was still unfolding, an e-mail appeared in my inbox, sent by a relative, which posed a very simple, straightforward question. I quote:
$$c$$[We] bought two tickets for a total of $758.00. Since we pretty much knew that some mistake was made by someone or some company, can we utilize these tickets at the price paid from a halachic perspective, i.e., are we taking advantage of someone’s mistake and that someone might well be a Yid? Note: if the tickets had been marketed at regular prices, we would NOT have bought them at this time. What’s the psak? $$c$$
That’s how a Jew looks at life. While the whole world is losing its head over the rare chance to book an impossibly cheap flight, he’s keeping his, concerned with the possibility that the cost of this low, low fare is, in eternal terms, just much too high.…
Did every Jew who bought one of these tickets ask that same question? Perhaps not. But I’m confident my inquiring relative wasn’t anywhere near the only one who did. My point here is not at all to focus on those who didn’t (especially since El Al decided to honor all those discounted tickets in the end.) We all have our nisyonos, and as the Mesilas Yesharim writes, monetary ones are among the most persistent and challenging of them.
In fact, it is the very difficulty of the spiritual tests we face in the financial realm that makes the everyday, unsung victories of people like my e-mail correspondent so noteworthy. Take a few moments and you’ll undoubtedly come up with an anecdote, or a few of them, similar to this one, in which someone you know reined in his natural propensity for unearned profit or for that which might exert an even greater pull for us tribesmen — a too-good-to-be-true bargain.
I recall a recent conversation, in which a successful businessman mentioned, in by-the-way fashion, that a large company he deals with had once erroneously sent him double commission on a case, an overpayment totaling many, many tens of thousands of dollars. He immediately sent the funds back, although it actually took some effort to get the company to process the refund because it simply wasn’t equipped to handle an exceedingly uncommon request of that sort.
Most of us won’t be faced with tests in that dollar range, but our successes with the ones we do encounter are no less precious. Almost all of these ethical conquests take place far from the glare of the cameras, and many of them cannot, by definition, be known to anyone else at all. They occur solely in the heart and mind of the Jew who decides not to join a shady business deal, not to misrepresent the facts on an application.
This results, of course, in an inherent imbalance in the public perception of our community. The flagrant misdeed of a minority of its members draw the attention of law enforcement and the justice system, and mere steps behind them, the media and the court of public opinion. By contrast, the thoroughgoing integrity and day-to-day ethical successes of so many more of its members must necessarily go unknown, even unknowable.
But no matter. These heroic acts and choices, every one of them, are “revealed and known” before He Whose knowledge is what really counts.