Idolatry Today

Bowing to the Golden Calves of our Age

A very involves, serious, learned, passionate and probing modern Orthodox Jew recently posed a vexing, challenging question. Since the most serious Orthodox Jews are the so-called “Right Wing,” and since their passion, sincerity, commitment, self- imposed protective insularity, provide eloquent evidence that their religion, being passionate and sincere is manifestly authentic, do they not merit extra consideration and deference when they ask for deference and consideration? After all, their likelihood for survival and continuity seems to be so much more substantial than the Orthodox modernists who are the accommodating and compromising Jews who, out of willful choice, personal weakness, or professional circumstance have allowed themselves to inhabit the two irreconcilable and contradictory worlds of modernity and tradition, should we, the accommodating modernists, make the extra effort to accommodate Haredi taste, protocol and policy when in their presence and to sustain their institutions as a demographic “life insurance” policy for Orthodox Jewish destiny?

We can easily identify these very committed, self-proclaimed fervently Orthodox Jews. Their dress is different from more accommodating Orthodox Jews. Their men wear black hats and appreciate visitors conforming to their customs of costume when in their precincts. Fitting in is important. At least one ought to defer out of respect for what is proclaimed to be authentic Orthodoxy, even if one is unable to sustain the discipline and effort to commit to all of its definitions, practices, and policies. Since these Jews will not consume pills with gelatin casing, you know that their kitchens are carefully observing all of the kosher rules. And they even observe kosher rules that are not really rules, but social signals of belonging to the sectarian “in-group.” These extra measures indicate that one lives for God like other seriously Orthodox, i.e., fervently committed Orthodox Jews. When visiting them, we should wear “religious” yarlmulkes, made of black satin or velvet. Our wives should wear wigs and not hats, scarfs, or nothing on the head. Our teenage boys who wear talleit, as do all men who have reached the age of commandments, should not wear their talleitot in the presence of these Jews. If in Rome we act as Romans, in Romania we act as Romanians, then when in Park Heights, the Boro Park of Baltimore, we would do well to politely, and discretely fit in to the paradigms of the Jews who are really, truly, and authentically observant. The Jews of Park Heights do religious acts all the time. They must know more than we do because they are doing more acts that they describe as Jewish than we do. They are always quoting this or that rabbi and that or this authority. So with all of their commitment to conscience and authority, how can they be wrong, should we not defer to their passion, and concede that their Orthodoxy is the salvation, way, and life of the Jewish people?

There are two answers to this question, one long and one short. The short answer is that every Jew, Reform and ultra-Orthodox, gets respect. No Jew has a right to ask for deference, because the demand for deference is a denial of self-respect. The image of God resides in us all, equally. Rituals which are commands of God who sanctifies Israel with the commandments have moral value; rituals which are reminders of self-invented identity and communal conventions carry much s ocial significance but no sacramental sanctity. Therefore, the request that one suspend one’s conscience in order to accommodate the social/religious taste is no less than a request to make the concession through ritual gesture that the “other” is more authentically Jewish.

As much as we are indebted to the Reconstructionist understanding of peoplehood, we remember that R. Saadia Gaon taught that Israel is a nation by dint of its Torah. And to be considered authentic value, the ritual, belief and gesture must be public and not private, promulgated by the rabbis who composed Israel’s sacred library and not by any post-Talmudic synod or convention. It is what the Torah says in its sacred library and not what people happen to do by dint of social pressure or conditioning that that defines the Judaism of the Written and Oral Judaism. We obey customs of place to avoid controversy. But we do not act wrongly out of good manners. In its canonical version, Judaism forbids reciting a commandment blessing before observing a custom because customs, unlike commandments, do not sanctify, are not holy, and are observed because of convention and not covenant. So wearing a knitting kippa, which is not a requirement of Jewish law, need not be the male head covering of choice just to make a point. But the hat need not be black, either. And only those who would wear the knitted kippa in the presence of knitted kippot have the moral right to ask the knitted kippa wearer to don the black velvet kippa in the precinct wear velvet kippot are the convention.

According to the letter of Talmudic law, on no circumstance may the Jewish woman wear a wig outdoors on the Shabbat because Jewish law explicitly forbids the practice. On one hand, Hatam Sofer justifies the wig with the claim that “a custom breaks a law,” so women may wear the wig, at least to his view. On the other hand, he declares that “anything new is forbidden by the Torah.” In R. Sofer’s particular historical context at the beginning of the 19th Century, consistency had to defer to the ideological challenges of the age when traditional culture was under attack. But if everything new, any innovation, including those not forbidden by the Talmud, is forbidden, then the women’s wig, explicitly forbidden by the Talmud, must also be forbidden. It is well known that R. Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed and saintly memory, disapproved of the women’s wig, as did the great Sefardic sage, Hacham Ovadia Yosef. When Orthodox affiliating women opt for the wig head covering, they are most likely either uniformed or are deferring to community convention and pressure. The authentically fervent Orthodox Jew defers to God before deferring to community. It is one matter to tolerate the woman’s wig out of weakness; any endorsement of the wig as the woman’s to be the head covering of choice negates the Torah status of the rabbi who makes that claim.

When the call for respect is a call for a gesture that one deny one’s own commitments, conscience, and creed, respect ought not to be given because the respect for the demand of the “other” makes the arrogant demand that one’s conscience and creed carry diminished moral valence. In point of fact, the issue at hand is not respect, but deference, control, and superiority. The image of what is proper becomes an idol, an image, a picture without words. But Judaism is a world construction consisting of words and not images. The image of the proper Jew is defined by the words of the holy books, not the “Rebbe card” images that proclaim the image of piety.

Presented below are two instances of inadmissible calls for “respect” which were in fact demands for deference. In planning for a communal Mikva, a Haredi rabbi who was participating in the project asked me to agree that the ritual pool of Springfield be called “Mikva Yisroel.” I was told by this rabbi that even Sefardim have adopted this pronunciation. In error I agreed to this request, not appreciating what was at stake in the request what Torah values were to be compromised by acceding to this apparently innocent request. Proper pronunciations include “Miqva Yisrael” or “Mivqva Yisrawel,” but not Mikva Yisroel is masoeritcally unacceptable. “Yisroel” is a mispronunciation of Masoretic Hebrew created by the “aw” and long “a” joining in a dipthong and is a popular mispronunciation accepted by and serving as an identity marker in Haredi Orthodoxy. By improperly allowing an error to be memorialized, the community gets the impression that the Haredi way is the real Jewish way, that grammar may not be used in studying the Torah because no one but the Haredi elite may have access to was is taken to be the interpretation code of Judaism.

Once my son was told by the principal the Yeshiva he was attending that he had to wear long side burns. I asked the principal, “why?” This “educator,” trained at Lakewood but not at college, answered, “it is the halakhah!” I asked this educator, “and where is this ‘law’ recorded?” and was told, “it is brought down in sforim.” His response not only reflected ineptitude in Hebrew and English grammar, it demonstrated his confusing, fusing and conflating his communal preferences with Sinai’s unchanging covenant. I asked, “is this an opinion about the law or is it objective law?” He said “it is the practice accepted in the yeshivos.” I concluded by saying, “either you show me that this is a clear law in the Talmud and Shulhan Aruch or you have a real problem, with me, because I am forbidding my son to conform to your demand for a parochial gesture that is mistaken for Judaism.” My son was asked to submit to social authority by dressing like a member of a subgroup other than his own. This request is anti-Jewish and must be resisted. It is a bowing before the idol of ideology and serves no moral constructive or even reconstructive function.

God does not allow us to invent practices and doctrines and then assign theological value to them. If we did not have pictures of Moses or Rabbi Aqiva or Maimonides, why do we need “rebbe cards,” which are icons of people who look alike, dress alike, think alike, and tell other Jews what to do and what to think. It is rude and therefore heretical to question them or hold them accountable to the texts of the canon. The iconic representation of these rabbis has them with beard. Shaving the beard has been called “women’s clothing” land a break with “Tradition.” Tradition does forbid shaving on intermediate days of Passover and Tabernacles, but not on weekdays with scissor action severing of facial hair. Habad claims that we may not even trim our beard, based on Lurianic mysticism. Inventing a rule not recorded in the sacred library and assigning to itit moral weight—using authority to enforce it—does not sanctify or edify, but it does intimidate people by manipulating them. And given that God said that we do not invent religious value, that we “may not add to or subtract from” the Torah, it seems that God would not approve of these new rules, either

We must use good manners, and show self-respect as well as respect to others.

We are not slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, or anyone else who makes icons out of people to imply that some people’s opinions are more right than others. An Orthodox Judaism that will complain about Conservative Judaism when it deviates from Torah has to praise Conservative Judaism if and when acts rightly. Rabbi Paul Plotkin called for kashrut observance in and out of the house in Conservative communities. Why was Orthodoxy silent? Orthodox Jewish leaders loved to hate the Conservative position on homosexuality. But we all know about Orthodox rabbis who were accused of homosexual advances on yeshiva boys. Orthodoxy must stand by principle and not on policies and politics

Idolatry does not use words or reason, but images and power. Pharaoh’s was the religion of total control. He was big and everyone else was small. He gets to resurrect and you do not. He is a god and you are not. He walks on water, at least in his dream. And he is god incarnate. He must be right. Heresy is treason against the god. Until Moses, our teacher said “no” to Pharaoh. Pharonic imagery is idolatry, Moses’ Torah is one of words. And he remains our teacher because, as the song teaches, “all we have are words.”

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.