An Orthodox Jew looks at his community, post-Trump
As a proud member of the Orthodox community – one increasingly embarrassed by the behavior of a large part of our community – I take pride in our openness to asking challenging questions. The question-and-answer format of the Talmud. The give-and-take of a beis midrash study hall. The no-holds-barred approach of students towards a rabbi’s Torah lecture.
The current matzav in the United States raises several critical questions in and about the Orthodox community. One, above all: Where did we go wrong?
We, in the opinion of many people outside our small circle, have gone from an or la’goyim to a reflection of the darkest, most haughty part of national character.
Through our very public and very unapologetic alignment with Donald Trump, we have become a public embarrassment – to ourselves, and to the Torah that we claim to uphold.
This is more obvious and more urgent in early 2021 – with the ascendancy of the Biden administration in the US capital, the Orthodox community to a predictable degree loses its influence at the highest levels of the US government. And the unsuccessful putsch in the US Capitol lays bare the evil that we have wrought.
It’s not just Trumpism. Ubiquitous are the images of Orthodox Jews – or those who wear the trappings – flouting COVID-19 social distancing and masking regulations. We appear to be living in a bubble, indifferent to the health and opinion of others. It’s not only Trump – we have abetted and enabled and marched along the most venal parts of our society, the ignorant evangelicals who mouth support for Israel but scorn basic Jewish beliefs, the white supremacists and other haters and societal outcasts.
Do we desire these people as our fellow travelers?
I have few – fortunately, very few – supporters of Trump among my friends, men and women who are otherwise fine, sensitive, intelligent people who are making very unwise political decisions.
I find myself answering, frequently, the “What is wrong with the Orthodox?” questions.
I am at a loss to explain the behavior of a community that I genuinely love, which has been my spiritual home since I entered the Orthodox world more than four decades ago.
My concern is not only the image of the Orthodox community, but its future. How will we appeal to non-Orthodox Jews, how will outreach organizations succeed, how will we show people the beauty of Torah – if its adherents have fallen in league with a man whose disgrace is obvious to anyone but the most spiritually blind?
Have we rendered ourselves irrelevant to the wider Jewish community?
It is not enough to brand those who part company with us as “anti-Orthodox.” It is not anti-Orthodox to question why the self-appointed guardians of religious values have acted in a way inconsistent with prophetical teachings, making support for Trump a Shibboleth for Orthodox authenticity.
A friend of mine, a long-time member of his Modern Orthodox congregation, told me of a conversation there last year. Another member of the shul heard him making a comment that gave the benefit of the doubt to a newly elected, newly prominent Democratic member of the House of Representatives. My friend suggested that the neophyte politician was open to change, and might not be resolutely in the anti-Israel camp. “Are you a crazy liberal?” asked the other member of the synagogue, obviously in the Trump camp.
By labeling my friend, a Torah scholar of sterling character, a “crazy liberal,” the other guy rendered him incapable of holding a legitimate point of view.
Reducing ourselves to simplistic labels and judgmental stances of moral superiority, we remember Hillel’s dictate that “If I am not for myself, who will be?” but forget his subsequent tempering statement, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
We have dishonored what we hold sacred; as people committed to G-d, we have supported a man who has none; as a people committed to obeying the law, both religious and secular, we have embraced a man who recognizes only his own bloated ego; as a people with a sustaining sense of history, we have opted for short-term gain; as a people with deep immigrant roots, we are making possible the exclusion of the current generation of newcomers; as a people committed to emes, we have made common cause with the embodiment of sheker.
We have turned to Fox News for guidance, instead of Chazal.
What have we gained for our pact with Trump and his reactionary policies? An embassy building in Jerusalem. Promises of support for private Jewish schools. Backing for other conservative Jewish issues.
And what have we lost? Respect.
All this is the inevitable consequence of hubris. Since we see ourselves as the purveyors of daas Torah, how can anything we believe be questioned?
We are a living example of a corollary of Dostoevsky’s observation that where G-d is not present, everything is permitted. In our case, if we are the embodiment of G-d, everything – every outrageous statement or act – is sanctioned.
Several years ago I was discussing the latest chilul Hashem with a colleague, a Lubavitcher chasid. Some identified chareidi Jew – maybe a group of them, I forget the details – had committed some public action that embarrassed our community.
I asked my co-worker, who understood better than me the chareidi mindset, “Aren’t they worried about making a chilul Hashem? Aren’t they worried about how their behavior looks?”
“They don’t care,” my colleague answered – his fellow chareidim, he explained, don’t consider the views of outsiders, whether non-chareidim or non-Jews, consequential.
I have no idea if my colleague’s opinion reflects any significant segment of the rigorously Orthodox community, but the fact that he finds this to be the case is frightening.
Are further acts of chilul Hashem inevitable?
Do I fear washing our dirty laundry in public?
No. Our dirty laundry is already hung out; only we do not see it. It will not be cleaned unless we recognize the stains.
Besides my experience as a working journalist, I have no standing in the Orthodox community. I am not a leader. I represent no one else, no organization or constituency. All I can do is speak one person’s opinion.
My record is not clean. In my early days as a newcomer to the Orthodox community, I was quick to judge and condemn. I have worked hard to remove the stain.
None of my comments are made in a vacuum.
A life-long registered independent who consistently votes a split ticket of Democrats and Republicans; an Orthodox Jew who does not affiliate with a single segment of the community, but has friends across the religious spectrum – liberal, centrist, yeshivish, and chasidic; a lover of Israel who alternately backs and opposes some of the government’s actions ... I understand the source of many Orthodox Jews’ support for Trump and like-minded politicians. I understand Orthodox Jews’ disgust and dismay at what has, to a growing degree, come to represent a large part of the Democratic Party, its leftist/progressive/anti-Israel and anti-Zionist leanings that cross the line into outright anti-Semitism, its unthinking “intersectionality” bent, its foisting of an everything-is-okay sexual agenda that typically rejects traditional Torah-based values.
I find the excesses of both sides of the religious and political spectrum equally repugnant.
It has become clear in recent years that the average Republican is better than the average Democrat – at the national level, at least – in terms of Israel and other issues dear to the Orthodox constituent. But Trump is not an average Republican – or a believing member of the GOP at all. He is a sociopath who has captured control of the party by appealing to its basest, loudest, most violent elements.
A friend of Israel?
He is a friend of no one and no country other than his interests. We accept his “friendship” at our peril, aware how quickly and viciously he can turn.
In the year before the 2016 election, I frequently stated that I could not imagine the circumstances under which I would vote for Hillary Clinton.
I could not imagine that Trump would capture the Republican Party’s nomination.
I – as a friend said – in the end held my nose as I voted for Clinton.
In life, there are relative and absolute beliefs. Clinton was a horrible choice to run for President. Relatively, compared to her opponent. His defeat was an absolute.
P.J. O’Rourke, the pre-eminent conservative humor writer, wrote in 2016, while endorsing Clinton, that she was wrong on nearly every issue – within “normal parameters.” Trump was, and continued to be, a master of excess, recognizing no borders of decency or propriety.
We as a people live in a worldview of boundaries, limits prescribed by Jewish tradition and common decency. Trump recognizes no boundaries – ein lo g’vul.
The cause of the current situation is arrogance – undeserved pride in our rectitude: We identify as the bearers of truth, therefore all our opinions are infallible.
Have we learned our lesson?
It’s too early to tell.
What can we do now?
We can question our own assumptions of moral superiority.
We can look into ourselves instead of condemning others when a disagreement arises.
We can read more books about ethics.
We can take our cues from Christian fundamentalists – before we do something, we could ask, “What would Moses do?”
We can apologize for the sin that we have committed by hard-heartedness ... for the sin that we have committed by foolish talk ... for the sin that we have committed by haughty demeanor ... for the sin that we have committed by baseless hatred.
I read a story several years ago about a member of Congress who gave one prime directive to members of his staff: Would they want any action they took to appear on the front page of the Washington Post? In other words, think before you act, weigh the consequences, consider how it would look.
The results of the Trump presidency, unfortunately, made it to the Post’s front page last week.
Do we admit our role in the damage to our country?
A final question: Is it too late for us?
Only we can answer that question.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Queens Jewish Link.
Steve Lipman, a resident of Forest Hills, was a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week from 1983 to 2020.