A perfect sea urchin

My Evil Thoughts

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Weird, Weird, Weird!

This is another great or not so great sociology of religion post. Let's start with a blog post at Thinking Israel. The hat tip for this goes to a commenter on Failed Messiah.

The gist of the piece is that in Orthodox Judaism, the correct impelentation of modesty or tznius means NOT excluding women but both genders controlling their sexual urges, through gentle prohibitions on behavior. The black hats in Beit Shemesh and Mea Sherim Israel who have been spitting at little girls, stoning nonsegregated buses, calling servicewomen whores etc... and kicking a puppy (Read Failed Messiah if you don't believe me on that one.), have it all wrong.

When I first heard this argument elsewhere I cringed. It may be right. It may be wrong. It is probably correct. I would like for it to be correct, but... it is not important. The black hats have a right to their beliefs. They have a right to voice them. They do not have to be polite in voicing them. They can be crass and crude. Free speech does not just protect polite speech, and freedom of religion in the United States does not protect just beliefs that you find acceptable or those with benign social consequences.

What the charedim have done with their protests is forget that they need to live by the law of the land. In the case of the thugs in Beit Shemesh, they have either forgotten or never learned the difference between lawful expression (which in the US can be quite ugly), civil disobedience (breaking the law in a way that hurts nobody except the local authorities whom you inconvenience), and just plain lawlessness. Do the charedi rabbis really have to denounce lawlessness? Maybe they do. Maybe they should call for civics to be taught in all high schools and middle schools, so that protesters will know how to stay on the right side of the law and not blacken their community's eye. Then again, we all know what lawlessness is and if you commit assault or vandalism you will probably end up a guest of your particular jurisdiction or have to raise bail money to prevent that.

That is all they have done wrong. Unfortunately, the charedi thugs have also brought into the spotlight beliefs that make Modern Orthodox rabbis quite uncomfortable. Worse yet, we share a lot of the same creed as the charedi. Picture Southern Baptists and snake handlers, or Pentacostals and Rev. Camping.

And face it, modern Orthodox Judaism is home to a lot of weird beliefs. Last Friday I was placing a frantic cell phone call to my synaoguge to speak to my rabbi. Why was my call so urgent? Thursday I had visited the Container Store and bought two plastic screw top containers, one for powdered milk and one for sugar for the syangogue's beverage bar. This will enable charitable souls to purchase powdnered milk in eight quart boxes and sugar in five pound bags. These items will always be fresh, and we will be able to serve them easily. I needed to call the rabbi to let him know the containers were brand new, and had not been used in a home kitchen. That meant they would be absolutely kosher and not contaminated by a slip in someone's standards or time away from an environment supervised by a qualified mashgiach. Go ahead and laugh. You should if you don't share my belief that this is important. I even laughed a bit too, but I made the call.

But sometimes even my laughter sticks in my throat. The local secondary day school (A religious Jewish school that is where most Modern Orthodox parents send their sons and daughters) has a musical every year called Chagiga. The cast is all female. The characters are all Jewish, and only females are allowed to watch. Why? Well, the answer is tznius, the same modesty code that makes a charedi man not want to sit next to a woman and vice versa. It's just a question of application, and a parent at my synagogue could always send their teenage children to a public high school, but they would not get along as well with other parents since this is not normative behavior.

Somehow, my rabbi in his sermon from the pulpit and the rabbi at Thinking of Israel, forget places like Yeshiva High School when they discuss the inclusion of women in the public sphere and tznius. In the United States few spheres are more public, and few experiences more formative for middle school youth, than public performance. High schools have drama clubs and sports teams as well as debating societies and model UNs so that students can perform publicly. There are festivals of the arts and homecomings. Whole communities turn out for Friday night football games. I realize this last is breaking Shabbos, but there are still six other days a week when students can endure this American rite of passage.

Also the fact that some Broadway musicals are racey to say the least is not an argument against a traditional Drama Club for young men and women. If costumes are an issue, there are musicals like Oklahoma or Shenandoah. There is also Shakesparian drama and there could always be a chorus that performs in concert black or robes. You get the idea. I would be more concerned with costumes and dancing rather than lyrics because most students read worse than what they would perform and one can say that Broadway songs in English are classics and standards. If modesty is an issue, there are ways around the problems that would still allow a real drama club.

Of course, those running education for Modern Orthodox kids in the United States are to the right of the communities they serve. Teaching is not a high paying profession, so the Modern Orthodox youth become doctors, lawyers, and business executives, while those to the right of them religiously take teaching and educational administration positions. This is one ugly marriage of convenience.

Now of course weird ideas like those that produce chagiga and worry over contaminated sugar bowls are perfectly fine. We don't force them on any one who doesnt' want to live by them. The Beit Shemesh thugs try to do this by forcing segregation of buses, but again, that is lawlessness plain and simple. If all they did was give up their seats rather than sit next to a female, their weird idea would be perfectly fine. It is easy to say that their sin is expecting others, namely the government through its laws about public carriers or the municipal bus company to impose their ideas and wield their cudgels, and pay for their ideas through public funds. It is very convenient for Modern Orthodox rabbis and commentators to remind the audience that they do not ask the government to enforce their religion.

Separation of Church and State is a cornerstone of American civilization if not quite civility. In a certain conservative synagogue in Columbus, Georgia, the fat cats with connivance from the rabbi feely bashed the working class Protestant church next door. Since we didn't take the governmnent's dollar we coudl do as we pleased. And oh you should hear parents complain of the frum tax, the cost they must bear to raise a religiously observant, Orthodox family.

There is one problem. In a Religious Zionist community (and of course in Israel itself), a portion of the population spends time in and lives in Israel. Making aliyah is a virtue, and in Israel...Israel is a theocracy. Think of the British Civil War in the Seventeenth Century and you'll have an idea why theocracy sucks. The Orot girls school, against which the charedi held thuggish protests was a state funded religious school. The charedi also send their children to state funded religious schools of a different stripe, many of which do not teach secular subjects to boys in high school. In Israel, Judaism including Orthodox Judaism of all stripes, has its nose deeply stuck in the public trough. The fight over the Orot school is party NIMBY, part religious dispute, and part fight over scarce government resources. By the way, I have yet to hear any rabbi speak out against the underbelly of Israeli theocracy, and I don't think I'm going to hear it any time soon.

I guess I am glad I am not a parent, so I don't have to deal with misapplied tznius and its consequences right here in Atlanta. I can note the hypocrisy and take my seat by the rail at services. This isn't God's fault. It's the fault of frail, hypocritical humans. Even the likes of Westboro Baptist Church, Rev. Camping, and most US charedi know that they must live under the rule of law, and when they don't the local courts are happy to sentence them, and they'll get their taste of feeding at the public trough in the form of three hots and a cot in a crowded cell. Most of us religious crazies want to avoid this fate, so we play by the rules. Civil disobedience by the way, rarely (There are exceptions. I used to correspond with a nun in Federal prison for painting fake blood on a nucler missile.) merits more than an appearance ticket, a night in the county lockup, or a fine, because the crime is usually trespassing.

The thugs of Beit Shemesh should play by the rules and it goes without saying they are not, but they and us Modern Orthodox are still kissing cousins or factious siblings. We share a lot of beliefs, and rather than pretend we don't do it like those guys do, a better approach might be to admit what we have in common, and then answer questions honestly, and if the questions such as: "Don't your families have eight children?" or "Do your women really wear wigs and shave their heads?" or "What do you do all day on Saturday? How do you keep the small kids amused?" bother you, well you're going to have to unlearn that. The same law that lets the black hats and Westboro Baptist Church be utterly wrong-headed, also lets us be weird. Yes, we are weird. Yes, that's all right, but please, let's not pretend otherwise.

Eileen H. Kramer -- January 6, 2012

Where I've Been

My life has once again turned unbloggable. This happens from time to time. In this case, I am not in any kind of trouble...yet...and may never be. I am not involved in any legal action. I have not even been particularly sick with anything of note. There is just a lot in my life that I can't discuss in a public forum, and a lot of it went on last month. A lot of ot is still going on this month. But....I have other things about which I can write again. Let the fun begin...

Eileen H. Kramer -- January 6, 2012