It was a recent Friday night in the Heights when, in the middle of a neutral conversation, someone suddenly slipped a derogatory aside about the ultra-Orthodox. I was sitting across from her at the Shabbat table, involved in the stimulating discussion until this point. Immediately, a round of giggles and titters rippled from the other members of the group. I, meanwhile, cringed.
It doesn’t matter what the off-taste comment in question was. Unfortunately, by now I’ve heard too many disapproving remarks and critical mutterings about the haredi community to count, and not just from my fellow peers and acquaintances. Once, at a YU event, a very prominent speaker made a negative joke about how Yeshivish teens marry so early. The satirical comment confused me. Would he be as critical of people who get married later in their 30s? Or those who decide never to marry at all? Just because people choose different paths than ours—whether these decisions are further to the right or to the left—who are we to judge?
Many of my fellow college students are quick to voice their acceptance of their LGBT friends, but they turn up their noses and frown slightly when they speak of a Hasid. They dare not find anything offensive about couples who have one child, but will roll their eyes and smirk silently when they see a family of eleven at an amusement park. They laugh agreeably and talk freely in the presence of those who throw out curse words, or admire those who converse in professional jargon, but will poke fun at those who use Yeshivish lingo. They will be the first to volunteer in soup kitchens, drop coins into the outstretched palms of subway musicians, or romanticize the ascetic lives of Bohemian artists, but will grumble (or declare loudly) about the need for Kollel bachurim to “get a job.”
Why are we hesitant to pronounce judgment on those so incredibly different than us, but cannot do the same for our own? We are oh-so-ready to sympathetically stand behind so many diverse cultures and causes of mankind, yet this same respectful acceptance somehow disappears when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox.
Why the intolerance? Why the negativity? And, though one may offer several theories, the ultimate question is: how to cure this seeming imbalance of acceptance?
I am not arguing for a less tolerant attitude to those less observant. It is not my place to judge those who choose to maintain a less rigidly religious lifestyle. But it also is not my place, or our place, to judge those who choose to maintain a more stringent practice, either.
I have friends who are completely unaffiliated with Judaism, and that’s okay. I have relatives who are more laid back in traditional observance—not a problem.
But I also have friends who wear thick stockings every day, and pleated skirts that hit mid-calf, and who pin back their long-sleeved blouses to ensure their collarbones are hidden—and that’s okay, too. One of my best friends married a 22-year-old full-time yeshiva bachur as soon as she returned from seminary, and of course I was happy for her.
The Modern Orthodox community is proud to promote its tolerance and open-mindedness, yet they sometimes seem to be respectful and broad-minded about everyone except for “them.” We are careful never to let slip a racist joke against ethnic minorities, and we strive towards political correctness. We run to defend all sorts of people who do not conform to our own culture. So why are we so intolerant and less accepting (and yes, irritated at times) toward the sects that choose a more right-wing philosophy than ours? If we consider ourselves “open-minded,” and pride ourselves upon it, it seems hypocritical and contradictory to condemn or attack that lifestyle, too.
If we extend the hand of acceptance to so many radically different demographics in the world, shouldn’t we, all the more so, make an effort to embrace a community so near our own?
The Jewish community is already such a tiny group relative to the outside world. Instead of isolating and dividing ourselves further, let’s focus on unifying and bringing our people together.
Thanks to Avital Chizhik and Rabbi Avi Shafran for contributing their thoughts to this article.