A teacher once asked me my opinion on a three-hour lecture series and set of workshops on the subject of tzniut. I was taken aback, surprised that she solicited my thoughts and appeared open to hearing them. I responded carefully, making sure to describe both the strengths and what I thought could be improved in the future. The following day, my teacher pulled me aside and told me she sensed I had been projecting a lot of negativity.
“Hmm,” I wondered, and I grew concerned that I had become “that person.” The person who became embittered by the system, through a negative experience or multitude of events at a climactic point that left them broken, hurt or numb and then left the fold. It’s a valid stance to take but not one I had ever intended to fall into. I questioned my motives—why I had decided to share my critiques with this teacher, rather than give some quick, simple reply implying all that was fine and dandy. I chose to give an honest reply, as I wanted to have the issues at hand addressed directly by those who seemed to want to bring change and improvements. I was growing tired of huddling with friends in hallway corners, complaining about the issues and misguided focus in our school, about the obsession with modesty. We would speak about what we wished to be encouraged to pursue. We wanted to hear from professional women, from career oriented individuals, from people with passions and drives, those who wanted to make a difference and were actively seeking how they could contribute to the world. We were tired of getting marital tips and being told that our aspirations for higher degrees were coming from a place of egotism.
We spoke at great length about the changes we wanted to see implemented. We wanted things to be done differently. We wanted to shifts the focus in our school. The only way to achieve that would be to speak to administrators and teachers who could see to having our comments implemented. We could continue our daily sessions of commiseration, or we could confront the very cause of these matters.
I had responded to the teacher that I simply wished to improve such programming in the future, for the next set of students to be able to get the most of their experience, rather than have a less than positive experience or even a counterintuitive one. After this teacher’s unsolicited and inaccurate mussar, I began to consider the nuances that arise when we do critique methods of teaching or how we present practices of faith. When you critique a system, an ideology or a sociological norm, you are often assumed to be emitting this dark ray of negativity, of bitterness.
It is easier to claim someone is being negative when they speak up. By doing so we automatically invalidate their positions as we assume they are coming from a place burdened in baggage, that they are projecting or have entered with an agenda and therefore are less qualified to speak. By claiming an individual is presenting negative thoughts and feelings about a given topic, we are giving ourselves ae free pass to ignore the individual’s words, choosing to take the simpler path of not deciphering and working through the meanings and potential power in their messages. It is the stronger, more rooted individual who can speak to those of differing views, who can accept critical thinking while maintaining their footing. If someone denounces a certain perspective, it should not threaten your views or toss your entire belief system under the bus. Nor should you take it that way. Their views are separate from yours and hearing them does not invalidate yours or threaten your legitimacy.
In the Orthodox community, there are many topics that were previously considered taboo, but that have transitioned into “hot topics” as members of the community insist on transparency. This has garnered a plethora of articles and a wide circulation of social media posts and links across all social media platforms. Sometimes these topics are completely ignored, sometimes they are ignored in one sect of Judaism but not in others. And sometimes, these topics remain in the top read links, gaining traction and much increased discussion. But the trending topics are not enough. When we hit “publish,” we hope essays and exposés will bring a needed discussion to the table, facilitating communication and an exchange of thoughts. Along with this, individuals must be speaking up and meeting with community leaders. When this happens, they have to be heard, not pushed aside for being that journalist, that critical thinker, that philosophy major. Being receptive to criticism earns us much needed credibility. We are a diverse nation, with traditions and values. Individuals within may choose to follow these practices and customs to whatever degree they choose. Sure, some laws can be interpreted differently, some are more rigid. Regardless of one’s personal take, we need to maintain an open discussion. Addressing problems does not invalidate our mission, our life paths, we should not feel threatened to confront these issues. Confrontation does not make the traditions less valuable. We are not less religious when we pronounce a problem or issue; rather we are showing we care enough to make some noise and have it worked out.
All parties involved in this can alter elements of their work. For those who seek to voice critique, are you able to speak about the positive qualities as well? Are you blinded by the excitement of getting the newest slanderous subject matter out there? Or are you trying to address a certain subject that has been overlooked or not addressed in the past? Perhaps it is a subject matter that you feel you have a different take on and would like to share. The tone of voice impacts how the message can be understood; those who choose the patronizing or condescending route just make it harder for those are trying to achieve this fine balancing act. And, even if you are grounded and respectful, you may still find your views rejected; a rejection which hurts all parties. When one party chooses to speak up despite the resistance they might meet, the sentiments imparted must be heard as they could highlight issues which have not been addressed or have been ignored for some time.
The strongest influencers of a system are those who can acknowledge the issues and work to change them. We don’t need any more inflammatory articles in the Jewish community. But those who address real problems are often shut down for finding a battle to fight, despite the fact that they could be writing on a critically important subject. We need critics within the system to speak up and be received well. When we deny these voices or the validity of their words, when we dismiss their words as simply negativity, we lose the opportunity to fix the issues they may have been attempting to highlight. Perhaps they don’t do it in the best of fashions, a little more tact, perhaps less bitterness. But shouldn’t we wonder why they may be so bitter? Their critique may be driven by emotional strains or traumatic experiences, and that means we should be asking why we are cultivating this norm, why so many have had such negative experiences that have encouraged them to seek other paths. It is not the fault of the individual, nor the system, per se. But it is something that should be openly discussed. Shutting such subjects out for being taboo or too risky for our children and the Mesorah is merely a manifestation of the fears, a clouded judgement call which validates perpetuating the contested status quo. We should be discussing everything: fearing one issue might open people’s eyes to a new field of study or introspection is not reason to ignore pressing matters. Our entire history is one of confrontation! We do much in the name of fear, swiftly calling matters, or even individuals, sacrilegious or heretical, rather than confronting them and speaking about them directly. Or worse, we give some apologetic response: that nothing can be done, “It’s simply the way it is.”