Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 13th Iyyar 5775, May 2nd, 2015
Be holy, we are told, because I your God am holy. And immediately we are thrown into a whirlwind of commandments which reiterate some of the Ten Commandments, and include a list of social and moral imperatives to uphold so that we are just that – holy.
Interestingly, this concept of being holy does not mean entombing ourselves in a box of mitzvoth where no one else can disturb us. That’s too easy. Instead, we are indirectly instructed to mingle with others, and there to maintain proper standards of morality and good behavior.
A week or two ago an article appeared in the New York Times about the growing stridency of ultra orthodox air travelers who insist that the women they were assigned to sit next to on the planes be moved so that they do not, heaven forfend, violate the law of touching a woman. This is nothing new to us. We have seen women sent to the back of the bus, separate buses for men and women, separate sidewalks. I am waiting for special air canisters so that men and women can breathe separate air.
In a blog that appeared in the Forward, a writer, J.E. Reich (a woman I think) explains the airplane phenomenon. First she cites the great modern posek Moshe Feinstein who said that there was nothing wrong with sitting next to a woman on a train or bus if there was no intention of gaining “pleasure” from being adjacent to her. So the whole question is a spin.
The behavior of this group of ultra-orthodox, Reich asserts, is only a symptom. The root illness is a fear of loss of power. When crass secularism began to gain popularity under the banner of freedom of self-expression, especially in the 1960s, the insular Jewish world responded with stronger fences to protect themselves. No television, no secular newspapers, etc. As the stakes rose and the attacks, as the religious perceived them, increased, so did their backlash, taking them to even greater extremes.
In her column Reich quotes psychologist Gail Bendheim:
In a relationship based on fear, there are only two possibilities — submission or domination. Submission to the ultimate will of God may be a positive religious stance; however, to be overly fearful has an ominous flip side, which is to be rigidly authoritarian. When the community becomes vulnerable, especially at its edges, where there is less stability, the situation we are now witnessing is the result. Hence this powerful fringe group, driven by fear of modern society, rigidity and ignorance, and unable to process any aspect of the world that doesn’t conform to its fantasy of the perfect life.
Today, the religious Jewish world is under attack on many fronts that were considered “safe” 30 years ago. The place of the woman, for example. Today’s feminist movement has made inroads into the orthodox Jewish world and to some small extent even into the ultra-orthodox world. Think of the Women of the Kotel reading from a Torah at the Wall! This is a red flag waving in the face of the male. Is his home no longer his fortress? Does he not have control over his wife, his chattel anymore? (Of course I am generalizing, and there are many who treat their wives with great respect and freedom.)
And so we see the backlash. The demand that women sit in the rear of the bus. That they walk on the other side of the street. That they not be allowed to sit next to a man on an airplane. And their rationale, their explanation – modesty. How can you object to modesty? You can’t, without seeming immodest yourself.
Before I return to the parsha, I just want to quote something a good friend, a modern liberal orthodox rabbi (a relic of an almost extinct species), told me years ago. He said, The minute an issue makes it onto the national agenda, they have lost the battle. It will take time, but it is lost. Who remembers the demonstrations in Petach Tikva against Friday night movies? Today, almost every city screens movies on Friday night. The battle was lost as soon as it began. The same is true about women and their rights. It will take longer and the results will not be so unequivocal, but the women will, except among the most extreme diehards, win.
And what has all this extremism to do with Be Holy, the command in today’s parsha? Almost nothing. If anything this attitude runs counter to what the Torah wants to teach us. Even recognizing that the Torah and the Torah world is a patriarchal stronghold where women can’t get a fair shake in many things, the mitzvoth are clear. You have to treat people fairly. You cannot go around insulting and cheating and beating people who are in weaker positions. You have to uphold morality regardless of religion, and you should uphold religion as a means of achieving the morality that creates a world most people would love to see (all except those who make their fortunes by suckering other people).
We started our reading today with Yom Kippur, which is intended to cleanse us of both shame and guilt so that we can start the new year afresh. And then we received a bunch of mitzvoth which tell us how to remain fresh throughout the year.
It isn’t so hard for most of us to observe these commandments. “Love your brother as yourself.” Just think how you would want others to treat you and you know how you should act. But there are always those looking for more. In good scenarios they become the innovators who bring new inventions and new dimensions to the world. In bad scenarios they become the examples of what not to do and not to be.