The Nasty and the Nice

I want to share two stories about the strange priorities of the Orthodox today. One’s nasty, one’s nice.

The nasty one comes from London, where the JTA reports that an Orthodox day school has repeatedly refused admission to the daughter of a convert and teacher in the school. Says the brief, “The office of the chief rabbi, which acts as the school’s religious authority, does not recognize themother’s conversion, which took place more than 20 years ago under the auspices of the same office.” This sorry incident has echoes of the conversion-recognition mess in Israel, where the battle over the legitimacy of even many Orthodox conversions drones on and on–and where the existing bureaucracy is ill-equipped to handle the number of people interested in converting. Regardless, it strikes me that any woman who has converted, is married to an Orthodox Jew and teaches at an Orthodox day school has unassailable Jewish bona fides. Her religious identity, and that of her children, should not be in question. 

The nice one comes from the tarmac at Orlando International Airport. Rabbi Zvi Konikov, a Chabad rabbi from Florida, writes for The (New Jersey) Jewish Standard about his experience organizing a Jewish prayer group during a flight delay on a connecting flight to New York. He needed to organize the group–known as a minyan, which, in the Orthodox understanding, is a quorum of 10 men over the age of 13–to make his Kaddish prayers over his mother’s death official. In the 10 months since his mother died, he had not once missed saying Kaddish for her.

His original plan was to make it to New York in time for an afternoon service at his brother’s Chabad center and then immediately return to JFK airport for a flight to Israel. But after he had boarded the plane in Orlando, the pilot announced a 90-minute delay due to bad weather. It was already 4:15 p.m., which meant he wouldn’t have time to make afternoon services in New York. He says,

What to do? Worried, I thought of a solution. I’ll exit the plane. I’ll miss the flight, I can always rebook, but I can’t miss Kaddish.

“Excuse me,” I asked a stewardess. “I have an important meeting in New York and if I can’t make it in person, I must leave the plane now.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied politely. “We cannot return to the gate. We are on the runway waiting to take off. There are planes ahead and planes in back of us. We cannot move. It’s impossible.” Oh, well. I tried.

Flummoxed, he comes up with a solution:

Suddenly, a crazy thought dawned on me. Maybe there are enough Jews on this flight to make a minyan! It was my only hope.

To find the Jews, he searches for “Jewish faces.” That nets him four Jews.

Out of Jewish faces, he goes from aisle to aisle asking if anyone is Jewish. That brings him to eight.

Then one passenger said that his friend was “half-Jewish.” The rabbi asked him if he was, and he said “No. Not really.” But when it becomes clear that his mother’s mother was Jewish, the rabbi counts him as nine. But that’s it.

So the rabbi calls his brother, a fellow Chabad rabbi in Florida, asking him, as chaplain of the Sheriff’s Department, to see if a police escort can come to the plane to help him.

Then, one of the passengers who earlier said he wasn’t Jewish sheepishly admits that he. “I was just very intimidated. I really am Jewish,” he tells the rabbi.

Success! He has a minyan, which he organizes in the back galley of the plane.

It all makes for a very nice and somewhat inspiring story on the surface, but the story betrays some misplaced priorities. For one, there’s the simple sexiam of only recognizing men towards the quorum. Second, there’s the troubling recognition of a man with no Jewish connections besides his grandmother as Jewish–which implies at the same time that someone who was raised Jewish by a non-Jewish mother is not. Third, that the rabbi would ask his brother to call in favors to the police so that he can maintain a religious ritual he performs every day is nearly absurd. I imagine there will be more important occasions for the rabbi to leverage his influence.

Taken individually, these actions can be dismissed as the curiosities of Orthodox practice. But taken together, they highlight the way in which slavish devotion to ritual and legality has become the obsessive priority of certain quarters of the Orthodox population–at the expense of reason, fairness and perspective. Within the Orthodox community, this means that Jewish children of non-Jewish mothers, converts from other movements and intermarried Jews are considered illegitimate, regardless of their practice of, or enthusiasm for, Judaism.

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2 thoughts on “The Nasty and the Nice

  1. That ‘slavish devotion to ritual and legality’ has made the Orthodox easily the fastest growing branch of Judaism. Some of those legalisms include the prohibition on intermarriage and homosexuality, discouragement of abortion and divorce, and encouragement of natalism.

    The population of Kiryas Yoel is doubling every decade. Not so with communities of the Reform and Conservatives (with the possible exception of retirement communities)

    Here’s a nice secular phrase: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  2. That slavish devotion is why this branch of Judaism is called Orthodox. The school in question is a private school and has the right to deny admission to any student they feel is not up to their standards. If the standards include being an Orthodox Jew so be it. You don’t have to agree with it but respect it. I’m not Jewish but have friends who are Orthodox. They are good people who are shaped by their beliefs. They are not prejudiced but they draw a line at certain things. For them, it works. Good for you Dave for sticking up for what you believe in.

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