Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Miner’s Tragedy and the Narrowing of the Orthodox Mind

The dual tragedies of the Sago mine explosion and the Alma mine fire, which left 14 dead, had a powerful impact on public opinion. Immediately after these disasters, there were calls for reexamining mining procedures, and finding new ways to upgrade mine safety.

As could be expected, Jewish organizations stayed silent. Mine safety is not considered a “Jewish” issue. This parochialism is perhaps forgivable in secular Jewish organizations whose entire purpose is to protect specifically Jewish interests. However, I find it disturbing that religious organizations, particularly from my own community, the Orthodox community, have not spoken up. Their mission is to articulate an Orthodox voice on matters of religious importance. And mine safety is an important religious issue.

Safety is a religious obligation. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated to prevent people from falling off it. The Talmud understands this commandment as a general directive to remove any safety hazard. The late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, included in this commandment the employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety, and the late leader of the Edah Hacharedit, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Weiss, saw this commandment as an injunction against reckless driving. If all forms of safety are a religious concern, why are Orthodox Jews silent about mine safety?

Regrettably, the silence on mine safety can be traced to a false dichotomy between the ethical and the ritual held by some in the Orthodox community. They see ritual requirements, such as the kosher laws and the Sabbath, as “true” Judaism, and underemphasize Judaism’s ethical and humane requirements. This is why it’s not unusual for Orthodox Jews to be extremely punctilious about ritual commandments, and at the same time smoke like chimneys and drive like maniacs. In particular, we ignore what Rabbi Walter Wurzberger called “an ethic of responsibility", for committed Jews to take responsibility for the world politically, ethically, economically. Even worse, basic interpersonal ethics are at times ignored. Indeed, all too often, we are treated to the sad scene of Jews walking out of criminal court proudly displaying knitted kippahs and fur shtreimels and black fedoras. They remember God, they just forget His ethical commandments.

This false dichotomy between the ethical and ritual is not new. Amos and Isaiah react to unethical people who want to buy God’s favor by performing the ritual of sacrifices. The prophets denounce this hypocrisy, and explain that God despises the sacrifices of unethical people, and ask man to “learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow”.

While the ritual commandments play an indispensible role in Judaism, it is important to recognize that ritual is a double edged sword. On the one hand, ritual can create true piety by intensifying man’s relationship with God, and reinforcing man’s moral integrity. On the other hand, ritual can disintegrate into superstition, with rituals becoming a magical way to call down God’s blessing, wholly disconnected from issues of character and morality.

In contemporary society, there is a new phenomenon behind this false dichotomy. Orthodox Jews are often seen as exotic figures straight out of the movies. We look different, eat different foods, and have different holidays. In a recent interview with a Quebec magazine, the reporter asked me why Orthodox Jews wear kippot, what is an eruv, and why we eat in the sukkah. What interested him most were the “unusual” things Orthodox Jews do. To many outsiders, Judaism is about the things that make us mysterious and different.

Unfortunately, we have internalized the Hollywood view of Judaism. Because we are obviously different than the rest of society, we imagine the primary purpose of Judaism is simply to be different. This is why mundane topics like safety and ethics are neglected; after all, being ethical isn’t all that exotic.

Even influential Jewish thinkers are vulnerable to this misconception. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, an important Orthodox writer argued:“…if Judaism was merely a good-deeds religion there would be nothing to differentiate us from many secularists and people of other faiths…… this is not what Judaism is primarily about. Our religion is about Torah and mitzvot, about obedience and limitations….”. Sadly, this writer unwittingly provides the recipe for a narrow Judaism more interested in being different than in being good.

Of course, as both Rabbi Akiva and Hillel emphasize, ethics are the foundation of Judaism. Yet this emphasis does not devalue the Torah’s rituals. On the contrary, combined with ethics, these rituals become part of a powerful, meaningful whole. Judaism is not about being exotic, it's about being holy. Defining Judaism solely by being different puts us in danger of becoming caricatures of ourselves.

Indeed, many great Rabbis hold a much broader view of Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was once asked what position he would seek if he was asked to join the Israeli cabinet. He explained he would want to be minister of Health, because Halacha demands one be more stringent about health than any other religious requirement. The late Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, saw treating other human beings with great compassion as his legacy, and made it his life’s work to open a hospital in the city of Netanya. To these Rabbis, safety and ethics were not at all secular concerns.

Safety is a religious issue, and there is a Jewish view on the mining disasters. Thinking otherwise produces a movie set Judaism that is both narrow minded and empty.

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