Eric Sholom Simon
I was praying in shul late one evening when a beeping sound came from the Chassidic-garbed gentleman next to me. Seconds later, a similar sound emanated from my own shirt pocket.
We both chuckled as we realized what was happening. Each of us has a Palm Pilot, and a program that reminds us to "count the Omer," a Jewish ritual that mandates a blessing and the noting of the advent of each day of the period between the second day of Passover and Shavuot - during which time our ancestors spiritually developed to a point where they were ready to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Ideally, the counting is done after nightfall, and each year we endeavor to emulate our ancestors' spiritual growth.
As I chuckled at the simultaneous sounding of alarms, however, I was reminded of the stereotypes held by many Jews about "ultra-Orthodox" or haredi, Jews. "Stuck in the 16th century" is a refrain I often hear. But a quick perusal of the internet will show that the lion's share of the Torah commentary on the Web is from the Orthodox, much of it from haredi Jews. Knowledgeable Jewish techies, moreover, know that the Orthodox were all over the internet even before the Web browser was invented.
"No," critics will protest, "We mean that they are stuck in the 16th century regarding Jewish law." But they are wrong there too. It is true that Jewish religious law, or halacha, in Orthodox eyes, does not change simply because of society's whims or contemporary mores. But it does develop and evolve, in order to meet the particular challenges of every age. The famous 16th-century "Code of Jewish Law" or "Shulchan Arukh," was essentially a digest of earlier works, including those of Maimonides and others, themselves based on the Talmud and Oral Tradition. The process of applying halacha to new circumstances continues today as well. And, indeed, most of us who consult a code of Jewish law use a more recent compilation.
Still, some will protest, why must traditional Jews follow laws written by the proverbial "dead white men?" Interestingly enough, most of the protesters are not similarly disturbed by American courts' respect for the U.S. Constitution, written by men considerably less racially diverse than the Jewish sages of centuries past (whose geographical backdrop runs from Muslim Spain to North Africa to Europe to what are today Iran and Iraq).
I find it particularly ironic that what seems to particularly rankle some about haredi fealty to halacha is what the rankled see as traditional Judaism's "medieval" world-view with regard to women.
They have a point. Traditional Judaism flouts modern society's take on that topic. A quick look at any magazine rack - where the covers of both men's and women's magazines are festooned with scantily clad women - is proof enough of how the contemporary world treats women: as sex-objects. And if that evidence doesn't suffice, one need only wonder why television commercials and print advertisements employ women's bodies to sell most everything from beer to cars, or why Britney Spears dresses (so to speak) as she does.
Traditional Judaism treats women with more respect than that - indeed, it forbids men to leer at them, and commands husbands to respect their wives more than themselves.
As parents, my own wife and I read with interest a recent American Academy of Pediatrics report identifying our children's TV habits as a national health hazard. Television, the Academy concluded, contributes to kids' obesity and serves them an unhealthy portion of murder, consequence-free sex and commercial messages every year. I have read as well of the tremendous peer pressure faced by children to engage in sex, drinking and drugs. And of young girls wanting to "dress like Britney." And of cruel teen cliques and gangs, sometimes leading to Columbine-style violence. And, recently, a piece by a parent who, overwhelmed by the hectic pace of contemporary life, suggested that families set aside one night per week for a nice, quiet, uninterrupted and sacrosanct dinner together. She concluded that it could never happen. Their lives were simply part of modern society moving at light speed.
But a family dinner with no interruptions or competing activities does happen in my family and countless other traditional Jewish ones. And an elaborate lunch the very next day. Every single week. And I endeavor to protect my children from our modern societal notion that women are mere sex objects.
And so it occurs to me to suggest that it's not that I, my Palm-Pilot-toting Chassidic neighbor and other Orthodox Jews are trapped in the 16th century. It's that most everyone else is trapped in the 21st.
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Eric Sholom Simon, a Research Analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is a former member of the Executive Committee of the UAHC Commission on Synagogue Affiliation. He and his wife are currently active in Jewish outreach and educational activities in Northern Virginia, where he studies and teaches Talmud and Jewish thought.