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July 21, 2017 1:29 pm

Rabbi Uses Stereotype to Malign Orthodoxy in the Washington Post

avatar by Shmuley Boteach


The old Washington Post building in Washington, DC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I have long argued that the Jewish community has allowed itself to be treated in ways that other communities wouldn’t tolerate.

Far too often, we fail to push back against the tide of unfair behavior aimed at us — a tide that rolls in from so many directions, it can be overwhelming. Most often, the target is the State of Israel which is subject to a regular onslaught of unfair and biased coverage in the social, political and media spheres.

Israel, for example, is constantly held not just to a higher standard, but an impossible one. I need only remind you of Israel’s recent wars in Gaza, where the Jewish state was admonished for providing basic security for its citizens while Hamas was given a pass for initiating the conflict, repeatedly violating ceasefires and targeting Israeli civilians while using their own people as human shields.

Critics of the Jewish state will also harp on singular sins on the part of an Israeli individual — such as the despicable, abominable deadly arson of a Palestinian home a few years ago — and claim that they are endemic to Israelis and Jews. In reality, the Israeli government and all Jews condemn these acts.

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There is no dispute that drawing upon one particular case to stereotype a whole people is both unethical and logically groundless. Yet the practice continues.

The latest example of such stereotyping appeared, of all places, in the Washington Post and was written by a rabbi.

In an article protesting the Israeli Rabbinate’s decision to reject decisions made by 160 American rabbis, Rabbi Gil Steinlauf — who was on that list of 160 — launched an attack against not just the Rabbinate, but Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community as a whole.

For the record, I am against the blacklist. It’s a big mistake. But Rabbi Steinlauf makes things worse by launching a general attack against the ultra-Orthodox that uses harmful stereotypes.

Alarmingly, he based much of his polemic on a single experience that he had at a Shabbat lunch when he was 19. By “much,” I mean nearly half of his 1,200 word article.

Written in memoir-level detail, Rabbi Steinlauf’s decades-old episode centers on the time that he was invited into a small apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem for a Sabbath meal, where he hoped to catch a glimpse of the “sweet, haimishe world” of his ancestors.

What he got, however, was far from haimish. The ultra-Orthodox man who’d invited him in went on a screed about how the Jews deserved the Holocaust for such sins as not keeping kosher, desecrating the Sabbath or even for their failure to regularly check their mezuzot. Rabbi Steinlauf was shocked at what he heard.

In his article, he says that this incident was when he discovered that the ultra-Orthodox world is “predicated on a fearful worldview that treated everything — even our fellow Jewish people — with the deepest mistrust.” If you think that’s quite a vast judgement to draw from a compact, singular experience, you’re right. It’s what we call a stereotype.

I have no problem with Steinlauf challenging Israel’s Rabbinate. And I obviously agree that the ideas espoused by the man who hosted Rabbi Steinlauf at his home were disgusting and abhorrent.

What I fail to see, however, is the connection between the two.

Whatever Rabbi Steinlauf heard that day was a fanatical, fringe opinion that in no way represents the Orthodox community. It is an opinion held by the most discredited extremists and deserves no mention in an op-ed on Israel’s Rabbinate, certainly not in one published in as prestigious a place as the Washington Post.

If Gil Steinlauf wants to try and influence Israeli policy, he can. But to bring up the singular story of a crackpot in Jerusalem and use it to draw  conclusions about an entire community is stereotyping, pure and simple. The Jewish community, as a whole, ought to repel it.

After all, if someone were to criticize the American-Islamic community based solely on the acts of the Boston Marathon bomber, they’d be rightly called an Islamophobe. If I were to direct this article about Steinlauf’s piece against the Conservative movement as a whole, I’d be harshly accused of generalizing, too.

The fact is that no other community would tolerate this type of unfair and unjust logic, and certainly not one that has suffered from generalizations for so much of its history. Jews of all denominations ought to demand from those within our community the same fair treatment that we demand from those outside of it.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is founder of the World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 30 books, including Kosher Sex and Kosher Lust. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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