"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly

"Why are many Orthodox and Chassidic Jews not nice to other people and/or dishonest in financial affairs?"

Oy, how many times has this one been thrown at me!  Usually the plaint continues:

"My father (or mother, aunt, friend, etc.) is not religious at all, but he is honest, kind, and generous.  So why be observant?"

Since the people referred certainly exist (although they are not really so "many"), the question is understandable, perhaps even justified.  In addition to the many reproaches of such Jews found throughout the words of the prophets, the Talmud [Yoma 86a] bemoans:

If a person reads Scripture and studies Talmud, and then speaks roughly, conducts his business affairs less than honorably, and does not deal in good faith, what do people say of him?  They say: "Woe to him...Woe to his father... Woe to his teacher that taught him Torah.... Look at this person who studied the Torah: how repulsive are his deeds!  How corrupt are his ways!"*
* (Translation from the English edition (J. Reinman) of Menorat HaMeor.)

Are we similarly disillusioned whenever a "respectable" politician is exposed as corrupt?  Probably not.  Our disappointment in these "religious" Jews perhaps indicates our tacit acceptance of the essential goodness of the Torah system.  Nevertheless, your conclusion–"So why be observant?" –is not truly fair because it is not completely logical.

Many Jews seem to feel that a lifestyle based upon the observance of mitzvot is only for people who are already "good" as well as spiritually inclined.  In other words, being religious is a privilege.

This is a serious error.  Torah observance is not designated merely for people who first pass a good character test.  If Jews were all naturally perfect, we might not even have been given mitzvot! The midrash relates to us Moses' response when challenged by the angels as to the right of mortal Jews to receive the Torah from G-d: "Are angels ever tempted to steal?  Do they have a father or mother to honor?"

In fact, the opposite is true.  The Torah was given to us precisely because of our need for inspiration and refinement.  However, the character improvement inherent in doing mitzvot is not instantaneous.  Growth is a function of each individual's sincerity and determination, as well as his natural character.  But the absolute obligation for every Jew to observe mitzvot is equal, no matter how high or low his level.

Beware of misleading syllogisms: comparing a not so strictly honest Black-hatnik with Uncle Phil the saint, or a gossipy Mrs. Rabbi with angelic Aunt Jill, is not an accurate way to measure the efficacy or the validity of the Torah-mitzvah system, nor is it fair to the people involved.  The only valid comparisons are Mr. Black Hat against how rotten he might be if he were not an observant believer, and Aunt Jill versus the person she could become if she accepted her obligation to do mitzvot.

Although a person may be of "flawless" character, there is always room for improvement, especially in terms of quantity of good actions and in doing those good deeds that would not necessarily get accomplished solely by following one's good inclinations.  The hallmark of a righteous Jew is not only that he is good, but that each of his days–his whole life–is filled with actively doing good, both for the benefit of his fellow man and his environment as well as for his Creator.  Let Aunt Jill the angel become Aunt Jill the righteous Jewess!

As for our not so nice, not so rigorously honest Mr. Black Hat, who knows what he would be like if he released himself from his commitment to mitzvot as he understands it!  As is, we can be fairly certain that he is not involved in violent crime, adultery, alcoholism or the like, all of which are behavior syndromes statistically rare among Orthodox Jews. (The Talmud states that King David's basic nature might have led him to be a murderer if not for the divine calling into which he channeled his energies.)

Furthermore, as a religious person who accepts an objective standard of moral behavior, Mr. Black Hat is probably aware that his behavior is not up to par, and perhaps–on Yom Kippur at the very least!–is ashamed of himself and even resolves to do better.  Such improvement is generally easier in a religious framework.

Above all, please realize that he is representative of only a tiny minority in the Orthodox world.  He sticks out precisely because he is so deviant from the norm.

If we should happen to see such a person doing something improper, instead of becoming cynical, let's do an official mitzvah and confront him with it (but only if you can do so privately and gently).  Let's show him that as a fellow-Jew we sincerely care about what he does and that his actions reflect on all the rest of us.  Try to perceive the situation primarily as an opportunity to help someone (or as a test of faith) rather than as a negative experience about which to be judgmental and disillusioned.  This, in turn, will help us remember that every Jew has an amazing potential, and that if we could only manage to learn and be influenced by each other's good qualities, the world would immediately be changed for the better!

Yrachmiel Tilles

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