The month of Av got off to an unpleasant start last week with a petition circulating online to “Protect the Quality of Our Community in Mahwah,” a New Jersey town, barely 15 miles from my home in Bergenfield. The petition calls on the local electric company to “remove all eruvs from our Township and revoke all permissions for future installations.” An eruv, the petition explains, is “used by the Hasidic sect,” and its removal is “in order to prevent further illegal incursions into our community.” (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/997/206/122/protect-the-quality-of-our-community-in-mahwah/)
Many signers of the petition did not hold back their feelings or couch them in politically correct terms, and, as an American, I found many of the comments unsettling. But as a Jew, I found them downright insulting and frightening. Never before have I actually felt the sting of anti-Semitism so up-close and personal. I was disgusted and depressed.
A few days after the petition appeared, I attended Mahwah’s monthly Township Council meeting. Wearing my yarmulke, I approached the town hall building with some trepidation, but once inside I never felt threatened. The townspeople made some fair points, painted some unflattering pictures, and raised some issues that I’m not really sure anyone can do much about. At the end of the day, they don’t want to see the fabric of their community torn—and one can’t blame them. But keeping Orthodox Jews out by dismantling an eruv is unacceptable. What to do?
Three points come to mind.
One: In discussing this with friends and reading about it online, I have repeatedly heard the classic phrase, “Halacha hi be’yadua she’Esav sonei l’Yaakov.” This is an excuse I often hear—since the goyim all hate us anyway, what difference does it make what we do? Why should we have any regard for their opinions or feelings?
But “Esav sonei l’Yaakov” is not the final word on the subject. The Maharal, in his commentary to the Haggadah (Gevurot Hashem), discusses two types of anti-Semitism: that which is irrational, for no reason whatsoever, and that for which there is a reason. While it is true that sometimes “they hate us anyway,” it is equally true that sometimes they hate us due to our less-than-stellar behavior. Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin writes that our behavior very much influences how the non-Jewish world sees us and treats us (Teshuvot Ivra 116).
And even if they do hate us, we must behave as proper Torah Jews, regardless. Which brings me to:
Two: We cannot behave like Jews when it suits us and like Americans when it suits us. It is the cynical Jew who strives to be a lamdan in order to be moreh heter when it comes to gezel akum and dina d’malchusa dina, and then, at the drop of a (black) hat, suddenly turns into a constitutional lawyer, debating the finer points of the First Amendment.
Recall the words of Eliyahu Hanavi, “Ad matai atem poschim al shetei hase’ifim—How long will you hop between two opinions?” (Melachim Aleph 18:21).
The United States Constitution is about rights. The Torah is about obligations. Jews should be speaking the language of obligations and responsibilities, not rights. This does not mean that we can never assert ourselves when necessary. But it does mean that when we do, we do so as gentlemen and with humility. It also means that if we’re going to be sticklers for the rules, then we must obey all the rules.
If we assert our constitutional right to build a shul, school or mikvah, we cannot then proceed to ignore zoning laws and building codes.
If we assert the Constitutional right of our children to play in the park of a neighboring town, then it goes without saying we must follow the rules of the park—which may close at a certain time, or require permits for large groups. Also, we need to be meticulous about cleaning up after ourselves. Which brings me to:
Three: There is no vacation from—and no excuse for—chillul Hashem. If we, as Jews, wish to hold ourselves in higher esteem, then we must also hold ourselves to higher standards. Kiddush Hashem must be the goal.
An officer of a local shul told me that the shul regularly solicits the opinion of a non-Jewish neighbor and is extremely mindful of her feelings. When she felt the shul’s property wasn’t being cared for properly, they cleaned it up immediately. When parking on the street became an issue, they addressed it. The shul is careful to remind its members to avoid congregating in the middle of the street after davening and to walk home quietly on nights when the tefillot run late.
This lifnim mishurat hadin approach should be standard.
There’s a lot of “small stuff” that can be added to the list: watching how we drive on local streets and highways (those bumper magnets of ours, advertising our yeshivot and camps, are yarmulkes for minivans); saying hello to our neighbors on our way to shul while they’re out working on their lawns or trucks; contributing to local organizations, not just Jewish ones.
If we can improve our behavior, it will go a long way to improving relations with our neighbors and the larger world around us. Then the eruv, which is meant to unify, will not be so divisive.
By Srully Epstein
Srully Epstein, a financial adviser, lives in Bergenfield, New Jersey.