Many years ago before my wife and I married, I met a woman who made a striking and memorable comment on a date. She mentioned how she enjoyed visiting the beach in the summer. She noted that she was fully dressed and that her presence at a beach did not pose the halachic problems faced by males.
I asked her if she found herself out of place or even embarrassed that everyone is dressed in swimwear and that she is fully dressed. Her response resonates until this day. She remarked, “I do not act abnormally by remaining fully clothed even at a beach. Those in swimwear are acting in an abnormal fashion for the manner in which they appear in the presence of members of the opposite gender.”
Although we parted our separate ways after a few dates, nonetheless I find myself repeating her words fairly often. I believe it cuts to the core of our heritage as the children of Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu.
How do we Jews retain our fidelity to Torah, despite its running counter to the prevailing majority culture? The answer is that Avraham and Sarah set the model of having the courage to follow the truth despite the fact that everyone else acts and believes otherwise.
Avraham is described in the Torah as “Ivri.” Chazal interpret this as teaching that Avraham was willing to stand on one side (ever) of the river while the rest of the world stood on the other bank. Avraham and Sarah had the courage to say that idol worship is abnormal despite the fact that everyone else was devoted to it. In retrospect, of course, we recognize that Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imeinu were the ones who acted reasonably by rejecting the worship of stone and wood creations as gods. However, we should never overlook the great courage required of our ancestors to forge their own path in complete disregard of the prevailing cultural winds.
She continued to explain that it is abnormal for a woman to expose herself at a beach. How could these women forego their dignity and self-respect, she asked.
I felt and continue to feel that hers is neither an arrogant stance nor a self-righteous or self-aggrandizing statement. It is simply a healthy-minded and highly reasonable evaluation of a very negative phenomenon in the current society.
I believe that this woman’s attitude is one that should be fostered in the Modern Orthodox community. Since we do not segregate ourselves from the broader community, it is important that we communicate to the next generations to view the outside world in a critical manner through the lens of Torah.
We need not be ashamed to teach youngsters that the use of foul language, so sadly pervasive in the surrounding culture, is degrading. We need not be embarrassed at the restraint with which we exercise regarding our indulgence in worldly pleasures.
The reality is that even Modern Orthodox Jews are under an implicit and sometimes explicit cultural assault. Two years ago on a return flight from Charleston where I was helping the rabbanim with their eruvin, a woman asked me why I did not eat the cookie offered by the stewardess. I explained very briefly that I am Jewish and observe kashrut laws. The woman then proceeded in a stage whisper to tell her neighbor about how odd she found my behavior. Interestingly, had I said that I am on a diet or diabetic, it is highly unlikely that I would have encountered such a rude reaction.
In the prevailing environment, we must retain a healthy sense of self-confidence that the Torah sets us on a healthy lifestyle that promotes our best long-term interest. I had the pleasure of sharing a Shabbat lunch with a TABC graduate and his growing family a few weeks ago. His wife recounted that when she worked as a nurse in the Bay Area her workmates included one woman who while nine months pregnant was unfaithful to her husband and subsequently moved in with the man with whom she betrayed her child’s father. The other women in the office lived an assortment of alternative lifestyles, all of which were happily tolerated.
Yet despite all this, when the Orthodox woman declined to partake in some birthday cake due to her observance of kashrut, the woman who left her husband remarked: “Oh yes, every once in a while I forget that you are not normal.” The Orthodox woman observed that the women in the office lived every imaginable alternative lifestyle, and yet they refer to the Orthodox woman as “abnormal” due to her exercising restraint regarding the food she consumes.
Every generation of Jews faces the challenge to buck the cultural trends of the day. Our generation is no different. Our mission is to instill within ourselves and the next generation the confidence and security to remain on the path that Hashem promises is the best possible lifestyle that reaps rich benefits both in this and the next world.
By the way, the woman who visited the beach reintroduced herself and her husband to me and my wife two years ago at a wedding. She succeeded in raising a family of Torah-observant Jews and is blessed with a growing brood of grandchildren. I was hardly surprised to hear this. She clearly succeeded in transmitting her faith in Torah and how it serves our best interests.
May we follow the example of these two wise Orthodox women who refuse to cower in the face of cultural adversity. May we all derive the strength from Hashem to remain strong and steadfast to have the courage to think and act differently from the rest of the ambient society. We are so proud of our ancestors’ courageous rejection of idolatry. Let us make our descendents look back and be proud of us for our stepping to the plate and following in the courageous example set by Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu!
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.