This is the whole Torah

Torah Tidbits is a regular publication put out by the Orthodox Union Israel Center, and widely distributed throughout the religious communities. It has a mix of Torah relevant articles, with notes on the week’s parsha, candle lighting times, and more. It is quite popular – so much so that for some people, their Shabbat is not complete without a copy to read over Shabbat during the boring bits in shul.

Last week’s issue included an article – Yom Kippur’s Magic Moment¬†– by Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, Dean of Students of the Diaspora Yeshiva, which had a thoughtful piece about introspection and Yom Kippur.

I was struck by the following:

The great tragedy of our generation is that for many people, even on Yom Kippur, there is no longer a feeling of fear or trembling before G-D. Even when we fast and pray we are not bothered by the question of having been created vs not having been created.

You could have a whole discussion on that paragraph alone. For now, let’s accept that – from a religious perspective – fear of G-d is desirable, and that it would be worthy to at least wonder about whether the world would be better off if we had not been created. How does Rabbi Sprecher explain this? He says:

In secular society, there is no longer a feeling of shame and guilt regarding what we do with our lives. Anything goes! We have been degraded by our desires and pleasures.

One way of summarizing his explanation for the lack of fear of G-d is that it is all the fault of secular society. I will admit he seems to include himself in that group by saying “We have been degraded…” but it is possible he is making two separate statements: on the one hand, secular society has lost its shame. On the other, we have all been degraded by pleasure.

What I found particularly offensive was the reference to secular society. Sure, there are parts of secular society that are not a great example. But equally, if not more so, there are parts of religious society that are just as awful. Have there not been orthodox people in positions of leadership and power that have been imprisoned for offenses of dishonesty or corruption or sexual or physical abuse? Did they maintain a sense of shame or guilt?

What about the religious protests against army conscription? Are they a positive example? Even the protests against those who do not keep Shabbat are a disgrace. Since when was it a part of Judaism to behave like that?

On a less serious level, how common is it to see obviously orthodox people behaving badly – driving like lunatics, dropping litter, queue jumping, being rude and aggressive, and so on and so on?

It should be patently obvious that not all orthodox people are bad people. Far from it. I know many who are outstanding examples of good, honest, selfless people. They do not discriminate in their dealings with people based on their religiosity. By the same token, of course, I know many secular people who are also good, honest, and selfless. So, it ill behoves the author to put the blame on secular society. That is wrong. That is offensive.

I would go further. It would do the religious community a power of good if the Rabbinic leadership of the country took a good, long, hard look at themselves, and realized how deficient their behavior is – not only personally, but in setting an example by publicly and prominently denouncing the behavior of religious people where it is lacking. No (so called) religious person should feel it is right to behave badly. They should, indeed, be trembling and in fear of G-d. ¬†They should remember Hillel’s declaration:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.