2007-08-10 / Editorial/Opinion

From the Editor's Desk

(More People Have Died In The Name Of Religion Issue)
Commentary By Howard Schwach

More people have died in the name of religion than anything else throughout history. You don't believe that is true? Take a look at the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Holocaust, the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East, the long-standing Irish "problems," Kosovo, the ongoing war between Sunni and Shia over who has the right to rule Muslims, and any number of little wars in Africa. Now, tell me that religion is a benign factor in human life.

A few months ago, I was in Cedarhurst early in the morning to shop at the bookstore (how I wish there was a bookstore in Rockaway). When I got there, the Nassau cops had a few cars in front of the store. I went in. One of the young clerks was from Far Rockaway and knew me from previous visits. She told me that they found a note on the door that warned them that the store would be destroyed by fire if they continued to open on Saturdays. The note was unsigned, but the store manager at the time told me that they had lots of problems with the Orthodox Jewish community that has all but taken over the shopping areas in Lawrence and Cedarhurst.

A few days later, my wife and I were in the Carvel a few doors away from the bookstore (this was prior to my diet, when I could enjoy a Brown Bonnet). There was an Orthodox man arguing with the Asian owner of the store, telling him that he needed a certificate from the local Orthodox Rabbi if he wanted to stay in business. The owner pointed to a framed document on the wall and told the man he already had a Kosher Certificate. The man told him that it wasn't good enough and that if he didn't pay for one from the local rabbi, nobody from the community would ever again come into his store.

Three weeks later, the store was closed. In my mind, that was worthy of the Mafia and the shakedown antics of the Chinatown gangs.

What brings this to mind is a recent long piece in the New York Times Magazine called, "The Orthodox Paradox," by a "Modern Orthodox" man named Noah Feldman.

Feldman, who is a law professor at Harvard University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells of the Yeshiva Day School he attended for 12 years and its tenth reunion.

Feldman says that he was photographed with his fellow alumni and their wives, but when the picture was published, he and his girlfriend had been cropped out of the photo. Why? Because his girlfriend (now his wife) was Asian and the mantra of the modern Orthodox school he attended (and, of the religion as a whole) was "no marriage outside the religion."

Feldman says that the goal of modern Orthodoxy is to "normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law - to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world."

In a modern society, however, people understand that others have differing viewpoints, and that religion should not drive secular affairs such as how an ice cream shop does its business and whether or not a bookstore is open on Saturday in contravention of Orthodox Jewish teachings.

There are many people who believe that the influx of Orthodox to the Five Towns has ruined it for the rest of the population. A great number of the stores and restaurants have been taken over by Orthodox owners. They are closed from early Friday night to Sunday. That community has tried, as with the bookstore, to force those not owned by them to close as well.

To my mind, that is not being a good neighbor. In Bayswater, the Satmar community is taking over, buying property and converting many of the large homes into synagogues. Granted, the Satmar are Hasidic and not considered modern Orthodox, but they are simply a more extreme brand of orthodoxy.

Since the Orthodox have their own schools, their own stores, their own courts, their own community groups, their own newspapers, their proliferation leads to a separation that is untenable in a modern world.

To get a glimpse of what I'm talking about, read the Times piece.

Since no work is allowed on the Sabbath, even the carrying of money or turning on an electric light, the word "work" had to be defined over generations of thinking and writing.

Saving a life is allowed on the Sabbath, because life trumps the Torah. Turns out, however, that saving only a Jewish life is allowed, not saving a non-Jewish life unless saving that life somehow led to better relations between Jews and non-Jews.

That is what we are talking about.

Now, you can call me an atheist (although I do believe in a God, although not in organized religion) or a Secular Humanist (the worst thing in the world in the view of religious zealots), but I think that I am levelheaded, worried about the impact of religion on my life and the health of my community. I simply cannot understand why any religion would be so egotistic that it would demand that people of other faiths (or not faith at all) should live by its tenets.

I read recently that the Pope said that we cannot be saved, cannot go to heaven if we don't accept Jesus as our savior. Orthodox Jews tell us that we can't shop on Saturday because they don't believe in it. Then, they make up rules, such as the use of an Eruv, to get around their own rules when it suits their fancy. An Eruv, by the way, is a wire set up high around a particular area that allows for the fiction that people within that wire are at home and can do some things they might otherwise not be able to do.

I understand that there is a demand that the Orthodox be given their own time slots at the pool being built as part of Arverne By The Sea, under the theory that men and women from that community cannot mix and that Orthodox youth may not mix with non- Orthodox youth at any time.

Is that what we want our community facility to become?

I once taught part-time at an Orthodox girl's school in Brooklyn.

The Rabbi told me that I could not teach about the Crusades because they were not a "matter for Jews." I couldn't teach about meiosis (the determination that is made when sperm meets egg) because that is "a dirty lesson." The textbook we used had a photo of a priest holding up a cross over the Niagara Falls. That page was ripped from the textbooks. The math teacher was warned not to use a cross as a plus sign, to make sure that the lines crossed right in the middle.

I could go on and on.

I fail to understand how the religious fundamentalism of the Orthodox community discussed above is much different from the fundamentalism of the Christian community that wants us to teach creationism in the schools and fights the use of stem cells when it is clear that their use can save untold lives down the line.

Or, the Muslim fundamentalists that beat people because they go into a bar, wear "seductive" clothing or watch an American movie.

Feldman's New York Times piece drew so many letters that an entire page of those letters ran in last week's paper, an unusual occurrence for a paper that gets hundreds of letters on each of its major stories. Very seldom does one story get an entire page of letters.

One rabbi, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, wrote, "It was Feldman's choice to send as clear a signal as he could, through his marriage, that he was rejecting fundamental principles of the community. His expression of surprise at the reaction of the community's institutions, including his alma mater, where he was taught these principles, strains credulity... Feldman's own life seems to be a testament as to what can happen, in the worst case, when one loses this balanced view of Jewish life, losing the balance between engaging with modern culture and a core commitment to Orthodox traditions, which so many others continue to maintain with dignity and much fulfillment."

This question is not one that is simply academic or global in scope. This question could easily overtake Rockaway as it has the Five Towns area.

I know that it was an aberration, but I once rode through West Lawrence (once called Far Rockaway) during the Sabbath on a story and had a group of young Orthodox students at a Yeshiva on Reads Lane throw rocks at my car and curse me for riding on Saturday.

That community is one that has isolated itself from the rest of the residents.

That, my friends, is never a good sign for any community's health.

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The letter we are discussing is not a "news story", as i read it; it is titled "Commentary" so i understood it to be opinion supported by personal observation, therefore not so much about facts, first hand or second hand.

Lets be frank about all peoples' involvement in the "community board, school boards, law enforcement, etc..." , it is ultimately about protecting their group or individual interests, not about helping the others' interests!

"defending ones self or community" sounds very much like a defensive position? I am jewish but did not feel personnaly or religiously affronted since the "commentary" was not commenting on jews generally but specifically on a sect within a large religion. This sect has historically displayed an agressivity in defining boundaries to differentiate itself from its environment.

It seems to me that your involvement in this discussion and the suggestion of isolationism in the editor's article are observation and confirmation of the issue; have you been to williamsburg? (south of williamsburg bridge, bedford st)

david selig

In response to Eli Shapiro's comment:
The editor's facts are not the point of the article but he is proven right by history; isolationism breeds conflicts. Your defensive response supports this point.

In response to David Selig's post:

"The editor's facts are not the point of the article".

I am not sure how you can say that the facts of a news story are not the point. The facts are everything. Anything but the facts make the statments defamatory. The isolationism you and Howard seem to feel permiates the Orthodox community is at odds with the long history of our involvment with the community board, school boards, law enforcement and political process, none of which were mentioned in his article. I also fail to see how defending ones self or community against false allegations consititues being defensive and somehow proving isolationism.

Considering that the Carvel on Central Ave has been closed for nearly 2 years and the Manager at the Bookstore on Central ave as well as members of the local Police Precinct have absolutly no knowledge of the alleged arson threat, I can only assume that the rest of this bigoted article is a creation of the authors imagination. Somehow I find it hard to believe that he is genuinely concerned about community health and well being. Shame on us for allowing him to continue to abuse his editorial position to spew anti religous rhetoric, whether the victims of the week are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other organized affiliation.

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