In religious [observant] Jewish communities, how much room or tolerance is there for secular interests and desires? I live near a large Jewish community, and from an outside perspective I have the impression that with the emphasis on [following the norms, such as] getting married, upholding family values, and [engaging in] Torah study, and everything that goes with living in a such a community, following their [community members'] heart and doing something they may want to do, such as going travelling or learning an instrument, is either not considered acceptable, or not their 1st priority.
In addition to this I can't help but think that they view gentiles and the secular world with a touch of suspicion.
What do religious Jews think of the secular world and secular values? Is there room and tolerance for them to follow their interests, or do they have to conform only to Jewish community values and expectations?
I don’t mean this to be a rant, and apologies if it is seen as one - its just something that’s on my mind and I would be interested to know the truth.
I suspect that I am probably going to be seen as going on a rant of my own here. As you say, I don’t mean it to be, and I don’t wish to offend, but what I have to say is not easy to express, and can be heard as negative.
My colleagues have fairly well presented the facts; no need for me to repeat them.
1. All human beings follow their own priorities, which are set in line with their values. Observant Jews do exactly the same thing. If they give a greater weight to family, marriage, living in community, and Jewish study, obviously they will focus on and engage more in those things. Apparently, from your question, these are not the priorities that you have set.
2. You are expressing ‘suspicion’ about the observant Jews who are not like you; why should they be held to a different standard concerning those who are not like them? It is just as legitimate for them to ask what the ‘secular world’ thinks and values, and what priorities are set in that population.
3. No one can speak for ‘religious Jews’ or ‘all Jews’, anymore than anyone can speak for all males, or all Americans, or all left handed people. I know some people who are observant religious Jews, and I would say that almost all of them are quite tolerant of, and even open to, the ‘secular world’ and its values – by which you mean people like yourself – though they may not choose to follow the trends and fads or participate in all the activities that are available there. Others may be suspicious (as you term it), or even hostile to the secular world. Observant Jews are individuals, like anyone else, and their reactions are shaped by their life experiences and opinions.
4. I am not sure why you think that they are not following their own interests in conforming to Jewish community values and expectations. Isn’t it quite possible that they share those values and expectations, and the things they do ARE their interests?
I would add that not only does it seem that the assumptions presented by your questions are inaccurate, they rather seriously tend to err in ascribing a monolithic sameness to Judaism and Jews which is not in keeping with reality. It is no more possible to say that ‘all Jews are x’ than it is to say that ‘all British people are y,’ ‘all bald people are w,’ ‘all Christians are z,’ or ‘all religious Christians do q.’ A rule of thumb is that when someone trots out that kind of a formulaic statement, whatever they are about to say is both wrong, and most often an expression of prejudice without factual support.
I would respond to you that the truth is that a lot of what you are seeing is either colored by your own filters, or is based on incorrect or inadequate information. I hope that you will be open enough to really go and find out more, and get past the stereotypes that you are burdened by so you can reach the truth for yourself, stop seeing others as judging you for not being them, and not do the same thing yourself.
Implicit in this rather involved question is an assumption that there is one, unified approach to being “religious” in a Jewish sense. The observant Jewish community is far from being a singularity. The more one is immersed in the observant world, the more it reveals itself to be a manifold complex, composed of numerous factions or sub groupings.
The world of Orthodoxy is numerically small, but very rich and large in its diversity. I find it fascinating and always revealing something new.
True, there are those who, like any other religiously insular community, find fulfillment in keeping to themselves with little need for involvement beyond the confines of their own leadership and communal members. This may be seen in many Hasidic and Hareidi (fervently Orthodox) communities. But, this is far from the case in the so-called Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy that embraces secular studies on all levels: elementary, secondary and tertiary.
In Israel, it is quite common to find in the rabbinate, rabbis who have not studied in secular studies beyond the required level expected in an elementary or high school education. The rabbinate may require a high level of Torah study, but little or no expectation of any university education or professional qualifications.
America is known for a great deal of diversity in qualifying for rabbinical ordination, with some prominent yeshivot granting both secular and rabbinical degrees. Well-known of course is Yeshiva University which embraces a concept of ‘Torah and Madda’ (Torah study and science).
Other yeshivot in the so-called Modern Orthodox camp such as Hebrew Theological College, Skokie, Illinois and Ner Israel Rabbinical Seminary, Baltimore, Maryland have joint programs with degree granting universities and colleges.
There are many other Orthodox schools strongly encouraging their students to pursue studies beyond that available in their own institutions.
That being said, the number of Hareidi and Hasidic Jews is as it seems on the rise proportionately in Judaism and since these Jews often seem to be quite evident due to their mode of dress and behavior, it can appear that all or most Orthodox Jews are living apart from the general and Jewish community.
My experience has been quite broad within the religiously practicing world and I feel that everyone can find the appropriate community for their own degree of religious observance and acceptance of the secular world and non-Jews.
It is not my place to endorse in this response a particular flavor of Orthodoxy. My experience has shown that within the Orthodox movement; the Orthodox Union, Young Israel and more recently the Union of Traditional Judaism find themselves inclusive, tolerant and embracing of secular culture. This is by no means an endorsement of these groups to the exclusion of others that may be as much or more so.
For a close look at the ancient tension in Judaism between Torah learning and Greek (secular) learning, one cannot do better than to read the most beautifully written, engaging classic novel by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, As A Driven Leaf.
Once again, the religious, observant Jewish world is a large and diverse one. Exposure to one aspect of it may lead to surmising, incorrectly, that most observant Jews are narrow, insular and discriminatory of others. I have found this not to be the case.
The vast majority of religious Jews -- Conserative, Orthodox, and Reform -- value modernity as well as the Jewish tradition. That said, the mixture of tradition with modernity varies in degree and method among the movements. Reform Jews tend to value modernity most but can also be very serious about the moral commitments that Judaism teaches and even, in recent times, of some of the ritual elements of Judaism. Modern Orthodox Jews, on the other end of the spectrum, value Judaism most, but many of them go to college and engage in other aspects of modernity, including the ones you mentioned -- taking music lessons and traveling. Conservative Jews, in the middle of the spectrum, not only value both Jewish tradition and modernity, but try to integrate them in their lives (rather than seeing them as entirely separate entities, which is common in the thinking and actions of many Reform and Orthodox Jews, although often not true of their rabbis). Along with this interest in, and valuing of, modernity, Reform and Conservative Jews, and, to a lesser extent, Modern Orthodox Jews, also value their relations with non-Jews. I, for one, am Co-Chair of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue sponsored by the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and I am Immediate Past President of the Academy of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic Studies headquartered at UCLA, and I have a number of non-Jewish friends, including some close ones.
It is only the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews -- the ones whose men usually wear black and white clothing and whose women are very modestly dressed -- who fit the description that you suggest. They tend to be very insular and suspicious of both modernity and non-Jews -- and, for that matter, even of Jews who are not like them. In North America, they constitute about 2% of the Jewish community; in Israel, they are a much larger minority (maybe as many as 15%), and because they often have very large families, Israel is now grappling with the implications of a increasingly large population who do not serve in the army or earn a living. All other Jews have as many problems with this group as it sounds like you are having.
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