Labels are dangerous
Worse than any prison wall, security barrier or barbed wire fence, words — more specifically, labels — can divide us.
We see it in Washington when senators and congressmen bat around labels like liberal and conservative to describe judicial appointments — as they did during the Sotomayor hearings — or certain pieces of legislation.
And we see it in our own faith when we are described as Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Orthodox Jews.
In politics and religion, the temptation to write someone or some group off as a mere label is often overpowering. Why not? It’s so easy to do. We don’t have to examine any nuances of this person or that group; we don’t have to balance their good and bad acts, explore why someone said something and if that person really meant it or just misspoke.
We simply slap a label on someone and we’re done.
That’s a dangerous habit — one that paints people as stereotypes and not human beings with developed, complex characters.
And it keeps the Jewish people divided.
Such is the issue in New Jersey and Brooklyn, where 44 people, including at least five Orthodox rabbis, were arrested on July 23, following a two-year investigation into a money-laundering scheme. The rabbis come from the wealthy Syrian Jewish community there.
Attorneys for the rabbis have vehemently denied the charges, saying their clients were smeared by a government mole, also Jewish and the son of a rabbi, whose own credibility the lawyers have called into question.
We don’t know what the truth is in this case — that’s why we have trials, judges and juries, and the rabbis must be considered — innocent until proven otherwise. That’s the law.
But this much we do know: Some Orthodox Jews already feel compelled to defend themselves in the court of public opinion; to distance themselves from the allegedly corrupt element, to say not all Orthodox Jews are corrupt.
“I am still in a state of shock over this,” said Dr. Morris Antebi, president of Ohel Yaacob Synagogue, in Deal, N.J., whose rabbi was among those arrested. “But I believe things need to be put in perspective. He was one of only four [sic] rabbis involved. If you count there are only four rabbis involved among those arrested, and there are 75,000 [Syrian Jews] in Brooklyn and 10,000 in Deal, it is a very minuscule number.”
Forget about a shanda (shame) for the goyim, this is the real shanda.
The perp walks shown on television, in which bearded men with kippot and payes (side locks) were led in handcuffs to and from paddy wagons, will already provide fresh fodder for hate groups, white supremacists and anti-Zionists. Our community should refrain from snap judgments.
Sadly, some Jews have already seized upon the arrests to criticize some Orthodox communities for staying separate from the rest of us, for what they perceive as an arrogance of faith that somehow excuses them to commit these alleged acts.
Such an oversimplification of perception and stereotypes harms all Jews, not just the strictly observant ones.
Instead, the community should treat these arrests as an opportunity for outreach between liberal and Orthodox Jews. We can rise above the arrests and the temptation to criticize, and opt for dialogue and expressions of support.
How, specifically? We’ll leave that to the Jewish powers, but the idea is worth exploring.
The Jewish world is a wildly diverse one, from the secular humanists to those just waiting to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. We’ll never agree on everything. But we should constantly struggle to close the gap as much as possible. Seizing on any chance to talk to instead of judge is a good way to start.