Sunday, April 13, 2008

Entitlements: Frum Style

There is, to be sure an imperious attitude guiding the frumer as he makes his way through life. There was a time when I not only understood, but held the same views. I remember as a child going to shul on Succot carrying my father’s (may he rest in peace) lulov and esrog as it happened that yomtov fell out on a school day. As we were walking to shul at around 8:30 or so in the morning we passed a public school where there were many pupils walking to school. My father turned to me and said how bad he felt for these “unfortunates” that they don’t have “succos” in their lives or for that matter shabbes or any of the other “yom tovim”. Agreeing with my father I couldn’t imagine such an empty life. To be a “goy”, I thought was a meaningless existence because absent from their lives was the Torah. It never occurred to me that perhaps they had their own beautiful holidays, customs and ceremonies and probably felt that the Jews were living an empty existence.

All this came to mind when I greeted my daughter at the airport as she was returning home from Israel for Passover break where she is a student at the Hebrew University. Her ordeal at the airport and on the flight was unremarkable, other than the fact that she was stunned by the never ending and demanding attitude of the frumies. Being a student at Hebrew University she doesn’t have occasion to “get up front, close and personal” with the frum community, so her recent experience was notable.

Her experience as she told it triggered other memories; as a student at a yeshiva high school, we were indoctrinated with myths and half truths that may be contributing factors to the entitlement syndrome of the frum community. Perhaps at this point I should pause and explain what it is I mean by entitlement: Jewish style. Frum people believe that ultimately the world was created for them and that everyone in it is there to serve their needs. The advancement of their spin on Torah is all that really matters, regardless of the inconvenience and hardship that it may cause others who are either not Jewish, or Jews of another stripe. They would perpetuate a corrupt government in Israel if there is something in it that will promote their cause. Similarly, they will break laws, scheme and manipulate the system in order to get funding for their torah institutions. The myths that we were indoctrinated with are those that are still believed today; legends that we are the oldest culture, who gifted the world with monotheism; that we are living proof that we are “God’s chosen”. After all, where are all the other nations who had persecuted us through the ages and tried to annihilate us? And more: we are the “am cohanim v’goy kadosh”, we are a priestly nation, a holy people.

For those who still believe that the world is 5768 years old this will be lost on them but there are older cultures than ours. While we were slaves in Egypt the Shang dynasty was at its peak. As a matter of fact Chinese history traces itself back as far as 2800 B.C.E. with the “Three August Ones and Five Emperors.” (Although that may be a myth, we too have our myths as well. That is to say, events which cannot be verified without written documentation.) The Japanese can trace their history as far back as the mid-Jomon period roughly 3000-2000 B.C.E. These cultures, too, saw themselves as favored by their gods, no different than our tradition which refers to us as a holy nation.

If we zero in on that region closest to our own history we will discover that the infamous Greeks, the “yevonim”, trace their antecedents back to 2700 B.C.E. The Minoan civilization was a wonderful and sophisticated culture in Crete that later merged into the greater Greek culture. Egyptian culture was the best and perhaps had the most sophisticated science at the time that our ancestors were slinging mud and making bricks. When confronted with this the frum community will respond by saying yes, “but those cultures are no longer the same cultures that they once were. Greek and Egyptian cultures, once proud and magisterial are today shadows of their glorious past. My rejoinder is: what about us - look at us today – eich naflu giborim? As in every living organism nothing remains stagnant. Culture is organic, constantly growing and transforming. The Japanese of today barely resemble that of their antecedent culture of 5000 years ago. The same is true of the Greeks and Egyptians and, yes the same is true of us.

We were once a “great” people who had a Temple and who enjoyed the prophecies of giants such as Amos, Jeremiah and Isaiah. Where are we today compared to where we were then! A frumie would say “ein hachi nami” we have to do teshuva! By saying that however, he is living in denial. The false belief that this community can recover their past glory is precisely the mentality that contributes to their arrogance.

For us to look down at other cultures is condescending and high handed. It is this haughtiness which is partially the reason for the sense of entitlement in the frum community. And it doesn’t matter where the frum community is located. It could be in B’nei B’rak it could be in Gateshead or it could be in Boro Park. It doesn’t matter because they all share this one common “hashkofa”. Our way is superior, our Torah is superior, and our history is superior because we are the “am kohanim v”goy kadosh.” A myth which perpetuate this arrogance, for example, is the classic midrash that hashem approached every civilized people asking them if they wished to accept the Torah and they all refused. Of course, we didn’t; we responded with a resounding “naaseh v’nishma.” The question ought to be asked; why couldn’t the midrash have been reworked giving us the credit for having accepted “ol malchus shamayim” but at the same time maintaining the honor and integrity of other nations. To be contemptuous of them by saying they refused hashem’s offer is part of the hubris which guides the frum community.

The implicit “put down” of others is disingenuous and counterintuitive. When we sit down at the seder table and chant “avadim hayinu b’mitzrayim” let’s remember where we come from and perhaps we’ll increase our humility and decrease our sense of entitlement.