In the Genesis story, God speaks the world into existence, thus arranging human history into in a series of alternating articulations and silences. In this timeless narrative, we discover essential truths about human existence. We see here, for example, that the world is made of language, in which we assign meaning to sounds and silences alike.
Let’s assign meaning to the sounds produced last week by Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, a leader of the Council of Torah Sages at Agudath Israel of America (AIA). This grand sage is also known as the Novominsker Rebbe, a position previously held by his father Nochum Mordechai Perlow. A public statement from this dynastic leader carries weight in its own right, especially when many people, including me, discerned in the statement a hateful intent. The rabbi’s PR representatives claim that news reports have mischaracterized his spoken remarks at an event with New York City Mayor De Blasio. To clarify Rabbi Perlow’s intent, AIA issued a statement, which said in part:
“Rabbi Perlow’s focus was on Reform and Conservative Judaism, not on Reform and Conservative Jews – on ideologies, not on people. Indeed, the main focus of his remarks was on a movement that calls itself Orthodox – “Open Orthodoxy” – yet has also crossed boundaries that have long established the parameters of normative Jewish practice and belief.”
Whatever the intent behind Rabbi Perlow’s remarks, consider the meaning of Mayor De Blasio’s silence. As he had probably planned, the Mayor exchanged nothing but polite pleasantries with the organization hosting him, as if the preceding speaker had said nothing objectionable. The Mayor claims he didn’t hear or understand enough of Rabbi’s Perlow’s speech to raise any objections.
It appears, then, that there was no “hatred” in the Rebbe’s speech, and the Mayor’s speech was simply pleasantly banal. So where’s the victim? The truth is that the Rebbe’s speech and the Mayor’s subsequent silence represent an insult to every Jew and every enlightened human being.
But still, this story has already received more attention than it merits. (Alas, we all cohabit in an overheated media culture addicted to the spectacle of clashing perspectives.) As a Jew and as a human being, I disagree with Rabbi Perlow wholeheartedly, and I’m disappointed in my Mayor. But I’m not angry. I understand that the rabbi has his reasons and the right to hold his beliefs. And I certainly don’t need my Mayor to play a big role in the arbitration of theological debates.
Although I don’t see a reason to fan the flames of this particular story, we should examine its broader cultural context and raise at least the following questions:
- Modern societies honor freedom of speech, at least in theory and at least some of the time, but haven’t we reached a point in human history at which theologies that enshrine “us-vs-them” battlelines should lose their seat at the table of civilized discourse?
- Haven’t we reached a point in history at which newborn male children should not suffer through an ancient ritual that involves not only the removal of foreskin from the penis but also the sucking of the bleeding penis by the ritual abuser?
- Haven’t we reached a point in history at which the opposition to “intermarriage” between “Jews” and “Gentiles” should raise at least as many eyebrows as the opposition to the mixed seating of blacks and whites on public buses?
Sadly, the answer to all these questions will remain ‘no’ until elected officials start to treat Agudath Israel of America the way they should treat any other organization that peddles scriptural literalism at the expense of human well-being.
The uneasy alliance of politicians with the Religious Right is an old debate, and it’s grown as tiresome as the obsessive media coverage of all scandals du jour. Mayor De Blasio certainly made a mistake (to put it very generously), and he missed an opportunity to nudge a hateful ideology away from the political mainstream. But it’s also a mistake to resort to vociferous condemnations of quasi-theocratic dogma. This response only reinforces the illusion of relevance.