From the outside world, Orthodox Jews tend to look sort of . . . monolithic. This tends to be the case about anything one has limited knowledge about. For example, take wine tasting. To me, I drink wine Shabbos and I get a kick out of reading the wine bottle labels (e.g. “fruity with a hint of musk, the perfect aperitif for attracting antelope in heat and adding joy and pleasure to your filet mignon.”) I have no idea what they’re talking about, and I can’t even remember if it’s red wine or white wine that is supposed to be refrigerated. However, to a real wine guy, they can apparently appreciate the difference between an oak cask, and . . . what other kinds of casks are there?
How Orthodox Jews are perceived by the outside world is a concern. At least, most would say this. We were given a Torah at Mt. Sinai and are supposed to effect the world with it. It’s a dual role: be insular as far as not being effected by things which are contrary to it, but on the other hand, we have to live in the world. We’ve been scattered around the world amongst all the nations, as predicted in the written Torah itself. We follow the laws of the land, but need and demand that we can serve G_d, learn Torah, and carry out mtizvos freely. This goes all the way back to Egypt, when Moses did not mention leaving Egypt, until well after asking to serve G_d in the desert for three days. Let us serve G_d and we’ll be loyal citizens, too!
In the United States, where Jews have some of the greatest freedoms and ability to both be a part of the country and serve G_d to the fullest, a sort of diechotemy of outlooks has developed amongst the Torah observant population, with gradations everywhere in between as to how to approach the secular world. This ranges from Satmar, where a chasid asked the old Satmar Rebbe about wearing stockings with pants stuffed therein when he crossed the Manhattan Bridge to work in the morning. He was worried how the non-Jews looked at him in this dress. The Rebbe told him to continue because if the non-Jews looked at him funny, they wouldn’t interact with him and the chassidim could maintain their uniqueness as a Jew, as much as possible.
Lubovitch, also on the Chassidish spectrum, have taken an approach of, “sure, we maintain our distinctiveness” and their dress also stands out, though they wear shoes and a black hat (usually a very old one that they never replace) versus a streimel (fur hat), but are out there in the world in all sorts of places, trying to reach less affiliated Jews and those Jews who know little of authentic Torah.
In the non-Chassidish Orthodox world, it ranges from the insolarness of something less than Satmar, all the way to usually referred to as “Modern Orthodox.” The “yeshivish” ones to the right often learn Torah full time for many years after marriage, or their entire lives, and tend to have less of high level secular educations, but not always. Many get high degrees and are doctors, lawyers, and everything else.
The Modern Orthodox, by no means a monolithic group, is often referred to based on Yeshiva University (YU) and the Rabbinical College of America. However, here too, this is not a very monolithic group ranging from “those to the left of YU” to Rabbis at YU who are Chassidim themselves (e.g. Rabbi Weinberger of Aish Kodesh and YU)) and or Rabbis of more to-the-right institutions (e.g. Rabbi Sacks, associated with Agudas Yisroel and YU). Modern Orthodox tend to get higher secular degrees, with it being a requirement at YU, and even have a higher level of secular education than the Heterodox Jews who are generally estranged from Torah and only have secular educations.
There are reasons why one could argue the insular approach is better, and reasons why one could argue the involved approach is better and which gradation in-between is best. I’m not going to do that any more than my bias already likely comes across from my writing, itself. However, I point to three examples in popular media . . .
Above, is a 5 minute preview of the interview Oprah had in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with a Chassidish family. This is probably the most insular you’re going to find giving an interview on TV, because any more than this, and you’re probably not going to find them on TV too much except for maybe the occasional PBS documentary which really isn’t going to tell you all that much beyond biographic and bibliographic-type information. If you watch the full Oprah interview of four women in the Chassidish community, who are dressed very conservatively, one of them is actually a “ba’al teshuvah” (like the author of this blog) and came from a very secular background. She was attracted to the more isolated life and this is how she chooses to express her fulfillment of the Torah, in a very close community. Two of the other women in the interview didn’t even realize she grew up any different.
On the extreme other side, while still being true to the Torah, is “Jew in the City”. Allison Josephs also comes from a secular background, and became a Torah observant Jew, but, well, she takes a quite public role. Here’s an example of one of her videos:
It’s a great video, and she goes all out finding Torah observant Jews who are most involved, and most accomplished in secular society, including a senator, basketball player, musicians, and even a Supreme Court clerk. She also makes a point of having some of them say things like, “I love learning Torah, but I also . . . “.
I once took part in a conversation with Allison Josephs on her Facebook profile about the Oprah interview. She said, quite clearly, the problem she had with it is that it makes Orthodox Jews look insular.
“Rather than assuring everyone that most women really have full heads of hair under their wigs, we should be saying to the world, ‘Yeah! Some women are as bald as Samuel L Jackson under there! Deal with it! ‘Cause you believe in diversity, yeah? So accept us, even if some of us are weirdos!”
(For the record, I don’t agree with women shaving their heads, but I do like the quote / point he makes.)
My conclusion – you can’t disparage the cookie cutter approach to Judaism by trying to fit Judaism into a secular cookie cutter either. They’re both cookie cutter. In fact, everybody is. You think you’re rebelling More often than not, you’re defined by what you’re rebelling against, just the same. Besides, no one is “normal”. Is it normal to shave your head or grow your hair long? We have halacha, Jewish law, which comes from the root meaning, “to walk”. We walk in the path of jewish law, and not every approach to reaching other Jews, or even the rest of the world, will work with no one person having the version of Judaism, within the bounds of halacha, which will reach everyone. For some, the “we’re as normal as you” approach works great to bring Jews to Torah, and for others, the “we’re very different than you” approach works great to bring Jews to Torah.
If you’re a Jew looking to explore your roots, and figure out if a Torah way of life is for you, take a look at the various groups out there and spend a Shabbos in different communities to see what you like best. Keep in mind, as you explore on your journey, your opinion and where you feel comfortable may also evolve.