Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wearing a Tallis in the Street

There is a fascinating book titled Eyes to See: Recovering Ethical Torah Principles Lost in the Holocaust by an elderly Torah scholar, R. Yom Tov Schwarz. R. Schwarz will forever be remembered as the man who wrote a harsh and bitingly personal criticism of R. Moshe Feinstein's responsa. I initially refused to even look at this latest book but the book was literally thrust into my hands and after a few months of it sitting around I gave in and looked at it.

But putting that aside, the book is a critique of today's Toah community. There is something in there for all cynics. I would characterize the book as a learned, text-based, eloquent, well-translated, book-long kvetch. There are enough things in the book that it will resonate with everyone, but so much that you find it hard to take it totally seriously.

For example, chapter 25 addresses the evil represented in the "new custom" of wearing a tallis in the street on Shabbos, on the way to and from synagogue. The author declared this to be a bad thing because it looks foolish to wear a big wool covering during the hot summer and it makes gentiles feel uncomfortable. It is arrogant and a lack of consideration for our gentile neighbors.

Nice thoughts but... come on! Somehow it's OK to walk around the streets looking like a long lost Blues Brother or an eighteenth century Polish nobleman but put on a prayer shawl on your way to shul and you're suddenly looking strange? Wearing a suit and a fur hat -- or any hat -- on a hot summer day looks much more foolish than wearing a prayer shawl on your way to synagogue.

Be nice to your neighbors -- and shovel the sidewalk when you can -- and they will have no problem with you observing your religion and wearing a prayer shawl on the way to synagogue.

There are real problems in our community, just like in every community, and R. Schwarz addresses many of the them in his book. But by focusing on minor issues we are making the entire process of self-critique look silly rather than the essential task it truly is.

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