Confronting Stereotypes of Other Jews: A Personal Perspective

Introductory Note:


This letter mentions the Hebrew term “halacha” – a term which refers to a law of the Torah. The term “halacha” is derived from the Hebrew word “holech” – walking, going. A literal translation of “halacha” is “the way to walk” – a reference to a step on the Divine path of mitzvos. The halacha is therefore the way we are to walk on this earth according to the Divine Teaching.


 Dear Friends,


With the help of Hashem, I will begin to discuss in upcoming letters how a deeper understanding of the various halachos regarding converts can help us to gain a deeper understanding of the purpose of both the People of Zion and the Land of Zion. During this discussion, I will need to refer to certain conflicts among various Jewish communities regarding the role of converts and the purpose of Zion; however, my work as a Jewish community activist and educator has made me aware of the following problem: Many of us may have a distorted stereotype of Jews in other communities – a stereotype which can often interfere with a productive dialogue about the issues confronting our diverse communities. I will therefore begin to share with you my own personal perspective of this problem:


As a boy, I lived in Rockaway Beach, New York City, and not far from my neighborhood was a popular amusement park which had a “fun house” with special mirrors which presented to people distorted images. The stereotypes that we often have about other Jewish communities remind me of those mirrors. When we are in the “fun house” of the amusement park, we are aware that the images in those mirrors are distorted, but sad to say, we are often unaware that the images we have of other Jewish communities – especially those that seem very different from our own – are distorted. These distorted images can lead to prejudice and even hatred of our Jewish brothers and sisters; thus, they become one of the major factors which prevent us from experiencing the following blessing:


“A Song of Ascents by David: Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brethren dwell together in unity.” (Psalm 133:2)


My parents, of blessed memory, were progressive social activists who did not receive a Torah education in their youth; nevertheless, they were proud that they were Jews, and they had a vague awareness that their passion for justice and loving-kindness was rooted in the spiritual heritage of our people. In the early letters of this series, I described how I began to develop an interest in Judaism during my youth – an interest which led to a commitment to the vision and path of the Torah. During this period, I became aware that my parents had some distorted stereotypes of Torah-observant Jews; however, their negative stereotypes began to change as my parents got to know my Torah teachers and other Torah-committed Jews who became part of my life. My parents fought against racism and anti-Semitism; thus, they taught me at an early age about the danger of stereotypes which lead to prejudice and hatred. To their credit, they had the honesty to confront the distorted stereotypes that they had absorbed from their secular circles about Torah-observant Jews.


During this period, I also discovered that the majority of my teachers and new friends within the Torah-observant communities had a distorted stereotype of Jews like my parents. This began to change as they got to know my parents. To their credit, their commitment to seeking truth gave them the ability to confront the distorted stereotypes they had absorbed from their religious circles about Jews like my parents.


As an adult, I became more aware of the problem of distorted stereotypes, especially after I became the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. During this period, I developed close ties with Jews from diverse Jewish communities with diverse beliefs. I discovered that the majority of people in each community usually had a distorted stereotype of the people in some of the other communities, especially those communities which seemed very different than their own. This was due to ignorance, little or no social contact with people from those Jewish communities, and occasional articles in both the general and Jewish media which presented a distorted stereotype of the “other” Jewish community.


I still encounter these distorted media stereotypes which present a negative image of the “other” community, and they are reinforced by inaccurate and unbalanced reporting. Given the secular nature of most of the media, I often encounter negative stereotypes of Torah-observant communities that are known in the modern world as “Orthodox”; moreover, a good percentage of the negative stereotypes about Orthodox Jews are about those known as “Chareidi” or “fervently Orthodox” Jews.


Another term which has been used by journalists to describe Chareidi communities is “ultra-Orthodox”; however, a growing number of journalists have stopped using this term, which many view as offensive. This is because the word “ultra” means “extreme” and “excessive”; thus, these journalists admitted that due to their own ignorance of the outlook and requirements of the Torah path know as halacha, they had no right to make a value judgment about whether people within these traditional Jewish communities were “excessive” in their beliefs and observances.


As I began to think more deeply about the problem of stereotypes, I realized that the contemporary name given to various Jewish communities can lead to inaccurate impressions. For example, there are non-Jews who are not familiar with Jewish life, and when they hear about a religious Jewish movement known as “Conservative,” they think that this is a movement of Jews who vote for conservative political candidates! This particular movement officially began in the United States in the late 19th century when some Reform Jews were troubled by the increasing abandonment of many mitzvos of the Torah by the Reform movement of that period. They and some other Jews therefore started a new movement which would attempt to “conserve” more of the tradition.


The “term “Orthodox” is used to describe a more traditional Jewish movement, but this term is somewhat problematic. This term was first used by radical Reform Jews in Germany during the 19th century to refer to the Torah-observant communities that they were breaking away from. Many Torah-observant Jews in Germany then began to use this term to describe themselves; however, in my humble opinion, this was a mistake. This is because the word “orthodox” is used to describe those who conform to established behavior and/or opinions; however, with regard to Torah-observant communities, this term does not give the full picture, for within these communities there are creative forms of Jewish renewal which are in harmony with the halachos of the Torah.


There are some non-Orthodox Jews with a very “orthodox” approach to their own beliefs and views. They feel that their beliefs and attitudes are “politically correct” – conforming to the latest popular trends within modern society. They can therefore be intolerant of Torah-observant Jews who differ with their “politically correct” views. Ironically, these non-Orthodox Jews often speak in the name of “pluralism”; however their “pluralism” does not always have room for Torah-observant Jews.


Through most of my life, I have strived to build bridges between Jews of differing beliefs and backgrounds with the goal of helping us rediscover the spiritual and universal Torah vision which has the potential to unite us; thus, I have challenged the negative stereotypes which can interfere with the dialogue which can lead us to this vision. For example, when I speak with Orthodox Jews or when I write for Orthodox publications, e-mail lists, and websites, I occasionally challenge the negative stereotypes that many in this audience have about non-Orthodox Jewish communities. And when I speak with non-Orthodox Jews or when I write for non-Orthodox Jewish publications, e-mail lists, and websites, I occasionally challenge the negative stereotypes that many in this audience have about Orthodox Jewish communities.


Although I have not taken a survey of those who subscribe to the mailings of our Torah study program, Hazon – Our Universal Vision, the correspondence that I receive gives me the impression that the program attracts Jews from diverse Jewish communities and that a majority of the subscribers do not consider themselves to be Orthodox Jews; nevertheless, some of those who think of themselves as “non-Orthodox” have indicated that they are developing a greater commitment to fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah, and, at their own pace, step-by-step, they are becoming more observant of the halachos of the Torah path. (A number of these “step-by-step” seekers have also joined Orthodox communities.)


According to the insights I gained from my Torah teachers, these “step-by-step” seekers can be considered to be Torah-committed, for the term “Torah-committed” refers to the Torah path one has chosen, even if one has only taken a few initial steps on this path.


In future letters, we will discuss some of the secular-religious disputes within the Land of Israel which relate to our current themes; moreover, we will discuss how Torah-observant communities, such as the Chareidi and National Religious communities, relate to these disputes. Our discussion will reveal that there are “disputes for the sake of Heaven” between the National Religious and Chareidi communities, as well as internal “disputes for the sake of Heaven” within each of these two major groups.


May our own discussion of these sensitive issues be for the sake of Heaven – free of prejudice and filled with desire to understand the Torah, our  “tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). In this way, we can merit the fulfillment of the following Divine promise:


“I will make them into one nation in the Land upon the mountains of Israel, and one sovereign will be a sovereign for them all; they will no longer be two nations, and they will no longer be into two kingdoms, ever again.” (Ezekiel 37:22)



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen 

Hazon - Our Universal Vision