When the video of the bar mitzvah boy dancing on stage with a gaggle of half-naked women hit the net, and was made viral thanks to Kveller, there was an immediate, knee-jerk reaction that seemed to come from all corners of the Jewish world.
“Oh my gosh! This isn’t Judaism! What will they think?”
Indeed, that last sentence, “What will they think?” seemed to be the all-encompassing theme of the reactionaries to the video.
It came in all different forms. From, “No wonder the stereotypes of Jews persist!” to “People will think this is what Judaism is about. Oh no!”
Of course, by “they” and “people”, these commentators were referring to non-Jews.
The attacks on the thirteen year old boy and his family reached a head when a conservative rabbi, Rabbi David Wolpe, wrote a scathing, angry, personal attack against the family in the Washington Post.
I wonder if Rabbi Wolpe thought that by writing this article he was going to solve the problem all these people commentators had been worried about. I wonder if he thought he was showing the world that Jews “aren’t like that”.
Because I think if that is the case, he failed. And I think the Jews that publicly attacked this poor boy and his family also failed.
To be honest, I also had a similar knee-jerk emotional reaction to that video. All I could think about was how much this video reminded me of the largely-Jewish upper middle class community I grew up in, and all their extravagant bar mitzvahs. At first, all I wanted to do was write a big diatribe against the shallowness of the Jewish culture.
But then I noticed how the anger of the people commenting seemed just so wrong, so painfully awful to do to a thirteen year old boy and his family.
And after that, after I swallowed my anger, I noticed that the more people commented in angry ways, the more the mainstream audience seemed to, in fact, get much more upset with the commenters.
Gawker, a mainstream popular secular news outlet, reported on the video after it was already pretty popular. By far the most widespread opinion on their report was that the people who attacked the boy and his family were out of line. They were shocked to see so many people responding so critically, so personally, so angrily.
And the more I looked, the more this became painfully true. It seems as if no one besides Jews became angry about this video, and no one besides Jews were willing to attack this family and this boy so viciously.
The world wasn’t judging us for the video. They were judging us by our reaction to the video.
It seems like there are always Jews who react with shock and anger when one of their brethren doesn’t live up to their expectations. It seems like most online networks, whether it be the never-truly-moderated Jewish news outlets or the many online Jewish forums, are breeding grounds for these folks to come and voice their frustrations. Their worries that their people are falling by the wayside, not living up to the expectations G-d and our leaders have placed on us as people.
What these people fail to realize, what they forget every time they make a comment, is that the world doesn’t really care how holy we are. They don’t care if we have extravagant weddings or bar mitzvahs. They don’t care if we are shallow or vacuous or ridiculous. They don’t care if there is a reality show that depicts as all those things and worse.
No, those things seem to be afterthoughts, forgivable acts by specific people.
Instead, we’re judged for one simple thing: how kind we are.
How kind we are both to each other and to the world around us.
See, the people of the world don’t operate on a logical level. They’re not weighing our strengths and demerits on some super-fair scale that weighs how holy we are as opposed to how shallow we act.
Instead, they react like all humans do. Humans respond positively to kindness and negatively to anger and hate with an almost primal reaction.
Don’t believe me?
Let’s look at two stories that appeared in the news just in the last week.
The first is the story of the El-Al (Israeli plane company) plane that turned back to pick up a passenger that had cancer that had forgotten her passport.
In the press, it seems almost impossible to get a positive story about Israel printed. Bibi lets killers go just to try and get a fair shake with world opinion. And he fails. Miserably.
But when this plane turned back, it created more positive press than Bibi could muster with his whole soul. People stopped judging and just enjoyed a beautiful, positive story about kindness and giving.
Another story that made waves is the orthodox Jewish man who saved the life of a Palestinian who was electrocuted.
The two made waves both in Israel and beyond for the connection they created together. They got along, like friends, afterwards.
And while there were Jews still arguing about how a bar mitzvah video had destroyed their credibility in the world, this orthodox man had just shown the world how beautiful we can really be. And, of course, this story also became very popular among Jews and non-Jews alike.
These are but two small examples. And they don’t prove anything on their own. But just pay attention. Notice how kindness, how giving, how a charitable attitude, can be the elixir to any negative perception of a people.
Notice how people talk about orthodox Jews or Jews in general, positive or negative. It’s almost completely colored by how respectfully they were treated by them. Look at how Jews who left the fold talk: they almost inevitably talk about whether they were treated with kindness and dignity. Notice how baal teshuvas (new religious Jews) talk. Their story almost always begins with a rabbi who was (gasp) nice and thoughtful.
And notice on the other hand how your comments online are permanent. How your voice can destroy the perception others have of your religion in one fell swoop. Notice how, if you are really worried about how we are portrayed, your words, either loving or hateful, can have a ripple effect beyond what you can imagine.
When a Jew treats his fellow Jews with respect, he gains the respect of the people around him. When he treats everyone with respect, he gains the respect of the world.
The temple lays in ruins for the very same short-sightedness we have now. It’s dust, with a few walls standing, because we thought acts of holiness mattered more than the inherent holiness within us all.
And while we argue online, try to bend the view of our brethren one way or the other, all we do is stomp our feet in the dust of that temple.
Respect leads to respect. Kindness leads to understanding. It’s time Jews embraced those things above all. Until then, no acts of holiness will be worth a thing.