How Frum is Frum enough?
By David Werdiger
Many posts and comments on these pages have had a go at some of the Orthodox Jewish institutions in Melbourne, such as those associated with kashrut certification and the Beth Din, for a variety of reasons. There is a recurring theme of people complaining that these organisations are maintaining standards that are unnecessarily stringent, and not consistent with those the people want (well, at least those people who choose to engage in the discussion).
Whether it’s Kosher Australia following particular standards and therefore ruling products not kosher, while others point to rulings that would permit their use, or the Beth Din being overly strict in dealing with prospective converts (governance issues are not in the scope of this discussion).
So how kosher is kosher enough? How frum is frum enough? In a diverse city like Melbourne, these are difficult questions to answer. We have a plethora of shuls and communities, each with their own leadership, each with their own acceptable standards of Jewish practice, and this leads to a large variety of standards within a single city.
We live in a pluralist society, so we acknowledge the right of each individual to express their Jewish practice to the standard of their own choice. And herein lays the problem: to what extent should one person have to raise or lower their own standard to accommodate others?
This question can be asked on two levels: in the case of dealing with others (“peer to peer”), and in the establishment of standards used by communal bodies.
In the case of “peer to peer”, the polite thing to do is cede to the more stringent/restrictive standard. This is common in the workplace, where non-Jews will eat kosher to accommodate the dietary requirements of one, or adjust schedules to avoid Jewish holidays. But as is often the case, non-Jews have more respect for religious practices than fellow Jews. I recall situations of frum tenants wanting to establish an “eruv chatzerot” in a block of flats so they could carry in the common areas on Shabbat (this is not needed any more), and while the non-Jewish neighbours were obliging, the Jewish ones questioned the need to be “so frum”. There are countless more examples of this, and the intolerance displayed is quite disgusting. Surely we could be at least as polite and accommodating to other Jews as non-Jews are?
With regards to communal bodies, the issue is more complex. An organisation that is responsible for an aspect of religious observance of a community is “accountable” both to the community that is serves, and to God (or rather their interpretation and understanding of what God wants from us). These interests can often conflict. By-laws established by Rabbis must also be sustainable (i.e. the community must be able to abide by them). The Rabbis who establish these standards must balance all of these, and still be able to sleep at night hoping they have acted true to their beliefs and their constituency. Where an Orthodox Rabbi heads an Orthodox shul where most of the congregants are not practicing Orthodox (I like the term “Orthodox affiliated”), similar issues can arise. If such a Rabbi did not allow his congregants to drive to shul on Shabbat, either the shul would be empty, or he would be quickly out of a job.
People are quick to criticize the Rabbis for their decisions (which will invariably trouble someone) – no wonder there isn’t a queue a mile long for Rabbinic positions when they become open. It is a credit to Chabad for producing Rabbis who are prepared to step up to these roles and devote their lives to community service. That is surely one of the reasons there is a disproportionate number of practicing Chabad Rabbis in Melbourne, particularly in non-Chabad shuls.
Is a diverse community better served by having a greater or fewer distinct standards of religious practice in its organisations? No matter how many Beth Dins or Kashrut certifiers there are, there will always be a group of disaffected people. More of them will likely not increase or decrease that – if anything more will increase the fractures that already exist in a community like ours.
I doubt if anyone is “frum enough”.