Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote a compelling article April 30 comparing views of the Orthodox Jewish community to a New York Times magazine article about Roman Vishniac. Shafran wrote that “what seem candid shots were likely posed.”
He uses that story to appropriately explain that not everything in the world is how it appears in a snapshot. He was making the point that the entire Orthodox world is not corrupt or bad because some corrupt and bad people that operate under the yarmulke of “Orthodox” are called out for poor behavior and fraudulent acts.
Shafran concludes that “communities, in the end, are like elephants, their observers the proverbial blind men, one touching an ear and concluding that the beast is floppy and thin, the other feeling a leg and imagining the subject tree-like, a third encountering its trunk and pronouncing the pachyderm a python.â€¦ But examining the dirt under the elephant’s toenails conveys nothing at all of the animal’s majesty.”
This Conservative rabbi agrees with Rabbi Shafran. The Orthodox community is chockfull of wonderful, charitable, compassionate, deeply committed, and spiritual people.
However, I strongly disagree with the premise of Rabbi Shafran’s argument. He ignores the fact that in his metaphor, the elephant is claiming to be the moral, ritual, and only authentic leader of the Jewish world, to the point where other animals’ opinions, thoughts, practices, and customs are dismissed. He speaks of the proverbially blind person feeling his way around the elephant. What I wish Rabbi Shafran would appreciate is that the non-Orthodox world is not blind at all. We see clearly. We understand the complexities and composite of the Orthodox elephant.
Where I take serious issue is that when such an elephant is claiming the role of “king of the jungle,” so to speak, with regard to educating children, slaughtering meat, adhering to civil laws, and tolerating multiple opinions, it must have clean toenails. When it has dirt under its nails, it loses the weight and influence in being seen as an animal that requires unquestioned respect and blind submission as an authentic voice of our people.