Thursday 6 August 2015

057) So You Don't Care What Non-Jews Think?


Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz[1] is quite outspoken regarding what he calls the ‘new custom’ of donning a talis while walking to and from shul on shabbos.

He begins by drawing our attention to the Shulchan Aruch which says that (during a weekday) one should only put on the talis when arriving at shul. The Ramo seems to disagree, by saying that since the current practice is to put on the talis before the tefillin, one may therefore walk to shul while wearing a talis. The Magen Avraham, however, points out that the Ramo is actually not arguing with the Shulchan Aruch, because “in a place where gentiles frequent the streets all (including the Ramo) agree, that the talis should only be put on when reaching the courtyard of the shul[2].”

He reminds us that both the Ramo and the Magen Avraham were living in Poland which generally has a cold climate, and suggests that in hotter counties the practice of wearing a talis in the street would certainly cause us to look ‘foolish’. And as the Seforno says “one should not engage in activity that might cause the gentiles to regard us as fools, for this too is a chillul HaShem.[3]


He quotes the Chidah[4], who upon witnessing a rather wild Purim celebration in Amsterdam, rebuked his fellow Jews for behaving “as if the city belonged to them” and for “taking too many liberties as if they were the rulers of the land”[5].

Rabbi Schwarz goes on to say that “We in the city of Brooklyn show a similar disregard, by parading through the streets wrapped in woollen talis, or by dancing in the streets all night...or by any other behaviour of this nature.”[6] There have even been instances where non-Jews have been forced to sell their houses and to move out of certain neighbourhoods because of the behaviour of some Jews.

After firsthand experience of the Holocaust and the brutality Eastern European anti-Semitism, he passionately pleads for us Jews to obey the laws of the counties in which we peacefully reside, even calling for us to show solidarity with the general community by displaying the national flag on patriotic holidays. He urges us to be upstanding citizens maintaining civil respect, and never behaving conceitedly, nor with disdain to our neighbours.


I have come across a number of rather harsh criticisms of Rabbi Schwarz for his views about the public wearing of a talis and other such issues.

Some suggest that Jewish shabbos dress is equally incongruous in a modern city anyway, so what difference does a woollen talis make? Without nailing my colours to the pole, the first response to this criticism would have to be that the issue has nothing to do with him. He merely agreed with the Shulchan Aruch, Ramo, Magen Avraham, Seforno and Chida. Furthermore, as one of my Rosh Yeshivas[7] once explained, we have no imperative to make a public display out of something not absolutely mandated by our law.

Others suggest that he is being cowardly by trying to keep Jews hidden from society. And anyway, Jews need to be proud. The response to this would have to be that he clearly never suggested that we cower away.  There is a profound difference between being proud, and being loud and proud. Every culture on earth should be afforded the opportunity to be proud. But loud and proud smacks of arrogance and superiority, traits not usually appreciated by others belonging to a different group. One needs to remember that a society is a composite of numerous peoples. Each has an equal right for self expression. But when one’s rights impinge on another’s, a line has been crossed.


In a similar vein, Rabbi Hershel Schachter[8] has this to say about people who daven on an airplane in such a way as to disturb those around them:

“...regarding davening with a is highly improper for the chazzan of a minyan to shout at the top of his lungs to enable the other(s) hear him over the airplane noise, and wake up all the passengers around him...When Orthodox Jews disturb non-observant Jewish passengers with their daverning, the non-observant passengers still remain non-observant and now just have another point about which to be upset with the Orthodox. The practice of the Orthodox passengers under such circumstances appears simply as an act of harassment.”[9]

Chareidim protesting against sitting next to women on a plane.
Davening Shacharit with permission in the galley

According to halacha, a traveller is even permitted to recite the amidah while being seated. And according to many leading rabbis[10] we certainly should not be disturbing other passengers on a flight.


I don’t believe this issue is necessarily only about a talis and praying on a plane. It’s symptomatic of a far greater existential question. We Jews have a mitzvah of kiddush HaShem, plus an injunction not to allow others to views us as being abnormal. We are supposed to be able to keep our traditions while simultaneously function within normative society.  And certainly we should never be derisive towards non-Jews.

In one of the most powerful and daring pieces of writing I have ever come across by a Halachist, Rabbi Schwarz urges us not to minimise the moral gentile. He bravely writes:

“Consider the following:  A large city like New York, whose population includes members of almost every nationality on earth – people of different faiths, different views, and even different appearances – has nevertheless managed through its own wisdom to institute order and unity among all its inhabitants, with equal rights for each individual, a single school system for all its children, and a single court system that is accepted by all. Yet we...are incapable of setting up one Beis Din (religious court) for the entire community, and one cheder for all the children, and are as divided as if we were a nation of seventy nationalities.”

He writes about the progress and development the non-Jewish world has seen, as it moved from slavery to modern day civil rights, and says: “The gentiles of today certainly have no reason to be ashamed when their conduct is compared to that of their parents and grandparents. ..The (gentiles) have destroyed the ghettos, while we are erecting new ghettos. Each group and faction builds a ghetto for itself that completely isolates its members from other observant Jews who inhabit a different ghetto.[11]

Rabbi Schwarz poignantly points out that gentiles don’t care if we buy a beautiful etrog, or if we have high quality tefillin, but they do notice when we are not truthful in our business dealings and when we behave contrary to societal norms which they seem quite able to generally abide by. Never mind gentiles, but even immoral people are still able to walk in a street normally and sit respectfully in a plane. He says “Therefore it is important that we take notice of any desirable qualities or conduct amongst the gentiles, and take them to heart.”

And if someone says that they don’t care what gentiles think, they have to be reminded that the mitzvah of kidush HaShem is specifically dependent upon both, what non-religious Jews, and upon what gentiles think. This mitzvah has to do with their perception, not ours! All we do is create their impression.


The truth is that there is a way to wear a talis in the street, there is a way to daven on a plane, and there is a way to dance all night on Purim. But it has to be respectful of those others who don’t care to join us. If it involves dancing in the street, it has to be legal and endorsed by the authorities. If it involves a minyan on a plane, it has to be with permission from the cabin crew, and in an area that does not disturb other passengers.

So many of us manage to wear talleisim and daven every single day of our lives, no matter where we are, without ever having to inconvenience any other human being.

Why is it, then, that so many others never seem to give a moment’s thought as to how others perceive them? 

[1] See previous post, Kotzk Blog 55.
[2] Orach Chaim 554,17.
[3] Seforno to Devarim 4,6.
[4] Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806).
[5] See Ma’agal Tov.
[6] Eyes To See, published by Urim, p 288.
[7] Rabbi Azriel Goldfein ztl.
[8] Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva University.
[9] See – davening on a plane.
[10] Rabbi Shlomo Wahrman, She’erit Yosef vol7, siman 3.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Halichot Shlomo, p75.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim vol 4, siman 20.
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi Shmuel Wosner.
[11] Eyes To See, by Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, published by Urim 2004, p249-261.

1 comment:

  1. well said, and I am trying to be against what you say, but it just make sense.
    I mean trying with ebing against in the sense, that ofcourse we DO have a special mission sort to speak that involves to be a light among the nations. So its ok to be a little louder and a little more not arrogant ofcourse but more outstanding, outspoken, etc.

    All that said, there is a way and a time to do things.
    The right way is somewhere in between, I am divided on this..