Of all the complaints and criticism surrounding this entire post-election conversation (or should I say shouting match), there is one that has bothered me far more than the others. While much of the highly polarized rhetoric that has taken over our public sphere is unhelpful and dangerous (see my article here), one recent critique, that has dominated recent conversation in the Jewish community, is particularly unfair.
The incident I am talking about is all of the criticism that has been hurled at Ivanka Trump (an Orthodox, Jewish convert) for riding in a car during Trump’s inaugural weekend. Ivanka apparently received rabbinical permission to ride in a car during Shabbat, with the leniency of “Pikuach Nefesh” being cited as the primary reason. This leniency has sparked an onslaught of articles and conversation from within the Orthodox community accusing Ivanka of not being “religious enough” and even questioning the legitimacy of her Jewish identity.
Needless to say, this is not ok for many reasons.
First off, and least important, many people simply do not have enough knowledge of the Halachic system to understand all of the intricacies involved in this decision. Riding in a car on Shabbat is, in all probability, only a rabbinical prohibition, allowing for a more lenient ruling. While some are complaining that the original rabbi should have published his thought process to avoid this whole controversy, there is no need or precedent for him to have done so. Ivanka, as an Orthodox Jew, did the right thing by consulting a Rabbi to answer a difficult Halachic question, and then subsequently follow his ruling. From a pure Halachic angle, she is blameless on many accounts.
What is more deplorable is the clear breech of Halacha and Jewish values on the part of her attackers. We all know many orthodox Jews that are extremely lenient on Halachic matters, but they are seldom bashed directly by fellow Jews. Ivanka however is a convert, who must live with the constant fear that her identity could be called into question at any moment. It is for that exact reason that converts are so protected by biblical and the Talmudic law. We are told repeatedly that we must not mock the convert, remind them of their origins, treat them as inferior, etc. Furthermore, one of the main lessons we learn from the Exodus narrative, that is so central to our collective memory (see here and here for more), is that we must emphasize with converts, for we were once “strangers in the land of Eygpt” (Exodus 23:9). The idea that people are questioning Ivanka’s due to her identity as a convert is exactly what a major proportion of our Torah is commanding against. Furthermore, one of the reasons why Trump is so hated is because of his insulting and bullying comments. Why should we regress to that level?
Even from a purely logical or amoral perspective, bashing Ivanka’s actions make no sense. It is unsurprising that a large percentage of her critics are against the Trump administration. Suffice it to say that while there are many reasonable things to attack or challenge Trump for, this is certainly not one of them. By unreasonably and unfairly attacking Ivanka, it decreases the strength of other critiques. In other words, many on the political right feel that people on the left try and find any single excuse possible to attack their candidate. While this may or may not be true, attacking Ivanka certainly does not help. Save the criticism for when it is truly needed, otherwise no one will listen when there are important critiques to be raised.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, I think that this whole conversation can be framed in the context of a much larger problem that is ubiquitous in the Orthodox Jewish community. Orthodox Jews can be extremely judgmental at times, especially when they feel that others are not living up to their expectations. Non- Orthodox Jews or even less observant Orthodox Jews, often feel extremely uncomfortable in the Orthodox community. Of course, this entire situation is extremely paradoxical as the very Jewish tradition that this community is supposedly defending explicitly warns them against judging anyone else – as the Mishna states: “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place” Avot 2:4.
However, rather than rest my case on a simple Mishna I want to recount an interesting story in the Tanakh that I feel conveys a similar message. In a pure Midrashic Abraham fashion, the judge Gideon destroys his father’s idols in the middle of the night. When the men of the village threaten to kill him for his actions, Gideon’s father states “‘Will ye contend for Baal? or will ye save him?…if he be a god, let him contend for himself, because one hath broken down his altar.” (Judges 6:31). What Gideon’ father is basically arguing is that if you believe in your God, then why do you need to defend him from sinners, when he can presumably defend himself?
Now if we believe the Tanakh to still be relevant in our modern society, where the chances of some of your community members building an idolatrous temple are quite slim, we need to look to the general message. Gideon’s father correctly argued that we should leave all judgement to God. If a man sins against God, then let it be taken up between the two of them. This is certainly the conclusion that the sages of the Talmud came to when they basically abolished the legal authority to carry out the vast majority of biblical injunctions (see here for more), and one that the Orthodox community must internalize if it desires to remain relevant for the next generation.
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