Last week, representatives from the Jewish Voice were present at a gala hosted by Israel’s Beit Morasha, a forward-thinking educational institution that promotes Jewish national unity in a variety of ways, in part through efforts to ease the conversion process for olim (immigrants to Israel) who have a sense of Jewish identity, through cultural and/or familial ties, but who are not yet Jewish according to halacha.
The choice by Beit Morasha to bring its message to prominent American Jews by honoring self-described “secular Jew” and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was a smart move. In addition to showing a heartfelt appreciation for the man’s tireless efforts on behalf of his fellow Jews and for the Jewish state, it demonstrated that Beit Morasha isn’t hung up on labels. Although the organization itself adheres to the standards of halacha, its goal is to create achdut, unity among all Jews, regardless of affiliation or lack thereof. All that being said, we can’t help but think that it may have backfired, if only a little.
Mayor Koch started off his acceptance speech by addressing the recent incidents, in Beit Shemesh and elsewhere, where ostensibly “pious” Chareidi Jews assaulted women (in one case, an eight year old girl) for not meeting their standards of modesty. He lambasted “ultra-Orthodox Jews” for trying to “dictate” to Orthodox Jewry, and all the more so secular society, how we should live our lives.
I have some reservations about the above assertion, because it makes this amorphous entity, the “ultra-Orthodox,” those people, into the enemy. On the other hand, he did say he was irked by the way they were forcing their mores to other Jews, including the frum ones. And his frustration is understandable. I—and everyone I know—was furious about the attack in Beit Shemesh; even, nay, especially my Chareidi friends. So I guess ol’ Ed gets a pass on this one.
Then he said something else that caught my ear. He argued that, despite a, let’s say “difficult,” history, the Jewish people and the State of Israel could find a strong ally in the modern-day Catholic Church. He expressed his dismay that certain Jews refuse to set foot inside a church, dismissing this as “ridiculous.”
Well excuse us, Mr. Koch, for taking the Jewish Law (both Biblical and Rabbinic) seriously. Most poskim say it is forbidden to enter a Church’s sanctuary (where services are held). This is because Christianity is founded on Trinitarianism which, though it may not be outright idolatry (it’s a matter of some debate), is forbidden to Jews. And so we must distance ourselves from it. But preserving our faith to the exclusion of all others is a rejection of Catholicism as a foreign religion, not (G-d forbid) a rejection of Catholics as fellow human beings deserving of the same respect as anyone else. People whom we can befriend, and ally ourselves with, at least now that we’ve put all that ridiculous business of the Crusades and the Inquisitions behind us.
Mr. Mayor, you are a proud Jew, and a source of nachas (Jewish pride) to so many of us. But perhaps you could pick your comments on Torah Judaism with a little more care next time? Of course, we can’t stay mad at you!
Ed Koch is like New York’s lovable grandpa. Sometimes he says things that leave you scratching your head in disbelief. But in the end, he’s utterly dedicated to his family (in this case meaning New York, the Jewish people, or the United States of America—take your pick), and the many years he has spent (and may he continue to spend, ad meah v’esrim) working to support and protect said family, certainly gets our respect, as it should yours.