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Why Are Some Orthodox Communities So Insular?

Dear Jew in the City,

Some Orthodox communities live very separately from the rest of the world. Is this based on any laws?

Thanks,

Abbey

Dear Abbey,

Thanks for your question. I like the way you asked if doing so is “based on any laws.” To that I would say yes – it’s “based on” laws rather than a law itself.

We don’t really have a term for it, but Catholics have a concept called “near occasion of sin.” What that means is intentionally putting oneself into a situation where one might be tempted to sin. We may not have a name for it, but the concept definitely appears in Judaism, and it dates back to our earliest days.

Regarding the Canaanite nations, God told the Jews, “I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand and you shall drive them out before you. You shall not make a covenant with them or with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land lest they make you sin against Me, because you will serve their gods, because they will be a snare to you” (Exodus 23:31-33). Unfortunately, the Jews in the time of Joshua failed to completely drive out the idolatrous Canaanites, with the result that many of their descendants were tempted into idolatry throughout the generations.

Such temptation was also a problem for the Jews in the wilderness. Korach – a Kehasite from the Tribe of Levi – was abetted in his misguided rebellion by members of the Tribe of Reuven. The Reuvenites camped next to the Kehasites, leading Rashi on Numbers 16:1 to quote the Midrash Tanchuma: “Woe to an evil person and woe to his neighbor,” because our neighbors definitely exert an influence on us. 

The Talmudic tractate of Succah also concludes with the dictum “woe to an evil person and woe to his neighbor,” relating to a different incident. The Mishna in Avos (1:7) similarly cautions us, “Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, don’t associate with an evil person, and don’t think there isn’t payback for misdeeds.”

Now, all this sounds like good advice, but perhaps just that: advice. You might therefore ask, “Where are the laws you promised us?” Well, there are definitely laws based on preventing us from socializing with potential bad influences. For example, the law of bishul akum (that a Jew may not eat something that was cooked start to finish by a non-Jew) was instituted by the Sages to prevent us from getting too chummy with our non-Jewish neighbors. (See Mishna Avodah Zara 2:6, Talmud Avodah Zara 38a, et al.) Similar laws apply to milk that was milked by non-Jews without Jewish supervision (chalav stam) and wine that was handled by non-Jews (stam yeinam). Of course, “bad influence” in this context doesn’t mean that they’re bad people; it just means that non-Jews are allowed to do things that Jews aren’t. If we hang around with people who do things that we may not do, we run the risk of being tempted to do those things. (The Sages were particularly concerned about the possibility of intermarriage but Rashi on Avodah Zara 38a also expresses a concern about coming to eat non-kosher food.)

So there’s no law that says, “Don’t live among non-Jews” or “Don’t live among non-observant Jews,” but there is a concept of building a metaphorical “fence” around the Torah (Avos 1:1). Not handling matches on Shabbos (a rabbinic prohibition) keeps us from lighting a fire on Shabbos (a Torah prohibition). Not eating chicken parmesan (a rabbinic prohibition) keeps us from eating veal parmesan (a Torah prohibition). 

Based on these concepts, certain communities might choose more insular lifestyles. After all, if you don’t want your kids to go clubbing on Friday nights, eat bacon double cheeseburgers and engage in casual hook-ups, it makes sense not to surround your kids with peers who go clubbing on Friday nights, eat bacon double cheeseburgers and engage in casual hook-ups.

In truth, all Orthodox Jewish communities do this to one extent or another. We tend to live closer to other members of our synagogues than Methodists or Presbyterians might live to other members of their churches for the very practical reason that we can’t drive on Sabbath and holidays, which are the prime attendance days. The result of this is that our communities tend to be rather tightly knit. We send our kids to yeshivas or Jewish day schools not only because we want them to learn certain things, but because we want them to have teachers and classmates whose values will reinforce the ones we’re trying to impart. 

Bottom line, we all have pretty much the same idea, it’s just a matter of degree. You might think they carry it to extremes, but they might think that your efforts are half-baked. At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is inculcate values that we believe are worthy of preservation without having our impressionable youth swayed by influences that go counter to those values. In the end, isn’t that what every parent does?

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent

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