By Dovid Z. Schwartz
The Five Towns has a noble tradition of community involvement. Not only has it been the birthplace of many great tzedakah and chesed organizations, but it also has been an active participant in raising leaders in local government.
Having a community of residents who are knowledgeable and engaged in the world at large while proud of their Jewish values has raised the Five Towns’ status as a vibrant community that has helped to demonstrate how worldly success serves as a strong engine to advance spiritual goals.
The main method of outreach by Avraham, our father, was to invest his vast fortune to provide exquisite hospitality to guests. By showering kindness on his guests, Avraham Avinu harnessed the material world to open their hearts and their minds to appreciate the kindness of the Blessed Creator.
Even more, Yaakov Avinu emerged from struggling with–and beating–con artists like Eisav and Lavan at their own game, to raise a family dynasty that would be the foundation of the Jewish people to this day.
There’s no contradiction between worldly success and spiritual integrity from a Torah perspective. In the goyish world, Christianity in particular, all physical pleasures of the world are seen to be rooted in corruption. But for the Jewish people, who have the exceptional good fortune of having inherited the Torah, if used properly, the greatest gifts of the physical world can be effectively used as a means to serve the Blessed Creator.
Even someone whom we might have thought would be the ultimate ascetic, Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, famous for authoring the work of mystical thought, the Zohar HaKadosh, is quoted nevertheless in the sixth perek of Pirkei Avos as saying, “The beauty, the strength, the wealth, the fame, the wisdom, the seniority, the satisfaction, and the progeny are good for the righteous and good for the world.” This is the same Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai who lived for 12 years in a cave subsisting on nothing but water and carobs and engaging in Torah learning with his son.
Success can inspire others. It can be a powerful vehicle for making positive changes in the world. But our success cannot be enjoyed at the expense of compromising an even more precious commodity: our good name.
Many Jewish businessmen who are engaged with the secular world might tell you that, contrary to popular belief, Orthodox Jews are held in high esteem by many. To a large extent, gentiles and non-observant Jews look up to Orthodox Jews as a rare few who are privileged to live by a high spiritual standard.
But a few years ago, many Jewish New Yorkers’ hearts were broken to witness the great state of New York callously cast aside the cornerstone of morality in American society, the family structure recognized as the marriage of a man and a woman, with not one public hearing in the legislature on the issue.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver will have to answer for his betrayal. But even more disappointing was the reckless disregard of Jewish values by someone who represented a bustling, growing Jewish community–Five Towns State Senator and Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos. For over six months in 2011, Senator Skelos purposely obscured his intention to make good on a promise he made to a meeting to the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay activist group, that he would bring the marriage bill to the Senate floor for a vote. The bill had been roundly defeated little more than a year and a half before, and the composition of the Senate had changed little in the interim.
At that time, Senator Skelos officially said he was against gay marriage. But he also said on this issue he could only do what his fellow Republican senators wanted. But note that the Senate Majority Leader is perfectly capable of declaring that a particular bill will not reach the floor, just as his predecessor, Joe Bruno, did, just as Speaker Boehner did on the immigration issue in Congress, and just as Senator Skelos himself is doing now with Mayor de Blasio’s universal preâ€‘K proposal.
To top it off, after the unusual act of holding the Senate in session until deep into a Friday night to hold the marriage vote, Senator Skelos showed up at a fundraiser at the home of an Orthodox Jewish community member later that same weekend.
Now, the pseudo-conservative coalition embodied by Senator Skelos is being held up by none other than Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo as the model for social conservatism in the state.
Last month, Governor Cuomo, who is running for reelection this year, declared in an interview that people “who are right-to-life, pro-assault-weapon, anti-gay . . . they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” That’s right: issues that were once thought to be topics that reasonable people can disagree on–like support for abortion and the public acceptance of homosexuality–have now been declared by the governor to be conclusively decided. To spell it out, the governor of the state of New York has publicly stated our Torah values are un-American.
But that’s not all. Governor Cuomo added some advice to the Republican Party about how they should stand on certain issues. “If they’re moderate Republicans like in the Senate right now, who control the Senate, moderate Republicans have a place in the state,” he said.
Governor Cuomo’s statement is wrong on so many levels it’s proper to take a moment to elucidate. Not only does he (1) feel entitled to pontificate about “who New Yorkers are” and define a “New Yorker” to exclude Torah values, he (2) goes on to state quite plainly that those people who don’t share his views on social issues “have no place in the state.” It’s not clear exactly what he means by this. But it’s clear he intends to make us feel unwelcome. To top it off, the highest officeholder of the Democratic Party in the state is (3) giving instructions as to what are the acceptable values that can be held by the opposition party.
We are witnessing the hardening of socially liberal positions into rigid dogma. So rigid, that in the name of “tolerating” others the governor is threatening exile for those who don’t share his point of view.
It’s not enough for us to just shake our heads and lament over the decline of society. Nor can we write off the betrayals of our values by our elected officials as simply the “cost of doing business” in a traditionally liberal state. There is a calculated campaign at work now, spearheaded at the highest levels of government, to create an environment designed to shame us into becoming embarrassed of our beliefs in hopes that, Gâ€‘d forbid, we will abandon them.
The knowledge and ability of the Five Towns community also carry with it a distinct responsibility. Our brothers who live in more insulated neighborhoods, who do not boast of professionals from all ranges of secular experience in their ranks, might content themselves to elect a “Shabbos goy” from outside the community to do their work in Albany.
But an illustrious kehillah such as the Five Towns with countless ba’alei tzedakah and ba’alei chesed–people who are quite capable of succeeding in competition against the secular world–can no longer settle for second best by allowing people who are hostile to our moral values to represent us in the public sphere. v
Dovid Z. Schwartz is an attorney and director of the Community Guardians Group, a nonpartisan, independent, and privately funded organization that seeks to represent Torah values in the public forum. Visit www.zehjournal.com for more information. Neither Mr. Schwartz nor the CGG were paid by any candidate or organization.