When in . . .
By Yochonon Donn
New York's Republican candidate for mayor was harshly criticized for respecting an Orthodox Jewish Brooklyn congregation's religious custom. A double standard?
ROOKLYN Ever see the picture of President Barack Obama wearing a Somali tribal costume? Hillary Clinton with a Muslim headscarf? Britain's Prince William shoeless?
Elected officials, world-renowned journalists and even civil rights activists when, in Rome, do like the Romans.
Women cover their hair when going into a mosque. And visitors when turning up at a temple remove their shoes at a Hindu one and don bandanas at a Sikh.
There is, after all, a certain standard of behavior that is universally recognized as just the decent thing for a visitor to do.
Well, not always.
When New York's Republican mayoral candidate, Joe Lhota, wandered into a synagogue in Brooklyn's heavily Chassidic Boro Park neighborhood Wednesday as the congregation held services, the city's full court press converged to falsely report the details of how three women accompanying him were booted.
Men and women in Orthodox and Chassidic Judaism, it must be remembered, never mix at prayer in order to keep their attention on the Divine and not each other.
"Joe Lhota does nothing as women with him are kicked out of Brooklyn synagogue," screamed a New York Daily News headline. "Lhota campaigns at men-only ultra-Orthodox synagogue," blared Newsday.
The City, after all, needed to be on high alert.
In Gotham, of all places, yet another anti-woman GOP candidate was gaining ground, don't you see. He needed to be stopped!
Out of respect -- and of his own volition -- Lhota voluntarily decided to don a yarmulke. When he walked in, there were no stares. The shul's approximately dozen denizens were all davening (praying).
Along with Lhota and his mostly male entourage, were a female NYPD officer, a female aide and Erin Durkin, a New York Daily News reporter. Since the congregation was at prayer, the group were politely asked to separate for a few moments until after Lhota emerged.
Apparently given the nature of the unscheduled peeking and the candidate's limited schedule there wasn't sufficient time for the women to go to the lady's section.
Durkin immediately took to Twitter to voice her displeasure at being "ejected".
"Female reporters and staffers ejected from [Lhota] stop at Borough Park synagogue," she tweeted.
Seeing the tweet, I asked Durkin what Lhota had to do with the request to leave, which was done on religious grounds.
"Oh, I did not mean he had anything to do with that," she told me.
OOPS! Too late.
So began a 24-hour period in which hallowed Jewish law was ridiculed in the media, thrown in with the usual fare that marked the tabloids' coverage of this year's circus-like mayoral campaign.
But is it, really?
When politics creeps into our shuls, and Judaism's 3,000-year-old traditions are treated with the cynical brush of the 24-hour news cycle, it's a sad day for America and an even more tragic one for human decency.
The Associated Press quoted the Democratic candidate, Bill de Blasio, opining outside a Manhattan rally Thursday that he found it "perplexing" that Lhota would have "organized an event" in a "situation [where] women wouldn't have access to."
It is a disheartening quote. Not because de Blasio is incorrect Lhota's aides should indeed have prevented the situation from occurring. But because the mainstreaming of such notions cheapens the sanctity of shuls for the politics of moment. (It also was not an "organized event," but a spontaneous stop.)
A "no comment" would have been far more appropriate and sensitive, especially for a former councilman who knows better. Not long ago de Blasio actually represented parts of that very community.
Confronted afterward by the media scrum, Lhota responded well. He defends the rights of practitioners of a faith to decide their own religious laws and customs.
"I will not as mayor violate their First Amendment constitutional rights for their religious practices," the Republican promised.
Lhota is to be commended for his defense of Jewish tradition, but he got it wrong for basing his position on the Constitution.
Respect of another's religious beliefs and customs is a matter of decency, not a question of right or wrong --- legal or otherwise.
For thousands of years Jews who live synagogue-centered lives have made sure that, even as social norms have waxed and waned, those who come to pray actually wind up doing do so without distraction --- no matter how fleeting the moment or under what circumstances.
It figures then that when entering a synagogue, visitors conduct themselves with that in mind.
Comment by clicking here. Yochonon Donn, a periodic JWR contributor, is political and local news editor at Hamodia, the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.
Yochonon Donn, a periodic JWR contributor, is political and local news editor at Hamodia, the Daily Newspaper of Torah Jewry.
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© 2013, Yochonon Donn
© 2013, Yochonon Donn