By: Jonathan Feldstein
Perhaps it’s inappropriate for an Orthodox Jew to write about issues related to, and a consequence of, Jerry Falwell Jrs’ recent inappropriate social media post that suggested other inappropriate behaviors, and his taking a leave of absence as President of Liberty University. Perhaps, you wonder, why would an Orthodox Jew even care.
For someone whose life is centered on building bridges between Jews and Christians, I am aware of the tremendous importance that Liberty University has in general, and specifically in educating young Christians while infusing an understanding of the significance of Israel, biblically and in modern times. I also have many friends who either work at, or are proud Liberty alumni.
Christian friends have shared that they are troubled and conflicted by this latest incident on many levels. Apparently, it may not be the first possible inappropriate behavior or actions where Falwell may have demonstrated poor judgment. Some have been uncomfortable with things that Falwell has said or done previously. Some have observed that the Liberty board asking Falwell to step aside is a positive reflection of its fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the university’s well-being, regardless of whether and to what degree he may have done something inappropriate. Christian friends understand behavior like this would be considered inappropriate for a secular university president, how much more so for a Christian university president and leader.
While I care and understand the significance of this transition, it’s not for me to judge. Yet I write because I believe that Jewish tradition has something to teach that can be instructional, if not healing, especially at this season.
One thing about which I am always aware is that we are simply people. God gives us each strengths and weaknesses, and we are tasked with balancing the two. We each have limitations, frailties, and imperfections that are ours to overcome. Knowing that, everything we do ought to be about striving to be better. Within traditional Judaism, there are a few guiding principles from which we can all learn.
In general, modesty is something that is necessary and emphasized in all circumstances. It relates to one’s behavior, internally and externally, and even how one dresses.
One way in which this plays out and can help avoid even appearances of inappropriate behavior in this scenario is that typically Jewish men and women who are either not first degree relatives don’t touch one another. Its awkward sometimes, but not unusual in a business environment, that someone would extend their hand in greeting another person of the opposite gender, or to close a deal, that a traditional Jewish man or woman would not reciprocate. At least that was in the days when shaking hands was not a threat of transmitting a lethal virus. This of course extends to hugs and kisses on the cheek, even in a platonic way, much less other touching. Perhaps as we touch others less now, we can internalize the positive values of scrutinizing who and how we touch when that’s no longer considered a medical risk.
This concept also extends to something as simple as unmarried or unrelated people of the opposite gender not being alone in the same room together. I have been in any number of situations where even in the context of a private meeting with a woman to whom I am not related, the door to the room has been left open, deliberately, to prevent even the false appearance of something improper going on.
Appearances matter. There’s a Jewish concept of, lifnei iver, not putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person (Leviticus 19:14). Rabbinic teaching carries this concept further to avoid misleading people by not even giving the impression of false appearances, much less actually doing things that are inappropriate, and certainly not to do these in public.
Wearing a kippah every day, I am mindful that my behavior represent not just myself, but that of what is and should be expected of an Orthodox Jew. Wearing the “uniform” so to speak, my behavior reflects not just on me, but on how a God-fearing person behaves. That’s an awesome responsibility that I undertake happily, mindful that I have many shortcomings and I strive to improve personally, daily. It also means that in public, I am inclined to go out of my way to behave properly, politely, and respectfully, as an act of kiddush hashem, sanctifying God and revering Him.
Most non-Jews don’t have that same sense of being publicly held accountable (or given credit) for behaviors that affirm our responsibility to God and one another. If Jerry Falwell Jr. were just an average guy, scant attention would have been paid to his recent post. It underscores not only that one needs to be above reproach, but go out of the way to drive with courtesy, open the door for others, and all manner of public behavior.
Ultimately, only God is the Judge.
That brings us to this season. On the Biblical/Jewish calendar, we have just entered the season in which we are most profoundly cognizant of our accountability. The month of Elul begins this week, ushering a period of internal reflection and prayer preceding Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the holiest and most awesome time of the Jewish calendar during which God judges us for the previous year. We are especially mindful to renew our commitment to God and His commandments, and pray that he renews us for a good year ahead.
But preceding that, we need to make right between ourselves and others. It requires that we reflect deeply on our behaviors and actions of the past year, and repent with sincerity, acknowledging shortcomings and asking for forgiveness from anyone who we may have hurt.
I’ve never met Jerry Falwell, though I have visited Liberty and been received with great warmth and respect. While I don’t have a horse in this race specifically, because I spend most of my waking hours building bridges between Jews and Christians, things like this matter. We can and must learn from our mistakes personally. The Biblical commandments that God gave to the Jewish people are my guidebook, and these can be valuable and instructive for my Christian friends as well, especially at this season.