Opinion: Do Orthodox Jews look down on others?

“Why do Orthodox Jews think they’re ‘holier than thou,’ even with the way they dress?” This comment was expressed to me by another Jew, who noted that some other Jews hold this same viewpoint. If so, I wonder whether some Jews view devotees of other religions in a similar vein, or whether this sentiment is held by members of other religions about their own coreligionists: If a Sikh wears a turban, is that person perceived as putting on airs? What about a Muslim who wears a headscarf or veil? Etc.

As a yarmulke and tzitzits-wearing Jew myself, I do my best to follow the full extent of Jewish law — not to outdo anyone or prop myself up. To the contrary, the point of a yarmulke, for example, is humility: there is a Being greater than I. If my practice of Judaism leads me to look down on others, then I’ve failed. Then I’ve completely missed the point of Torah and mitzvahs.

Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher at two elementary schools in the Shorewood School District and a freelance writer. He lives in Milwaukee.

Performing a mitzvah does not make someone more Jewish (i.e., I’ve done x amount of mitzvahs today and you’ve only done y, so I’m better—No!). You do a mitzvah because you are Jewish, not in order to be more Jewish. This is an inheritance that’s yours as much as it is mine, no less, no more.

Joshua Becker

If my aura, appearance or insistence on following Jewish law makes me appear arrogant in the eyes of others, well, so be it — but that is not whatsoever what I have in mind when I approach a mitzvah, or how I try to carry out my life. I do mitzvahs, and even wear mitzvahs, because that’s how I connect to and strive for a relationship with G-d. The root of the word mitzvah is “tzavta,” meaning “connection.” G-d creates a path through physical objects and acts, i.e., mitzvahs, so that we can come close. That’s how a finite being can connect to an infinite G-d. That doesn’t mean that I wish anyone else any ill-will (i.e., because I do mitzvahs x, y and z but someone else doesn’t, that person is no less deserving of G-d’s benevolence).

I have a friend who was questioned about his tzitzits (ritual fringes) in a not-so-friendly way. Patiently, my friend tried explaining tzitzits based on the letter of the law and on its spiritual aspects, but each explanation was met with incredulity. Until, my friend said, “I need all the reminders I can get,” and the person was satisfied with that answer. The fringes serve as a way for my friend to conduct himself in a way that aligns to Torah — for himself — not as a way to look askance at other Jews.

Renowned psychiatrist Doctor Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski wrote a book titled “Generation to Generation.” In it, he described being on a bus, dressed in Chassidic garb, when a passenger denounced his old-world clothing and urged him to catch-up to modern America. Rabbi Twerski said he’s Amish, to which the passenger apologized profusely and praised him for retaining his traditions.

Please don’t misjudge me as haughty for wearing a yarmulke. As “Ethics of the Fathers” says, “Judge every person favorably.” I’ll try my best on my end.