There have been several news stories over the past few months (and general trends that are observable over the last few years) that have me wondering where we are going as a people.
Of course, everyone knows about the violence on the buses in Israel. Last year, Miriam Shear was beaten on a bus for refusing to leave a seat that she was legally entitled to keep. This year, we have another story of a woman who was beaten for not leaving a seat (I don't know if this was a "mehadrin" [separate seating] bus for not, but even if it was, there is no excuse for beating someone up over this anyway), and an Israeli soldier was beaten for coming to her aid.
We have stories of vigilantes who go around destroying clothing they find offensive and torching people's businesses for selling items that they find offensive.
We have stories about ever-more extreme steps being taken to separate the sexes to the point where concerts are banned even when they have separate sex seating. We take away almost every opportunity for adult singles to meet each other and then we complain that there is a "shidduch crisis." In some circles, adult singles aren't even allowed to meet until the prospective date is vetted out for every possible detail from the truly legitimate avenues of inquiry to the downright silly questions of tablecloths and loafers versus laces.
We have stories where boys are told to extort large sums of money from their future fathers-in-law, even when they can't afford it, because the yeshiva's prestige is more important than the father-in-law's finances and shalom bayis.
Whereas once we were a people proud to be educated in all areas of endeavor, we now seek to become a people who shun all knowledge outside the daled amos (four cubits) of Torah. Women's education programs were banned in Israel (where, in Chareidi circles, women are the main breadwinners of the household) and those who already completed the program have found themselves blacklisted from employment in their chosen field of teaching. Instead of recognizing that there are matters that can be disputed within Judaism, we now seek to outright ban anyone who doesn't toe the official party line.
We've become a people who are so afraid of anything that isn't 100% Jewish in origin that we seek to ban pizza shops or mobile restaurants who dare to operate in our neighborhoods.
We've fostered an environment where not only is it not acceptable to simply "stay out of trouble," but we've defined "trouble" as not actively learning Torah at any given moment. Sporting activities, day trips and the like are now ruled out in many communities because the boys should be learning Torah and not wasting their time with recreation. My Rav recently refelcted on the fact that when he was a boy, there were Saturday night "fun programs" of sports and the like to keep boys out of trouble; now it's all learning programs, when, in fact, young boys (for the most part) are not really capable of keeping up such a schedule. In his words "they should be playing, not learning."
We've set up a society where everyone scrupulously follows all the rules, not because they want to, or because they think the rules are correct; but because they know that if they don't, it will be held against their children when it comes time for shidduchim. Everyone struggles to keep up with the chumra (stringency) -of-the-month club so that they shouldn't seem like second rate Jews.
We've created an environment where people are no longer trusted to be able to police and think for themselves. Cell phones with text messaging has been ruled assur (forbidden) because people might use it to contact others of the opposite gender. Schools have tried to institute policies where parents cannot have Internet access in their house on pain of expulsion on the pretense that they are protecting the children (which, if it were truly the case, then they should just ban the children's use of the Internet). I'm kind of surprised that no one has tried to say that it's forbidden to sleep in the same house with one's wife when she's a niddah.
We have set up a world where "work" has become a dirty word. For thousands of years, from the time of the entry into Eretz Yisroel until recently, the vast majority of our people earned their living while learning part-time, while the truly exceptional scholars among us were supported by the community in full-time learning. Now, it seems that everyone is *expected* to learn full-time and that people who work because they have to either face an economic reality or because they have the maturity to recognize that they aren't capable of full-time learning are looked down on and discriminated against in shidduchim.
We have a community that judges you more by the material that your yarmulke is composed of than the contents of your neshama (soul) and where the material that your skirt is made out of is more determinant of your observance than how well you actually observe the mitzvos (commandments).
With all this currently happening in our midst right now, I shudder to think at where we'll be in twenty to thirty years if nothing changes.
We need to stop leaning always to the right and return to a centrist position. In the sea, a ship that lists too far to the right or the left will eventually sink. Only a ship that is even and upright can survive the voyage. If we don't, the challenges we face in the next generation will be far worse than those we face now. The "teens-at-risk" and "adults-at-risk" situations didn't happen in a vacuum -- they came about at least partly because people have found that Orthodox Judaism has gone so far to the right that they no longer have a place in it. The further we go to the right, the larger these problems will become as more and more people will feel alienated in their own religion.