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Truth Emerges from Additional Voices

Yonoson Rosenblum

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Torah begins with a beis because beis represents bracha (blessing), writes the Vilna Gaon, and it ends with blessing – VeZos HaBrachah. Blessing, the Maharal and others explain, is associated with ribui (increase), and two, or beis, is the beginning of all increase.

At every level of the creation, the world depends on the pairing of individuals. Most obviously, among advanced life forms, increase requires a male and female. But that physical bond mirrors a deeper metaphysical principle. When the Torah says of Adam, “It is not good for a man to be alone,” it is not referring just to the fact that humankind could not grow without a mate for Adam. Without an ezer k’negdo, without another to stimulate one, even fight with one, no person can fully develop his or her own potential. The necessity of partnership, of a balance or melding of opposites, has implications for all forms of human activity, including Torah learning and middos development.

The world of the spirit is one of unity. The Aseres Hadibros (Ten Commandments) begins with aleph Anochi Hashem Elokeichem . . . – because Hashem is One. Aleph represents absolute Truth. But the material world is composed of physical structures joined together, and truth in this world is of necessity fragmented and partial. Hashem could say shamor v’zachor as one in teaching us the mitzvah of Shabbos, for instance, but the two terms were heard below as two statements. No human being can possess or encompass the entire Truth. And the claim to do so is a form of avodah zara.

The Gemara says that one who studies without a chavrusah (study partner) will grow stupid. That doesn’t just mean that one should learn with someone sitting opposite him, but that growth in Torah requires an opponent who will challenge every conclusion, and constantly force a person to defend, refine, or reject those conclusions. Without being tested in that fashion, chiddushim are inherently suspect. Even when learning alone, one must be constantly ask: Is there another way of explaining the data? Does this explanation satisfy all the difficulties? A young talmid chacham of my acquaintance, whose bookshelves are filled with notebooks of his chiddushei Torah, exemplified this process when he resisted those urging him to publish his chiddushim on the grounds that publication would make it more difficult to retract conclusions that he still wants to reexamine and subject to further testing.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, who relished paradox, used to say that Mussar is the only absolute truth because it forces a person to think, “Maybe I’m wrong.” In the same vein, marriage is the ideal state for a human being because it requires each spouse to fully confront for the first time that there is another point of view. As the Steipler Gaon used to say, it is hard to speak intelligently about the middos of a yeshiva bochur since his shtender never spoke back to him.

 The Rambam’s description of the Golden Mean in middos is another expression of the way in which growth in this world is based on the mixing of disparate and even opposing elements. That Golden Mean is formed from the mixing of opposite traits. Each of those traits, without an admixture of its opposite, is bad. Only the ability of a person to access each of them allows him to respond properly to all the various situations in which he finds himself.

Recently, a new online journal came into existence that seeks to give concrete expression to the idea that because truth in this world is of necessity partial and fragmented, solutions to communal challenges are most likely to emerge from exposure to a variety of perspectives. Any problem worth thinking about almost certainly has a number of components and can be approached in a variety of ways. And thus there is intrinsic value to bringing together those approaches in one forum in a manner that facilitates exploration of the ways in which they complement and conflict with one another. Though the clash of different perspectives does not ensure the emergence of the best solutions, without such a clash, optimal solutions have little chance of being found.

The journal is called Klal Perspectives. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the initiators of the project.) Klal Perspectives is not competition for Mishpacha or any other commercial publication reaching the Orthodox world. Designed as a public policy journal, its entertainment value is close to nil. It is addressed to an exclusively adult audience and its founders have no expectations of or aspirations to mass readership.

The first issue asked contributors to assess the foremost challenges facing American Orthodoxy. Whatever the quality of the responses – a matter on which I am rendered unqualified to pass judgment by virtue of negius (personal interest) – the pioneer issue succeeded in demonstrating the possibility of drawing together contributors from a broad, but by no means complete spectrum, of those who self-identify as Orthodox. (No representatives of Chovevei Torah, for instance, will be found in its pages.) Contributors to the first issue included both the executive vice-president and the chairman of the board of Agudath Israel of America, a rosh yeshiva, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a long-time officer of the Orthodox Union, and rabbis from shuls with diverse affiliations.  

If the pioneer issue did nothing more than validate the importance – nay, necessity – of bringing to bear a wide diversity of perspectives on any issue, dayeinu.


Antagonism in the IDF? Depends for Who

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recently dismissed four national religious cadets close to graduating from a rigorous officer-training course because they walked out of a ceremony at which a female soldier sang a solo and then refused to apologize for ignoring orders to return. The incident sent shock waves through the national religious world, and in particular the hesder yeshivot, which alternate military service with yeshiva studies.

The incident confirmed that there remain pockets of strong opposition to any form of religious accommodation in the IDF, something the outgoing head of the IDF Personnel Directory, General Avi Zamir, had already made abundantly clear in his departing remarks. And it further demonstrated that the IDF remains, as in Ben-Gurion’s time, an instrument of ideological indoctrination: The solo performance in question had not the remotest connection to any military goal.

The incident was also widely covered in the chareidi press, which used it to demonstrate the spiritual dangers that IDF service still poses. The point is rightly taken, but requires a degree of nuance. 

Eli Julian, a former avreich who learned a number of years in kollel prior to entering the IDF’s Shachar (Shiluv Chareidim B’Tzava) program, which provides training for mostly married chareidim in areas where the IDF has critical manpower needs, recently described his surprise at how accommodating the IDF has been. (The program has the highest reenlistment rate in the army.) Every one in the program is required to attend a daily, hour-long daf yomi shiur, is provided with food with the hechsher of the Eidah Hachareidis, can daven in three daily minyanim, and has Chol HaMoed off. When some recruits expressed reservations about a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at which there would be mournful music during sefirah, the entire unit was exempted from attendance.

When it comes to national religious recruits, whom many in the upper brass of the IDF view as a threat to dominate the combat units, the IDF shows little inclination to accommodate religious observance. But for older chareidi recruits, whose participation in military service the IDF wishes to encourage, the situation appears to be quite different.


The Bubbe of Klal Yisrael

There are certain events of such impact on Klal Yisrael that it is impossible not to comment, even if the writer fears he has nothing to add. The passing of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky zecher tzaddekes livrachah on Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos was such an event.

Rebbetzin Kanievsky was the bubbe of Klal Yisrael. Just like a grandmother finds it almost impossible to resist the entreaties of her grandchildren, so Rebbetzin Kanievsky made herself available to any woman in pain who sought her assistance, whether in the form of advice, a berachah, or just words of encouragement. She was the first port of call for almost every religious woman facing difficulties, and for many not-yet-observant women as well. 

My friend Rabbi Ron Yitzchak Eisenman of Passaic, New Jersey captured a poignant moment from one of his visits to the Kanievsky home. Rabbi Eisenmann was ushered in one night while the Rebbetzin and her husband the venerable sage Rav Chaim Kanievsky ylcht”a were sitting alone at the dining room table.

In front of the Rebbetzin were piles and piles of small pieces of paper on which supplicants had written their requests for Divine intervention. On at least one of the small papers, the teardrops of the writer were still visible. Reb Chaim sat opposite her in a misbuttoned blue sweater. “The Rabbanit picked up each and every paper as if [the writer] were her child. She gently unfolded the paper, and with warmth and love she read each and every request to her husband. By the way the ritual played out, I could tell that this was a daily occurrence: the Rabbanit slowly reading the day’s requests for divine help and Rav Chaim responding with the appropriate tefillah (prayer).”

 Who can possibly replace her? Who will offer succor to all those in need?

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