Most issues worth writing about can be approached from multiple perspectives, and thus any single column is likely to present only a partial view. I was reminded of this last Thursday, when I participated in a panel on state and religion in Israel sponsored by the Israel Government Fellows Program of the Menachem Begin Center. My co-panelists turned out to be the current director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and a teacher at a Jerusalem “secular yeshivah” who is also a blogger on New Age spirituality.
In her opening remarks, the IRAC director spoke of the need for equal treatment for the various Jewish “denominations.” That provided the opening for me to attack the very notion of “denominations” in Judaism. I noted that Paul, the founder of Christianity, came to free mankind from the yoke of the Law, and that Reform, which denies any binding halachah, is on the Christian side of the divide between Christianity and Judaism.
And similarly when the New Age blogger predictably started with the usual airy-fairy paeans to each person’s need to define his own relationship with G-d, I pointed out that his focus on the subjective religious experience comes straight from German Protestantism, out of which Reform grew, and even before that to Greek paganism. And thus it is no accident that so many of the New Age festivals quickly degenerate into Dionysian bacchanals.
Does that mean that the Torah negates the individual? Quite the opposite. Each Jew has a unique mission in life, a particular song of praise to Hashem that only he or she will ever be in a position to sing. But that unique relationship with Hashem takes place only within the framework of the mitzvos He has commanded.
I was not debating whose conception of Judaism is more valid, but rather demonstrating why there could be no debate: Any attempt to define Judaism apart from the mitzvos of the Torah lacks any internal coherence.
DO I IMAGINE that I speeded any of my listeners — 25 Jewish graduate students from around the world in Israel for fellowships in government offices for the year — on the path to becoming baalei teshuvah? No. Though I may have strengthened at least two modestly dressed young women.
But I do think that I exposed these Jewishly identified young people to a perspective that many of them had never heard: Just because a person is halachically Jewish does not make his opinions on Judaism valid. And the exposure to a smiling, reasonably articulate chareidi speaker — perhaps for the first time — presumably has some value. (It probably doesn’t hurt that I could also present myself as coming from the same place as most of the audience, and thus as less alien.)
I cannot imagine how the audience would have been advantaged in any way to listen to two presentations painting the Israel Chief Rabbinate as the source of all religious problems in Israel and state-supported pluralism as the cure. (Not that they heard any ringing defense of the Chief Rabbinate from me.) Wasn’t it better for them to know that even in secular Tel Aviv there are 550 Orthodox shuls and one Reform Temple open only on Shabbos? Shouldn’t they know that self-defined “secular” Israelis are on average far more observant than American Jews who define themselves as Reform or Conservative?
Ironically, I felt the effectiveness of my presentation was helped greatly by having the two other panel members as foils. I doubt there would have been much interest had I just made a solo presentation of the Torah worldview. But by being able to weave it in repeatedly in the context of a very different discussion, I felt I had a much more attentive audience and could also expose the incoherence of the opposing worldview.
SO WHY AM I SOUNDING SO DEFENSIVE? Some readers may recall that two weeks ago I defended in this space the gilui daas of the leading rabbinic figures in England, expressing their opposition to the participation of Orthodox rabbis in Limmud (“Judaism Is Not a Smorgasbord”). And I continue to think that a situation in which Orthodox speakers are hawking their wares together with Reform, Conservative, alternative lifestyle advocates, and various anti-Israel agitators conveys the message that Torah is just another option in the potpourri of delectable items for tasting and a bizayon HaTorah.
My friend Rabbi Alan Kimche has written a lengthy description of this year’s Limmud program that makes it impossible to gainsay the conclusion that Orthodox participants will be more than mere “window dressing” for what should rightly be called the Limmud Program for Progressive Judaism. And I’m skeptical about the likely impact of any presentation in a context where listeners are sampling from an à la carte menu. Above all, I remain convinced it was a tragedy that the British Orthodox establishment abandoned Encounter, an alternative to Limmud, which attracted large nonreligious audiences, rather than building it into something like the phenomenally successful Sinai Indaba in South Africa.
As a biographer of Rabbi Moshe Sherer ztz”l, who wrote the 1956 psak of 11 gedolim against participation of Orthodox organizations and rabbis in umbrella rabbinic organizations together with non-Orthodox rabbinic or religious organizations, that psak remains for me the starting point of discussion for any kind of participation together with heterodox representatives.
But that does not mean that one can easily extrapolate from the 1956 psak to other cases. Every situation involves a delicate balancing and requires high-level rabbinic input. For instance, at last week’s panel, I was (accurately) not billed as a rabbi and did not appear as a religious authority; the topic was not inherently theological; the sponsoring body was secular, not religious. And, most importantly, I had full control of my message. Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, two of the leading signatories of the 1956 psak, both permitted wives of bnei Torah to teach in Conservative Hebrew schools (under certain conditions) as long as they were free to teach what they wanted.
But it is not hard to imagine countless other cases where the relevant balancing is more difficult. Had Limmud, for instance, acquiesced to a day of only Orthodox presentations, and not insisted on conveying the subliminal message that “it’s all a matter of opinion” by mashing Torah together with advocacy of same-gender marriage, presentations that denied the Torah’s Divine origins, and all matter of Jewish trivia masquerading as “learning,” the case for Orthodox participation would have been much stronger.
Was there ever a time when most Jews regularly davened with great intent and engaged in a type of hisbonenus (contemplation) requisite for even the first level of Rabi Pinchas ben Yair’s ladder of spiritual ascent — watchfulness (as described by the Ramchal)? As far back as the prophet Yeshayahu, mitzvas anashim melumadah — “a mitzvah performed by rote” — has been perceived as a great threat to Klal Yisrael.
The rapid spread of Chassidus among the masses of Eastern European Jewry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and of the mussar movement a few decades later among the elites, both suggest a preceding crisis triggered by the loss of a sense of a deep personal connection to Hashem.
True, our ancestors lived in a far less skeptical age, when belief in a Divine Being was the default position. And they faced neither the rampant materialism nor the constant distraction of modern media that characterize contemporary life. On the other hand, the grinding poverty of Eastern Europe often made it hard to think about anything beyond eking out one’s daily existence.
My question is provoked by the appearance of the newest issue of Dialogue, the opening section of which is entitled “A Call to Spiritual Arms.” In his lead essay, Rav Aharon Feldman identifies as the single greatest issue facing religious Jewry today “that many — too many — of us are observant, even punctiliously so — but not quite religious.” We lack “the emotion of the heart, the focus and forethought of the mind, the commitment of the spirit” implied in serving Hashem with “all your heart and all your soul.” Rav Feldman argues that “emunah, bitachon, and character improvement are not sufficiently nurtured” in our educational systems, and that it is a mistake to assume that concentration on Gemara learning by itself can provide what is missing.
On one level, it is a sign of the strength of the Torah community that we can address openly the issue of the lack of deep spiritual connection. (The Spring 2012 issue of Klal Perspectives focused on the same issue.) The essays that follow Rav Feldman’s analyze some of the causes. My colleague Rabbi Eytan Kobre argues that the happy assumption that we can have the best of gashmiyus and the best of ruchniyus — and easily — underlies much of the malaise. We have forgotten that anything of value requires effort: l’fum tza’ara agra.
The essay likely to have the most immediate impact is Rav Zev Cohen’s detailed description of a mussar vaad for former yeshivah students now working that has been meeting in Chicago for many years, and of the profound impact it has had on all of its members. The mussar vaad offers a concrete response to the need that many of us experience for a spiritual anchor, and the model Rav Cohen describes can be replicated in every Jewish community. Rav Naftali Kaplan, the talmid muvhak of Rav Dovid Kronglass, the late mashgiach of Ner Israel, has been involved in establishing mussar vaadim in the United States for many years, and has recently launched a new initiative in this regard. So this may really be an idea whose time has come.
In addition to “A Call to Spiritual Arms,” the new Dialogue contains lengthy sections on science and Torah, sources of Jewish practice, and Jewish history, plus a speech by Rav Feldman on the draft of yeshivah students given to over 100 Israeli army generals. In all, the issue runs over 300 pages, and contains significant essays by a remarkable number of recognized talmidei chachamim and roshei yeshivah, including Rav J. David Bleich, Rav Yaakov Hillel, Rav Aharon Lopiansky, and Rav Mayer Twersky.
The essays are uniformly stimulating and well-written, and sometimes combatively argued. Rav Mayer Twersky’s “Judaism and Deviant Behavior” states concisely and clearly the Torah response to the ever-accelerating momentum of various deviant movements.
All in all, the new Dialogue represents a publishing event for the Torah world and a cornucopia of intellectual delight for readers.