W hen a newly appointed head of a major Jewish organization chooses the promotion of spiritual growth and serious strides in Torah learning and mitzvah observance as major organizational priorities, that’s a cause for celebration. And that’s precisely what Moishe Bane has done as the new president of the Orthodox Union (OU).
In his President’s Message in the latest issue of the OU’s Jewish Action quarterly magazine, Mr. Bane asks some very honest, searching questions of himself, his constituents, and all of us. After describing the frenetic nature of contemporary life, which, between work and other responsibilities, leaves precious little time for those people and things that are most precious to us, he asks:
With these, and many other, unavoidable responsibilities and demands, I often wonder how there can possibly be time for one to focus on religious growth. And when making choices for our children, are we preparing them for lifelong spiritual growth — or just casual observance? Is spirituality even on my radar screen, or do I satisfy my time allocation to Judaism by davening, even if it is often way too fast and with far too little focus? Can I buy my way into religious adequacy by writing a bigger check to the local day school or chessed organization? And what about learning Torah? Can I check that box, even if I so often merely scan the words and watch the time, waiting for the shiur to conclude or the page of Talmud to be completed?
…I know life is all about my soul, its nurturing and growth. I know Judaism is all about developing a relationship with G-d. But where is the time? And even when I find some time, how do I make the time meaningful and actually develop this relationship? If I have difficulties getting into the groove of religious growth, is it any wonder that, when teaching Judaism to my children, I am not placing lifelong spiritual growth on their radar screens?
He proposes that the OU complement its long-standing efforts to enhance observant Jewish life through its activities in kashrus, advocacy, and other spheres, and should “now also encourage and assist us, American Orthodox Jews, in pursuing more vigorous growth in our religious lives.” As a past national lay chairman of NCSY, he witnessed the “excitement, creativity and dynamic Torah-oriented programming” it invested in its outreach programs for Jewish teens, and expresses the belief that “if Judaism were as inspiring to us as it is to those NCSY students, we would find the time to focus on religious growth.”
Among his aspirations are that his organization give Jews “guidance on how to study Torah, the most essential tool in pursuing religious growth, in a manner that is meaningful and engaging... tools to convert our daily prayers from a meaningless mouthing of words into an actual, genuine conversation with G-d,” and help in transforming Shabbos into “a deeply and intensely religious experience.” And one more crucial one: “Finally, we need guidance on how to mine the deep and magnificent beauty of Torah and our mesorah, to help those of us who perceive halachah as a restrictive array of rules and dictates appreciate it as a personal treasure of empowerment and elevation.”
These are challenging times, with individuals and institutions that have formally organized to promote beliefs and practices in the name of Orthodoxy that are entirely foreign to it, which would be unrecognizable to those who lived and died by the Judaism of the ages. They are wooing Jews who know not any better, and surely there is a need to speak out against these developments and to counteract them directly.
But the things Moishe Bane is looking to do and put the OU’s signature on, the religious nutritional therapy he is recommending in order to nurture the internal, spiritual growth of individuals and communities alike, is another, very positive form of response. When Jews discover and partake of the unparalleled experiential riches of genuine Yiddishkeit, other, counterfeit movements simply cannot compete and their allure vanishes.
BLESSED, BUT NOT BLESSEDLY QUIET Some weeks ago, Yonoson Rosenblum shared his experience of being struck, each time he visits the United States, “by how much it has changed from my youth and early adulthood — in particular, in the bitterness, partisanship, and contempt with which people of one political view tend to hold those of an opposite expression.” This, he wrote, makes him feel relieved to return home to Eretz Yisrael, “and not exclusively because of the intensity of the Torah life.”
I can certainly relate to feeling grateful that one is able to live and raise a family in Eretz Yisrael’s uniquely vibrant Torah atmosphere; I envy people who live there for that very reason and many more.
I don’t feel guilty, however, living where I do. I follow the guidance of gedolei Torah who direct Jews to live wherever it’s best for them, taking into consideration the totality of their particular circumstances in ruchniyus and gashmiyus, including the needs of spouse and children, parnassah, chinuch, and various other factors.
There’s more than a kernel of truth in the story told of a Jew who, flush with spiritual inspiration, decided he’d had his fill of the tumas eretz ha’amim and would instead make the Holy Land his home. He quickly wound up his affairs, gathered his kin and set out on his journey, his Russian hometown now a mere memory. Entering Yerushalayim, his heart quickened as he made his way swiftly to the Kosel Hamaaravi, the focal point of every Jew’s prayers.
But strangely, as he prayed passionately for the first time before the ancient stones, he sensed a presence beside him. He looked up and — lo and behold! — it was the yetzer hara, right next to him at this holiest of sites. Stunned, all he could mutter was, “B-b-but I thought I left you behind in Russia!” Came the swift reply, “Silly one — who do you think brought you here?”
But what I couldn’t fathom was Yonoson’s account of stateside experiences of “bitterness, partisanship, and contempt” between people of differing political views. In this, he described an America neither I nor anyone I’ve asked about this recognizes. In my experiences around the country, and most prominently in a New York City boasting the widest diversity of races, religions, cultures, and political views, people are, with few exceptions, civil, good-natured, and helpful (often, of course, in an idiosyncratically New Yawk way — Minnesota Nice, it ain’t).
Screaming matches over politics? Not in my everyday experience, nor that of anyone else I know. Most people are far too busy making a living, raising a family, or doing whatever else. Granted that many college campuses, like the Middlebury one Yonoson cited that shouted down and then turned violent on conservative scholar Charles Murray, are hotbeds of rancor, censorious behavior, and, at times, violence. One can’t blame outsiders who get their portrait of America solely from a sensationalist news media and cable television shows that nightly feature verbal fisticuffs between political partisans for thinking that college campuses are representative of America as a whole. But I just don’t think that’s so.
If you’re looking for a place where there indeed is acrimony in the streets, expressed in passionate debate, large demonstrations, and clashes over a wide range of political, religious, and social issues, whether between citizens or between citizens and police, you need look no further than Yonoson’s home turf. In many cases, that’s not even a bad thing; often, it’s the result of Jews standing up for what’s good and true. A truly blessed land it surely is. But at this moment in history, a land blessedly devoid of “bitterness, partisanship, and contempt” it’s not. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 656)
Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.