There are many in our community struggling in silence. They and their challenges are invisible to us, their neighbors, friends, family members, rabbis, rebbetzins and communal leaders. As a religious community, it is our fundamental charge to overcome that, to hear through the silence and see through the darkness.
Spirituality requires the development of a sixth sense, an ability to perceive the invisible, whether that is the G-d outside us or the soul within us.1 This is a basic hurdle to jump in the explicitly religious realms of avodat Hashem. Do we experience prayer as the ultimate opportunity to literally stand before G-d? Can we live lives permeated by tangible faith and yirat Shamayim, fear of Heaven? Religious individuals and communities must, however, also deploy that sixth sense interpersonally, bein adam lachaveiro, to build our capacity to notice and address invisible people and hidden challenges.
It was Moshe Rabbeinu who clearly demonstrated that there is no bifurcation between the spiritual and interpersonal sixth sense. Moshe—the ultimate prophet—had an incomparable ability to see the invisible, to “gaze at G-d’s visage.”2 It was Moshe who stopped to notice the supernatural image of the burning bush.3 And it was that same Moshe who had previously noticed and attended to the suffering of his people4 and to the persecution of strangers, earning his position as our ultimate redeemer and advocate.5
This capacity is not only a definitive characteristic of true leadership; it is the basic measure of greatness, as expressed clearly in the words of Rav Yochanan: “In every place that G-d’s greatness is referenced, you will also find His humility.”6 The verses from every section of Tanach that he cites to support this idea do not speak of humility in the way we usually use the term, but focus in- stead on G-d’s interest and commitment to use His lofty position and power
to consider and address the needs of the most vulnerable. “Who is like the L-rd, our G-d, enthroned so high, yet deigns to look down on heaven and on earth? He lifts the poor from the dust, raises the needy from the dunghill, to seat him with princes, with the princes of His people. He settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children.”7
Two years ago, I heard about a magnificent arba minim sale. It did not take place in the bustling marketplaces of Jerusalem or on the crowded avenues of Brooklyn, overflowing with beautiful produce and teeming with pre-yom tov energy. It was held in a modest and uncrowded space in New Jersey, and the uplifting nature of the event was the direct result of one person’s ability to see the invisible.
In the days leading to Sukkot, that person—like thousands of others— went to select and purchase his lulav and etrog when he noticed something. The room was predominantly occupied by men scrutinizing the available merchandise, jockeying for position and angling to be the first to review the next fresh batch of samples brought out to the display tables. This is a typical scene, as it is often the men—the ones obligated to fulfill this time-bound positive mitzvah—who assume responsibility for purchasing their family’s arba minim, bringing them home for the entire family to enjoy.
But there were others underrepresented there, women and children who would certainly welcome a set of arba minim but who had no “man of the house” who would bring one home. Where were they? How would they introduce the joy of Sukkot into their homes? This realization led to his arranging an arba minim sale designed specifically to create a comfortable experience for this significant—and often invisible—population.
If this story sounds familiar, you may recall it from a recent article in the pages of Jewish Action addressing the challenges of single parenting.8 That story, along with recent studies conducted by the OU’s Center for Communal Research (CCR), our research arm, surveying Orthodox singles9 and single mothers,10 exposes some of our serious blind spots relative to these populations.
The traditional family unit—rather than the individual—is the fundamental building block of the Orthodox community. This is a source of great strength, as a healthy familial frame- work provides a support system that builds security and resilience, serves as the most effective vehicle for the trans- mission of our mesorah, and contributes to an enhanced sense of identity. The Orthodox emphasis on family is a primary driver of the community’s dramatic growth, driving an earlier and higher rate of marriage than other Jewish denominations,11 a significantly elevated birth rate, a lower rate of divorce than the general population, and an apparently high rate of retention, as the greatest hedge against abandonment is a strong sense of belonging.12
This beautiful and all-important emphasis on family is also the source of numerous challenges and vulnerabilities for the many individuals who are not living within such a household. Research and experience consistently demonstrate the difficulty faced by singles—men and women, single, divorced or widowed, those seeking marriage and those who are not—wishing to properly participate in Orthodox Jewish life and feel valued by their communities. Similarly, single parents struggle to provide their children with the normative experiences of their peers, and those children are consistently and painfully reminded of their family status. And finally, the emphasis on family can produce an extreme reticence to divorce even in toxic and practically irreparable relationships that are deeply harmful and often dangerous to the spouse or children or both.
It would be terribly counterproductive for us to attempt to ameliorate these issues by undervaluing or challenging the significance and prominence of the traditional family structure and its values. It would, however, be profoundly positive to build supports for those who lack them within their own family structure. This would be a fulfillment of one of the Torah’s most repeated instructions, the directive to care for the widow, the orphan and the convert.13 What all these individuals share is the lack of a natural support system. It is not a radical or inappropriate step to suggest that this mandate extends beyond those three arch-categories to anyone who shares our value system but who lacks—through no fault of their own—the support of a caring spouse, an involved parent or a familiar community.14 These individuals almost invariably do not wish to be pitied or to be anyone’s chesed or charity case. They simply wish to be seen and respected for who they are and valued for the contributions they so badly wish to make to their communities, if only we would let them.15
This beautiful and all-important emphasis on family is also the source of numerous challenges and vulnerabilities for the many individuals who are not living within such a household.
That need to overcome invisibility extends to so many others. The OU-CCR survey of divorced mothers demonstrates that the stresses of poor mental health, infertility, economic challenges, struggles with intimacy, special needs parenting, and even multiple births are all meaningful risk factors for divorce. If as a community we could not just commit to produce practical solutions to these technical challenges but also work to build understanding of the as- sociated stresses as they occur, it would allow us to be more supportive and prevent individual and familial collapse.
Our community has begun to address many of our social issues by creating and supporting a plethora of outstanding programs and organizations that provide both services and companionship for those experiencing particular challenges and has also enhanced awareness of those difficulties. However, their ultimate success will be achieved when responding to them is no longer outsourced to discreet specialist organizations dedicated to a particular cause or population but has become baked into our awareness and our normative ability to hear silent cries. That understanding will ultimately produce much more than projects; it will induce neighborliness, respectful and sensitive friendship and an elevated communal sixth sense— among both leaders and peers—that sees the invisible and hears the inaudible.
The Torah law of eglah arufah16 provides perhaps the ultimate expectation that we—leadership and community—see the invisible. An anonymous murder victim is found, and the Torah requires the rabbis of the community to come forward and say, “Our hands did not spill this blood.” The Mishnah,17 surprised by this, asks: Were the elders really the prime suspects in this murder? The Mishnah goes on to explain that while the elders are not to blame for the actual murder, they are to blame for being inattentive and unconcerned with the wayfarer’s welfare. The elders say: “We did not see him come through town and let him leave unaccompanied and without food.”
How does this answer the question? Why is it the rabbis, the leaders, who must say that? Is it their responsibility to feed and to accompany every traveler through town?
Perhaps it is indeed the responsibility of leadership to make every individual feel seen and connected. Leaders must personally greet, welcome and include everyone. But even if it is not possible for the rabbis themselves to literally greet, feed and accompany everyone who passes through town, they must set the tone, activate the community and lead by example such that nobody passes through that city—and most certainly nobody lives in that city—feeling invisible and unnoticed.
This expectation rests on the inability to bifurcate between the interpersonal and the religious. One of the striking findings in the CCR study of divorcees is that those women whose experience had created greater distrust in communal rabbis, leaders and organizations had a lesser feeling of closeness to G-d. As a community, we represent Judaism and G-d to everyone with whom we come in contact. Yehi ratzon shetishreh Shechinah b’ma’aseh yadeinu. We must ensure that G-d’s presence will be felt through the work of our hands.
As an organization, the Orthodox Union will continue to use every means at our disposal to enhance communal sensitivity to these and other issues. It is neither our role nor is it within our capacity to even attempt to create the solutions to every one of these problems. It is our responsibility, however, to generate widespread understanding and compassion. Whether through the pages of this magazine, studies undertaken by our research department, or the formal and informal conversations and connections we may convene amongst our many sensitive, committed and responsible communal partners, together we must find ways to refine our awareness of the needs of others and enhance our ability to act effectively with both caring and respect. Please join us and help us use your vision to improve our own.
1. Berachot 10a.
2. Bamidbar 12:8.
3. Shemot 3:4, Rashi.
4. Shemot 2:11.
5. Shemot 2:17, Seforno.
6. Megillah 31a; included in the V’yitein Lecha prayer recited on Motzaei Shabbat.
7. Tehillim 113:5-9. Translation from The Koren Tehillim.
8. Aviva Engel, “Supporting the Divorced Family: What Every Community Can Do to Help” (summer 2022).
9. This study will be forthcoming.
10. “Kol D’Mama Daka: Silent Voices: The Needs of Divorced Women in the Orthodox Community,” available at research.ou.org/ divorce/.
11. Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of American Orthodox Jews,” pewforum.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2015/08/Orthodox-Jews-08-24-PDF-for-web.pdf
12. Pew Research Center, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020/
13. Note that the Ramban saw Yetziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus itself, as the ultimate expression of G-d’s dedication and responsiveness to those who lack natural support systems (Ramban to Shemot 22:20-22) and mandated us to take up this cause so critical to Him (Ramban, Devarim 11:1).
14. In fact, the Sefer Hachinuch, no. 431, specifically suggests that the mandated care for the convert applies to anyone who moves to an unfamiliar place.
15. It should be noted that these supports should certainly be pro- vided generously and wholeheartedly to members of the Orthodox community who are unable to marry due to same-sex attraction and related issues. The only support that we cannot provide is the affirmation or celebration of behaviors proscribed by the Torah.
16. Devarim 21:1-9.
17. Sotah 45b.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.