Letters – Fall 2019

CHALLENGES TO EMUNAH

I read your special section on belief (“The State of Orthodox Belief,” summer 2019) with great interest.

May I suggest the following two aids for improving emunah: Say Tehillim in English (or in whatever language is your first language) and append to the daily prayers a short prayer for your own needs in your first language as well. Even when one has a good grasp of Hebrew, when Hebrew is not one’s first language, the immediacy of King David’s pleas to be saved cannot be perceived on the same emotional level as when they are read in one’s native tongue. Furthermore, I believe that “talking to somebody makes him real.” When asked, “How do you know that God exists?” I say, “I know, because I talk to Him every day.” 

James Geller

West Orange, New Jersey

 

How do you devote almost an entire issue to emunah without mentioning the Holocaust even once?

Shira Smiles says that elementary school teachers should tell hashgachah pratit stories to their students. Any school child with a rudimentary knowledge of the Holocaust can refute these stories by pointing to six million cases where things seemingly did not turn out for the best!

It used to be that teachers could point to the miraculous founding of our beloved State of Israel as even a partial antidote to the problems posed by the Holocaust. But lately, as Israel has become the lightning rod for a resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism, that argument too has come to appear flimsy.

Has the Holocaust receded so far into the past that it is no longer a factor in the calculus of Jewish faith? Or is it that it continues to present a theological problem so overwhelming and intractable that no one knows how to deal with it?

Danny Frankel
New York, New York

 

I enjoyed your symposium on “The State of Orthodox Belief” and would like to add two comments. Firstly, the idea is mentioned in the name of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman that atheists who deny God are simply biased by their desires. Many of us in education have counseled students who desperately wanted to maintain their faith, with a portion of them succeeding more and others less. Some of them had experienced severe difficulties such as chronic medical problems or the death of a close relative; others had authentic intellectual or moral struggles with aspects of the tradition. To say that they were motivated by the desire for a cheeseburger seems incorrect.

Moreover, such an approach lets our community off too easily. It implies that we no longer need to defend Judaism from intellectual or moral critiques since the critics exhibit bad faith; additionally, it implies that we can ignore how our own actions drive people away from Jewish tradition.

Rav Saadia Gaon developed a comprehensive approach to lack of belief, cataloging eight sources for denial of God. Some of them relate to the desire for freedom, but others do not. For example, one cause is hearing believers put forth poor arguments. Rav Saadia understood that the behavior of observant Jews can indeed drive people away.

Secondly, Rabbi Naftali Wiederblank states that “observance of mitzvot is of little value when it does not stem from belief. Along similar lines, Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky quotes a Rambam that gerei toshav must root their observance in the Divine command to achieve ultimate salvation. (Rabbi Lopiansky does seem to distinguish between good deeds and mitzvot but he does not spell out the nature of this distinction.) Though these positions have support in our tradition, I believe we need to follow other opinions.

What are the implications of denying worth to the ethical behavior of non-believers? It would mean that millions of Asians could not possibly live meaningful lives. If we think that Christianity is idolatry for gentiles, it would mean that Chiune Sugihara, a man who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, is barred from salvation.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKoken Kook and Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik did not think in those terms. Rav Kook famously celebrated the idealism of secular Zionists and evaluated the socialist desire for justice and equality as a profoundly religious impulse (Iggerot HaRa’aya 1, p. 171). In his masterful essay Kol Dodi Dofek, Rav Soloveitchik developed a theory of two Jewish covenants, one of fate and one of destiny. While only religious Jews partake of the latter, all Jews can excel regarding the former if they empathize with the plight of fellow Jews and attempt to alleviate their suffering. According to these rabbinic giants, the ethical behavior of secularists can have great value.

As mentioned, Rabbi Lopiansky cited a text of the Rambam, but there is a variant text that dramatically changes the meaning. The commonly printed version states:

“This is only if the person has accepted these mitzvot because Hashem commanded them in the Torah and taught us through Moshe that Noahides are obligated in this. But if he did it because it seems reasonable, he is neither a ger toshav, nor of their righteous, nor of their wise people” (Melachim 8:11).

The other version, which was endorsed by Rav Kook, replaces a vav with an alef, changing v’lo m’chachmeihem” to “ela m’chachmeihem,” so it reads “They are not pious, but they are indeed wise.” If so, gentiles who act morally due to human reason are recognized as wise, a very positive evaluation in Rambam’s thought.

Rabbi Yitzchak Blau

Yeshivat Orayta

Jerusalem, Israel

 

Rabbi Netanel Wiederblank Responds

Thank you to Rabbi Blau and Danny Frankel for their incisive comments. Both writers astutely note the role that suffering, whether personal or national, plays in triggering crises of faith. Indeed, Ramban, in the Introduction to his commentary on Iyov, notes that the primary reason why people deny God’s existence or His Providence is suffering and the problem of evil. Witnessing or experiencing agony “pains the heart and distresses the mind.”1 Ramban implies that it is both witnessing evil and the philosophical problem of evil, and not the desire for pleasure, that leads to heresy.2 That so many Biblical and rabbinic texts address the issue of suffering highlights the importance of actively engaging with the questions generated by the tragedies of the Holocaust. Moreover, it goes without saying that when helping those struggling with emunah, one must address both their emotional as well as their intellectual needs.

I am not sure how Rabbi Blau knows that Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik disagree with the perspective that observance of mitzvot is of little value when it does not stem from belief. All thinkers might agree that the contributions to society made by non-believers must be appreciated and should be celebrated. This has no bearing on the ontological value of their mitzvah observance.3 Moreover, all thinkers would probably agree that a non-believer should continue to perform mitzvot (regardless of their ontological value) insofar as their adherence will benefit the individual and society in this world, and may rekindle belief and facilitate admittance to the next world.

Finally, I wish to raise a methodological point. Many Rishonim (Rambam, Ramban, Tosafot, among others) maintain that mitzvot without emunah are of little value. Nevertheless, Rabbi Blau writes, “Though these positions have support in our tradition, I believe we need to follow other opinions.” I wonder if the questions Rabbi Blau poses justify rejecting the predominant view among Rishonim. In the event that one cannot present all perspectives, choosing which views to emphasize when teaching is certainly complex. As an educator, I often struggle with this question. Naturally, as we seek to inspire our students, we try to make the Torah attractive. However, we must be wary against imposing modern sensibilities upon Torah’s eternal message.

Notes

1. “There is a matter that pains the hearts and distresses the mind. In every generation people were drawn to absolute heresy from it alone. And it is seeing injustice, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper . . . This is the root of all remissness from every nation and every language” (Ramban, Hakdamah to Iyov).

2. While Ramban’s perspective does appear to be at odds with Rabbi Elchanan’s, it is worthwhile to note that even Rabbi Elchanan does not believe that idolaters or heretics are conscious of this motivation. Rather, as the Talmud (Sanhedrin 63b) tells us concerning idolatry—which people served with devotion and sacrifice—subconscious forces often produce skewed decisions. Nevertheless, even if a person is unaware of his motivation, he is held accountable to the degree that he had the ability, through contemplation and introspection, to arrive at the truth.

3. One might add that even if one presumes that the variant text of the Rambam cited by Rabbi Blau indicates that Rambam felt that non-Jews who fulfill the Noahide laws because they are reasonable do have a share in Olam Haba, this is not the case regarding Jews. Indeed, Rambam writes that Olam Haba for Jews depends upon their acceptance of the Thirteen Principles of Faith. Nevertheless, I happen to believe that a strong case can be made that Rambam would agree that accidental heresy does not preclude Olam Haba. I argue for this possible reading of Rambam in Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book. (Whether Rabbi Blau’s reading is correct about non-Jews is the subject of debate, with Rav Kook maintaining that eternity is dependent upon action and others, including Rabbi Mayer Twersky, arguing that belief is a universal prerequisite. Rabbi Twersky’s reading is supported by Rambam’s responsum, 681 in the Sheilat edition, on this topic.)

 

A SINGULAR ISSUE

I’m writing in response to your invitation for suggestions for helping the singles population (“Singles and the Shabbat Experience,” by Leah Lightman, summer 2019).

My friend Steve Schwarz and I launched “Singles on the First,” in Baltimore, Maryland, an initiative that matches each participating single with a different family for a seudah on the first Shabbos of the month. In this way, participants can meet twelve new families a year. That’s twelve fewer Shabbos meals spent alone. It’s also twelve new chances to possibly really hit it off with a new family and make some real new friends. And twelve new social contacts who might have shidduch ideas for them.

Baruch Hashem, we’ve already arranged well over 100 meals and the feedback has been extremely positive. Anyone who would like to learn more about this program or to implement it in their community can contact us at SinglesOnTheFirst@gmail.com.

Shlomo Tzvi Baden

Baltimore, Maryland

 

I would like to make you aware of a group of women who have come together from many of the communities here in South Florida in order to help singles of all backgrounds and ages meet each other. We are the South Florida Shidduch Network, and we have hosted singles for meals, run shidduch meetings and arranged various singles events. Anyone who would like to be connected with us can e-mail us at southfloridashidduchim@gmail.com.

Devorah Schwartz

South Florida

 

In response to Tikva’s article (“On Being an Orthodox, Never-Married Woman,” summer 2019), single women feel pressure, often increased by the shadchan, to go out with a man—in this case, someone inappropriate for her—because she was made to feel she was running out of time and options.

No one should be made to feel trapped like this. Desperation is not the remedy for happiness or a good relationship. First and foremost, a single woman needs to value herself, her achievements and qualities of character, and reinforce those to herself. She is not, in any way, a second-class citizen in Jewish life. Any shadchan who tells a single that her age is the problem should be out the door.

My advice to singles: do your job as well as you can; give tzedakah, preferably in person with a pleasant smile; explore a variety of avenues, including talking to friends, rabbis/rebbetzins and shadchanim; keep a journal; daven; validate yourself and remember who is the Boss.

Dr. Barbara Barry

Jerusalem, Israel

 

I really enjoyed Rachel Schwartzberg’s recent article (“Frum Dating in the Digital Age,” summer 2019). I know that frum dating sites work because I met my wife on JWed a few years ago. We were each divorced and in our late forties. I don’t see how we could have met otherwise, as I was in Dallas, Texas, and she was in Scranton, Pennsylvania. We married three years ago, which have been the happiest few years of my life.

Bruce Dunn

Scranton, Pennsylvania

 

THE BLESSING OF AN OMA AND AN OPA

Allen Fagin’s article (“Reflections of an Oma and Opa: The Joys—and Opportunities—of Grandparenting,” summer 2019) struck a chord. My own Omas played an important part in my childhood years. One Oma lived with us and the other one lived next door. They took me to synagogue regularly and made challah each Friday. The aroma of Shabbat in our home was truly special because of them. Now my husband and I have the role of Opa and Oma and we try to have the same influence on our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Judith B. Gutstein

Lincolnwood, Illinois

 

REMEMBERING THE HEBRON MASSACRE

Regarding your article (“Remembering the 1929 Hebron Massacre,” summer 2019), one should never forget that the Mufti of Jerusalem, a friend of Hitler, was the instigator of the massacre, and that the British police did not intervene despite the League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland. The massacre gave the British an excuse to prevent Jewish immigration both prior to World War II and during the Holocaust, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives could have been saved.

Nelson Marans

New York, New York

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2019.