On My Mind

Yefashpesh B’ma’asav: Post-Tragedy Introspection

World War II battles were still raging in February of 1945 when the leaders of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union convened at the Yalta Conference to map out post-war plans. Similarly, wrestling over post-war governance of Gaza and angst regarding eventual internal Israeli reforms began even during the earliest stages of the post-October 7 war.  

Though our experiences are incomparable to that of Israelis, the Jewish community in America has been traumatized by October 7, by the ensuing war, and by the recent revelation of previously muted ubiquitous American and international antisemitism. We, too, must contemplate the effects of the current upheavals and what changes in communal priorities and attitudes, if any, are appropriate.

It is disconcerting, if not offensive, when individuals authoritatively attribute communal calamities to specific misdeeds. Undoubtedly tragedy, like all else, is never happenstance and every effect has a cause. But unequivocally assigning particular causes to Hashem’s decrees is the exclusive domain of prophecy, which we currently do not merit.

And yet. 

While we may be incapable of identifying the precise cause of each tragedy, Chazal have explicitly prescribed how to respond to afflictions. The Talmud (Berachos 5a) teaches “Im roeh adam sheyissurim ba’im alav, yefashpesh b’ma’asav—if a person sees that sufferings has befallen him, he should examine his deeds.” Our rabbis caution that we cannot merely shrug our shoulders and disavow responsibility simply because we are unable to pinpoint the metaphysical cause of the misfortune. Introspection itself is the mandated reaction. But to what end?

A Proposed Theory of Introspection
The conventional understanding of the Gemara is that the sufferer should conduct introspection to identify misdeeds and then repent. This interpretation, however, is curious because we are always duty-bound to review our behavior and rectify improprieties, not just when calamity strikes. Moreover, as observed by the Ben Yehoyada, why did the Talmud not simply say that introspection is necessary when “a person is afflicted with suffering”? Why the formulation “when a person observes that he is being afflicted by suffering”?

Perhaps Chazal are prescribing two distinct exercises, the need to first observe and then to reflect. And perhaps the nature of the reflection suggested by Chazal differs from the ongoing obligation to examine our deeds for transgressions. 

Tragedies create new realities, sometimes subtle and other times acute, sometimes visible, other times concealed. The changes are often personal, affecting the sufferer’s physical, emotional and/or psychological condition. And the changes are often also external, altering surrounding circumstances. For example, all of one’s meaningful interpersonal interactions may be upended upon the death or disability of one or more loved ones. The loss of one’s job or business, or the ruination of one’s reputation may not only undermine one’s financial situation but also impose barriers to communal resources and support systems. These dimensions of life, such our social, financial and communal circumstances, are often the very considerations that had earlier framed our lifestyle choices, priorities and attitudes. 

In truth, change takes place continually, for every person and for every community, not merely when tragedy strikes. Inevitable changes include stages of maturation, shifts in family obligations and occupational status, and fluctuations in financial circumstances. Often the approaches and priorities in our allocation of time, resources and personal religious focus were adopted long ago, in consideration of the circumstances of that earlier time period. Many of us neglect to periodically pause to reassess whether these earlier decisions remain appropriate in the context of our most current circumstances. And communities are no different. Even as we take advantage of Elul and the Yamim Noraim to revisit our past missteps, we fail to reassess our earlier virtuous choices, overlooking the fact that they may no longer be suitable. 

But changes resulting from tragedy are unique. Ordinarily, changes unfold slowly and systemically. When tragedy strikes, however, change is often sudden, jarring and magnified. Therefore, when the Talmud references a person observing affliction, perhaps it is referencing observation of the panoply of changes wrought by the suffering. And the Talmud then suggests that after acknowledging the changes, yefashpesh b’ma’asav, the sufferer must engage in introspection to assess how earlier viewpoints, choices and relationships must conform to the new realities.   

Israelis certainly acknowledge that their world has been intrinsically changed post-October 7, and American Orthodoxy must do the same. We must recognize that our community has been profoundly altered and our communal psyche shaken. It may be too early to determine what those changes really are. Moreover, some changes will be lasting, while others will fade. And some changes have not yet manifested. But it is surely not too early to begin to observe and then to ponder.

Torah leaders and thinkers, as well as those who are responsible for the community’s institutions and welfare, should lead communal introspection. This essay is not such an exercise. In fact, the examples presented below are incomplete and imprecise as they reflect my personal biases and concerns. My hope, however, is that the ideas enumerated help initiate communal discussion.

Step One: Observing Changes 
1. Changes in America: We continue to respect and proudly embrace our American citizenship, the country’s legal and political system and its incredible religious freedoms and economic opportunities. But the America we observe today is not the America we thought it to be just several months ago. We are startled by revelations of antisemitism and by the accompanying silence. Unexpectedly we may find ourselves surreptitiously wondering how we and our values are viewed by non-Jewish friends and colleagues. 

We have long been admonished by our rabbis and teachers that America is merely a way station on Jewry’s journey through the Diaspora. While few American Jews even contemplate emigration, many no longer view this warning simply as wise but rather as axiomatic. And while some of us may have declined to embrace the slogan “Never Again” because it implies that humans, rather than G-d, ultimately control the fate of history, today there may be some who simply no longer have confidence in that assertion.

On the other hand, unlike with eruptions of antisemitism in past eras and in other regions, antisemitism in the US has not been manifest in mainstream governmental bodies and policies. In fact, political leaders and law enforcement agencies repeatedly evidence, in both word and deed, great concern for the safety and welfare of our community.

2. Citadels of secular culture: October 7 also exposed the rot beneath the exalted facade of institutions venerated by many in our community. One example is the gleaming veneer of higher secular education that has now been shattered. 

Campuses, and other bastions of woke values, have zealously fostered acceptance of all lifestyles and minorities, except Jews. Orthodox youth attending such schools increasingly are experiencing extreme uneasiness, reporting that the campus environment compromises their sense of security and belonging. 

On the other hand, is university culture trending away from its currently threatening disposition? If there is a forceful backlash to the antisemitism and woke values, and an end to the manipulative foreign donations made to universities, perhaps Orthodox students will begin to feel more comfortable on campus.

3. Changes in Israel: Previously many of us viewed Israel as a destination to visit, an idealized yet improbable future home, and a source of holiness and inspiration. While we continue to connect to Israel in these ways and more, many American Jews now also regard Israel as Jewry’s ultimate sanctuary. 

But recent events also accentuate Israel’s vulnerabilities. The State of Israel we knew just months ago was invincible. The Start-Up Nation was being courted by the elite of American technology industrialists and the wealthiest of Arab neighbors. Though Israel today certainly remains standing strong and proud, it is perhaps with some newly discovered measure of humility. 

Israel’s intense domestic disharmony has also faded, at least for the moment. Rather than witnessing a fractioned Israeli society possessed by internal enmity, we observe an Israel galvanized by a unity that is generating revitalized strength. The achdus within Israel has stimulated within us an unprecedented sense of kinship with the entirety of the Israeli population, beyond just those with whom we are religiously or ideologically aligned. This newly ignited affinity is manifest in our deeds, prayers and tears. And even if the unity within Israel diminishes over time, it has kindled a sense of Jewish brotherhood we thought had dissipated.

Israelis certainly acknowledge that their world has been intrinsically changed post-October 7, and American Orthodoxy must do the same. We must recognize that our community has been profoundly altered and our communal psyche shaken.

Remarkably, we also observe among Israelis a surge of interest in spirituality, and for some even a yen for religious ritual, such as wearing tzitzis or lighting Shabbos candles. We are not so gullible as to believe that Israeli society is suddenly embracing a Torah-observant life. But perhaps the Kabbalists were correct in suggesting that while the secular chalutzim of yore tilled our homeland, their pounding of plowshares against the land’s holy stones may have ignited sparks of kedushah that are slowly manifesting in their progeny. 

4. Secular American Jewry: Although they have yet to exhibit the spiritual awakening of their Israeli counterparts, secular Jewish Americans seem to have a renewed interest in their Jewish identity.  

Socially progressive American Jews are particularly bewildered by the imbalanced criticism of Israel and the condemnation of Jews, whether explicit or implicit. Jews whose personal identity had been primarily framed by secular political and social justice movements are reminded of their connection to the family of Jewry as they observe revered intellectuals, social crusaders and cultural icons being uncharacteristically silent regarding animosity toward Israel and Jews, and even regarding calls for an international intifada. 

And although Orthodox Jews may be more easily identifiable, all Jews are subject to the venom spewed by haters. And so many completely unaffiliated American Jews are beginning to feel that if they are being identified by others as a Jew, perhaps they should identify as a Jew to themselves as well. 

Step Two: Yefashpesh b’ma’asav—Revisiting Prevailing Attitudes and Priorities
1. Our place in American society and higher education: Once we have clarity regarding the endurance and scope of American antisemitism, we might want to revisit various communal practices. For example, a characteristic of contemporary American Orthodoxy is the unabashed display of our religious identity, whether in our personal attire, institutional buildings or public events. In earlier eras, and in other parts of the Diaspora, Orthodox Jews tended to keep a lower profile. Should our community reconsider its current conspicuous demeanor?

And if antisemitism becomes further embedded in American institutions and in the broader culture, should our eagerness to participate in and integrate into arenas of American culture be re-examined? For example, currently about 80 percent of the graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools attend secular universities. If Orthodox students on campus continue to feel unsafe and alienated, and if the culture, values and attitudes of university administrators and professors continue to remain toxic, will Jewish high schools and parents rethink their commitment to having our youth attend a secular university? And if secular university attendance loses its allure, is the community equipped to provide such students with suitable alternatives?

2. Revisiting Orthodox attitudes toward Zionism and the Jewish State: Orthodox attitudes toward Zionism and the role of a contemporary Jewish state vary in the extreme. The range spans from Religious Zionists, some of whom view the State’s creation as Aschalta D’Geulah, the initiation of the Messianic era, to Orthodox anti-Zionists, who might view the State as a fiercely sacrilegious entity, a creation of the Sitra Achra. The majority of perspectives, of course, fall somewhere between these two stances.  

Most Orthodox positions toward the Jewish State are less rooted in ideology and more the product of strategies adopted decades ago by rabbinic leaders based on their thoughtful assessments and projections. Each position reflected a distinct mix of hopes and concerns regarding the likely impact of the Zionist movement, and subsequently of the State of Israel, on the preservation and advancement of Torah-true Judaism and the safety and security of the Jewish nation. 

The requirement of yefashpesh b’ma’asav might encourage each segment of our community to examine whether the events of and reactions to October 7 and its aftermath compel revisions to the assessments and forecasts that long ago shaped their respective positions toward Zionism. For example, is the Jewish State a beacon of safety for all Jews, or the cause of hostility to and vulnerability for Jews throughout the world? Do the current reactions of both observant and non-observant Jews to Israel’s needs in its time of crisis highlight an invaluable role played by Israel as a source of national Jewish brotherhood? And should the post-October 7 surge of connection among IDF soldiers to Yiddishkeit and to the community of Klal Yisrael alter the view of those who have understood the IDF to be necessarily hostile to traditional Judaism?

In fact, perhaps the current tragedy will prompt a broader re-examination of views regarding the blessings or harm of a Jewish State that should have long been conducted periodically throughout the past decades. Considerations appropriate to such review include studying the contrast of intermarriage rates and the connection to Judaism of non-observant Jews in Israel and those living in the Diaspora. And thought must be given to whether the burgeoning degree and centrality of Torah study and mitzvah observance within Orthodoxy that has evolved over the past seventy-five years has benefitted from, or been stymied, by the existence of the Jewish State.  

By necessity, these and numerous other factors were contemplated decades ago solely on the basis of conjecture. The conclusions reached back then on the basis of projections can now be reassessed on the basis of actuality.  

3. Communal allocations to kiruv: American Orthodox outreach to secular and unaffiliated Jews has always been on the communal agenda, albeit pursued on a relatively modest scale. Adult outreach, in particular, has been limited to Chabad, and to a relatively small group of other impressive but significantly underfunded efforts. This minimalistic attitude was formulated in the mid-to-late twentieth century in an era of limited Orthodox communal resources and when Orthodoxy itself was struggling with its own revitalization. As a result, for most Orthodox leaders and philanthropists, strengthening Orthodox education and community building, not outreach, were prioritized. 

In addition, the most powerful and effective kiruv efforts have been one-on-one personal interactions. But because such efforts are costly, they are limited in generating the scale that might significantly affect the escalating intermarriage rates within the American Jewish community. 

With new realities emerging since October 7, perhaps we need to rethink our community’s attitude toward outreach. Post-October 7, we observe a surge of interest in Jewish identity across the spectrum of American Jewry. For example, NCSY’s JSU public school clubs throughout North America have experienced an explosion of non-observant student participants and social media is replete with unaffiliated Jews, and even intermarried Jews, expressing a desire to strengthen their Jewish knowledge and identity. Perhaps there is a rare window of opportunity to engage unaffiliated Jews and provide a path for their greater connection to Jews and Judaism.

We must also acknowledge that the financial base of our community has enjoyed significant expansion, and kiruv need not be pursued at the expense of meeting internal Orthodox needs. Moreover, social media has introduced unprecedented tools and opportunities to inspire and inculcate Jewish identity on a previously unimaginable scale. 

On the other hand, if this pivot is to be seriously considered, proposals for implementation must first be designed and initial efforts implemented to evidence effectiveness. 

Observing changes and incorporating their implications into our thinking and behavior is a core part of avodas Hashem. Even when we do conduct such exercises, our investment in prevailing practices and attitudes often leads us to conclude that no changes are necessary. But breaking through that complacency is the role of effective leadership. In any event, the risk of frustration does not alleviate the responsibility to try.


Moishe Bane, president emeritus of the OU, serves as a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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