Dr. Judith Bleich

…With knowledge has come passionate involvement and deeply-rooted pride.

There was an old comedy routine that went something like this:  Question: What is the difference between ignorance and indifference?  Answer:  I don’t know and I don’t care.

During the early part of the twentieth century American Jewry was characterized by profound ignorance and pervasive indifference.  Ignorance and indifference were intertwined in a symbiotic relationship in which each nourished and nurtured the other.  What passed for Jewish education was an embarrassment; there were few religious functionaries whose credentials inspired confidence; and erudite rabbinic scholarship was conspicuous in its absence.  Endemic ignorance extended to every facet of Jewish law and ritual, history, lore, custom and practice.  There was precious little engagement with, or feel for, the texture of the cultural and religious life of Jews elsewhere.  Ludwig Lewisohn once described the lack of knowledge of all matters Jewish among the vast majority of fellow American Jews he had encountered as an “ignorance that was world-wide and many-sided.”

Ignorance was at one and the same time the cause and the result of lack of both interest and concern; in turn, ignorance and lack of concern spawned apathy and negligence in matters religious.  Boredom further quenched any residual desire for knowledge and served to reinforce the move away from tradition.  “Making it” socially, financially and, even academically, in the secular American environment was the overriding goal.  Jewish religious life came to be viewed as an unwelcome encumbrance meriting, at the very most, perfunctory lip-service.

The tide was turned by a small group of loyal and committed individuals whose pioneering efforts led to the establishment of day schools and yeshivot.  With sacrificial devotion and selfless determination, a small coterie of communal activists joined by an influx of post-war immigrants made Jewish education a matter of highest priority.  In an era in which federations and the major Jewish communal organizations set themselves a thoroughly secular philanthropic agenda, the Orthodox concentrated all their energies upon Torah education.

The resultant transformation of American Orthodoxy with the phenomenal growth of Torah study on these shores is well-nigh miraculous.  Over the past 50 years we have witnessed the establishment and flourishing of schools for boys and girls, men and women — schools on the elementary, high school and advanced levels, seminaries, yeshivot and kollelim.  In the Orthodox community, Jewish literacy is ubiquitous, meaningful Jewish education is virtually universal and great numbers achieve a high degree of proficiency in textual study.  And, at least equally important, with knowledge has come passionate involvement and deeply-rooted pride.

It was not so long ago that Mordecai M. Kaplan observed in the opening sentence of his Judaism as a Civilization that “Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”  In point of fact, it was somewhat before the nineteenth century, at the dawn of the period of the Enlightenment, that Rabbi Yaakov Emden, in the introduction to his comments on the Siddur, insightfully attributed the religious deficiencies of his age to a lack of Jewish pride:  “I am wont to say that I presume that the general deterioration among the children of our nation [stems] from a lack of the trait of pride, among our many sins.”  Absence of pride leads to a loss of distinctive Jewish identity and, admonishes Rabbi Emden, although abandonment of Jewish consciousness may be accompanied by short-term gain in the form of ostensive welcome and acceptance of Jews by society at large, ultimately Jews will be reviled and ostracized precisely because of their lack of religious and ethnic pride.

The positive and beneficial effects of pride were known in much earlier times as well.  Tempering his extolment of  the virtues of humility, the great medieval religious thinker Rabbenu Bachya ben Pekuda, Chovot Halevavot, Sixth Treatise, chapter 9, asserts that there is one form of pride that is entirely beneficial, viz., pride in spiritual attainment.  Rabbenu Bachya finds approbation for such pride in the verse  “Vayigba libbo bedarkei Hashem — and he held his heart high in the ways of the Lord” (II Chronicles 11:6).

Today’s youth, thank God, have regained a healthy measure of genuine Jewish pride.  A colleague relates that several decades ago a group of his peers used to travel regularly from their Brooklyn neighborhood to classes at Columbia University.  Upon exiting the subway at Broadway and 116th Street they would surreptitiously remove their yarmulkes before entering the awe-inspiring precincts of the campus.  A generation later, however, his own son tells of regularly observing bareheaded students stepping out of the subway station and donning kippot as they near the Columbia campus.  The distinctive head-covering is no longer perceived as a badge of shame and a source of self-consciousness but as a symbol of privileged identification and a claim to distinction.

The course of action taken by the “Yale Four” in openly and forthrightly challenging the administration of Yale University by asserting their own civil liberties without hesitating to underscore the manner in which their lifestyle and convictions diverge from regnant popular mores is a striking reflection of this pride.  In taking their cause into the public domain they have done much more than engage in a battle for personal privilege; they have performed a service on behalf of Jews and Judaism by boldly articulating Jewish values in the public arena.  No less significantly, their actions stand as eloquent testimony to the type of youth we have succeeded in raising.

The celebrated case of the “Yale Four” has dramatically highlighted the dissonance between Torah norms and the lifestyle of the dominant society.  That the students have been heralded and applauded by members of the Christian clergy but have evoked censure on the part of some observant Jews — including even some rabbis — simply demonstrates that perception trails reality.  The censure undeservedly heaped upon them comes from members of a generation that is still both embarrassed by Jewish distinctiveness and guilt-ridden because of the implied criticism of its own lowering of moral standards.

It is fallacious to contend, as many have, that in order to engage fellow Americans intellectually we must live with them in intimate social contact.  It should be remembered that Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who is hailed as the ideologue of the philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz and as an advocate of engagement with the secular society, was also a staunch advocate of an independent, autonomous kehillah structure.  There is a necessary connection between these goals:  Only from the vantage point of a firm and secure sense of identity and with the strength born of a reinforcing social structure can members of the Orthodox Jewish community reach out to, and interact with, the broader society.

Separatism need not — and dare not — become synonymous with insularity.  Our own communities must be inclusive of fellow Jews and responsive to their needs.  The much belabored intensification of religious practice and emphasis on years of extended talmudic study in kollelim should not at all be a source of distress to us.  As the Yiddish expression puts it so well:  “A chisaron di kalleh is tzu shein?  Can the bride be too beautiful?”  Abdication by bnei Torah of their sense of responsibility toward the broader community should, however, be a source for concern and distress whenever it does occur.

Although all too many within the “yeshivah” community remain insular, that descriptive epithet does not accurately reflect the total picture.  In actuality, bnei Torah are not abandoning Klal Yisrael.  Increasingly, they are becoming active in a wide variety of outreach programs, educational activities and publication ventures.  In many communities around the globe, from Los Angeles and Chicago to Melbourne and Nice, from South Bend and Rochester to Amsterdam and Gibraltar, the young people who pioneered local city kollelim have stayed on as pulpit rabbis, teachers and principals and have made a profound impact upon the broader community.

The picture of the Orthodox sector projected by the media is as non-representative and lacking in authenticity as is the portrayal of the Chassidic community in the current film “Price Above Rubies.”  In truth, sad as it may be, our image has become tarnished.  There have been an unfortunate number of high-profile financial scandals that are indeed a blot upon us as members of a religious community who, in light of the principle that Jews are areivim zeh la-zeh, are responsible for one another’s moral behavior.  But, regrettably, in the popular mind the aberration has become the stereotype.

Rarely do I find a description of the Orthodox community I know well and with whom I am in daily contact — the bnei Torah, literally thousands, ken yirbu, of young men and women, students and professionals, together with their young and growing families.  These constitute a society of committed, deeply serious, spiritual individuals, who are utterly sincere in their yirat  Shamayim.  They are generous and hospitable, meticulous in their desire to follow faithfully every jot and tittle of halachic norms, including those of lifnim mishurat hadin and middat chassidut, i.e., piety and meticulousness beyond the letter of the law.  Some hail from devout and learned families; others are newly observant; but all are dedicated and devoted to Torah and mitzvot.  As one who is keenly aware of the nature of the she’elot they ask regularly — and by whose answers they govern their lives — with regard to every aspect of human conduct, including questions of life and death, intimate personal matters and business and professional dilemmas — at a time when moral standards in the world “out there” are constantly becoming ever more eroded — I often think to myself that the Berditchiver would have said of these singular young people:  “Look, Oh Ribbono Shel Olam; Mi ke’amcha Yisrael!  Who is like unto Your people Israel!”

This is not by any means to say that there is not much room for improvement for us as a community.  In his Orot Hateshuvah, Rav Kook remarks that teshuvah or repentance is at one and the same time the easiest and the most difficult of mitzvot.  Even a fleeting thought of regret and remorse constitutes a form of teshuvah.  However, to achieve a state of complete and full repentance is a lifetime enterprise, an undertaking whose reach exceeds its grasp.  Certainly, for the community at large, the progress that has been made in education and observance has not yet been matched in the area of yirat Shamayim.

If, as is the case, we still have apace to go in replicating the yirat Shamayim of past generations and in the teaching of ethics, we should recognize that our lack of success is not simply a result of a failing in our educational endeavors.  It is also a reflection of the insidious influence of the culture in which we live.

Contemporary American society certainly does not celebrate the ethical life.  Words such as  shlemut hanefesh (spiritual perfection), kedushah (holiness), and taharah (purity) are not to be found in the lexicon consulted by the media.  Quietism, inwardness and humility are not traits our culture prizes.  Asceticism and self-abnegation are viewed as unwholesome at best.  Popular psychological notions regarding self-fulfillment, doing your own thing and self-expression are commonly accepted wisdom as a priori values.  People are comfortable with relativist philosophies and situation ethics.  Striving for perfection of character is not emblematic of our culture.  The Yiddish term “oisge’arbet” denoting an individual who “worked” at perfecting a character trait has no frame of reference in our society.

Moreover, contemporary society has added yet another challenge to the ethical life, viz., the nisayon or trial of affluence.  There is wisdom in a pithy folk saying that takes note of the fact that in the text of the blessing of the New Moon the request for “fear of Heaven”, for yirat Shamayim, occurs twice, once preceding and once following the petition for sustenance.  The popular explanation is that the prayer underscores the fact that ordinary “fear of Heaven” is not sufficient for the affluent; if the prayer for affluence is accepted and the petition  granted, the beneficiary will be in need of an added measure — a double dose — of fear of Heaven lest newly acquired wealth lead to ethical desensitization.

Ethical values are not taught in a classroom or absorbed from perusal of texts.  Ethics are “caught” by observing role models.  When Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, sought to promote the development of a chush musari, an ethical sensitivity, that would prompt an individual to recoil from an unethical word or deed as from putrid food, he was aware that such responses could be achieved only as a product of intensive and concentrated training.  The success of the Musar movement he founded did not flow from instruction in the classroom or from hortatorical texts but from role models, individuals whose exemplary personal conduct consistently and continuously reflected musar ideals.  The movement’s strength was rooted in the singular qualities of Rabbi Yisrael’s disciples who served as living musar texts.

Role models are not intentionally produced; unusual personalities appear in an entirely unpredictable manner.  Nevertheless, lo alman Yisrael, there is no generation totally bereft of inspired leadership.  But such individuals do not seek the limelight.  The fabled lamed-vav tzaddikim, the 36 saintly individuals of mystic teaching, are anonymous.  It is for the community to seek out and identify personalities worthy of emulation and to portray them to the community as role models.  Ironically — and disastrously — the American Jewish community does precisely the reverse!

Ideals are also taught and reinforced by organizational models.  As long as our communal organizations, philanthropies and even yeshivot — across the board, left right and center — are success and “kovod” (honor) driven, extol the wealthy and clamor for media attention, we betray our values and ideals and impart an entirely incorrect message to our youth.

In their wisdom, the Sages of the Talmud recognized the needs of society and incorporated into our prayers a sense of balance and genuine values for which we must pray.  Seeking seyata diShmaya, the assistance of Heaven, that our efforts be crowned with success, we pray that we may attain understanding of a life-enriching Torah and ahavat chesed, (love of kindness) born of fear of Heaven and not of the false patina of honor.

As we are poised on the cusp of the twenty-first century, a monumental challenge faces the Orthodox Union as a national organization devoted to the furtherance of Torah Judaism.  Our community has two great resources: our synagogues are essential for communal growth and inspiration; our yeshivot are fountains of strength, learning and commitment.  Unfortunately, many of our yeshivot and their graduates have become estranged from the synagogues.  That sector of the community is underrepresented within the Union.  Not only is our numerical strength diminished thereby, but we — and they — are spiritually poorer as a result.  The Orthodox Union should view itself as a bridge binding together our communal resources.  In order to accomplish that goal the Union must embark on a major educational and consciousness-raising venture.  Roshei yeshivah and their students must be co-opted as active participants in Union deliberations and programs to a much larger extent than heretofore.  Bnei Torah must be welcomed and made to feel comfortable in our synagogues.  To that end, their own particular religious, cultural and educational needs must be recognized and accommodated.

Bnei Torah, on the other hand, must become more fully aware of their communal obligations and until the time that such awareness becomes a reality our chinuch system cannot be regarded as fully successful.  The Hebrew term chinuch connotes more than transmission of factual knowledge; it implies the inculcation of responsibility, commitment and a sense of dedication.

What is the difference between education and chinuch?  Education transforms itself into chinuch when the student comes to the realization that:  I know, therefore I must care.

Dr. Bleich is Professor of Judaic Studies at Touro College in New York.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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