If we want to reach out to the exiting masses…we must create a contemporary form of Torah im Derech Eretz.
The symposium queries can really be summed up in one overarching question. Can genuine Orthodoxy regain its full impact on the Jewish community and bring back compliance with halachic living on a large scale in the context of modernity and living in a free society? I must confess that I do not have the answers to the questions posed. But I do have a strong feeling whence the answers will have to come. Throughout our history, leadership came, and once again must come, from Torah and from those who study Torah seriously and excel in the knowledge and the comprehension of the mesorah.
The answers will not come and would not be fully accepted if they would come from the ideologues on the left within Orthodoxy. I refer to those who toy with the idea of pluralism and are excessively tolerant to heterodoxy. The great models of gedolim we tend to point to who did confront modernity seriously are Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l, Avraham Yitzchak Kook zt”l and Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. While responding both to the new knowledge and the new social realities of Jewish life, and being accepting of all Jews, they were strong rejectionists of heterodox movements, their leaders and institutions. Rav Hirsch, the symbol of Torah im Derech Eretz, stepped out of the kehillah and made his own “gemeinde;” Rav Kook, in spite of his love for and appreciation of the secular chalutzim, fought them tooth and nail for desecrating halachic norms. Rav Soloveitchik wrote publicly that one should rather miss the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashanah, than pray in a shul without a mechitzah.
The reaction of the “Torah world” to the initial impact of modernity and secularism and its ideological creations, Zionism, Haskalah and Reform, was withdrawal, retrenchment and hostility to modernity and its byproducts.
Very little has been said or written in our camp evaluating the decisions made at that time. In our left, voices have been heard critical of the Torah leadership who opposed the return to Zion and who counseled against leaving Europe, which at that time was the premier reservoir of Torah in the Ashkenazic world. Rightfully there is a knee-jerk reaction in the Torah community to such criticism. The gedolim who opposed the national movement did so for reasons they considered crucial at the time. It was certainly not, chalilah, folly or lack of concern for Klal Yisrael. Many of these great scholars and men of piety themselves became kedoshim, victims of the catastrophe. But does that mean that their decisions were once and for all and we, with all the hindsight, cannot seek other directions?
What comes to mind are two comments in the Talmud relating to the times of the churban [destruction of the] Beis Hamikdash. In the infamous Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story, Reb Zechariah Ben Avkilos, who obviously was the posek [halachic authority] of the Beis Hamikdash of that time, refused to make a decision of either offering the blemished sacrifice or executing the mosur [informer]. He feared that people might come to improper halachic conclusions. This prompted Reb Yochanan in a later generation to say, “It is the piety of Reb Zechariah ben Avkilos which caused the destruction of our Temple, the burning of our palace, and our being exiled from our land.” Reb Yochanan did not doubt the piety of the earlier sage, nor did he want to shame him for making the wrong call. He was in his right, with hindsight and clearer vision of the consequences, to make that statement.
The second story took place during the siege of Jerusalem. Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai manages to evade the surveillance of the Zealots for a secret meeting with Vespasian, the commander of the Roman legions, and is given the opportunity to make a request before the Romans proceed with their siege and conquest. Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai pleaded for the city of Yavneh and its scholars. The request was granted. The Talmud cites that either Reb Yosef or Rabbi Akiva applied the following passage in the Navi: “‘He that turns the wise backwards and makes their knowledge foolish!’ He should have asked Vespasian to withdraw from the city and lift the siege one more time.” The Talmud continues: “Did he (Reb Yochanan ben Zakkai) think maybe Vespasian will not grant that much and then we will not even have the little he asked for?” The great sages did not shy away from evaluating with hindsight the decisions of earlier great men, without questioning either their greatness or piety.
When we turn to the rejectionism towards modernity and the new learning, we can again understand and empathize with the sensitivities, fears and general concerns of the Torah community. As confrontation became stronger and more threatening and often combative, the hard lines were drawn. The strongest expression of this attitude was probably articulated by the great rosh yeshivah, Reb Boruch Ber Leibovitz of Kaminetz. His statement is found in a responsum at the end of his comments to Masechet Kiddushin.
The responsum is too lengthy and complex to give over fully in the confines of this article. But he makes it quite clear that had Hashem wanted us to know anything other then what we find in our sacred texts, he would have put it there. Ergo, the pursuit of any other knowledge is at best bittul Torah. At worst, when it is perceived as broadening our knowledge and appreciation of Torah goals and life in general it is heretical. He also tries to show that the Rambam decided in favor of Reb Shimon Bar Yochai, that the ideal lifestyle for the Jew was not to “plow, seed and harvest.” He must study Torah, and the worldly endeavors would be provided by others. (As compared to Reb Yishmael, who believed that we should do all these things — that Torah should be conducted within the context of derech eretz.)
Even engaging in ordinary professions, crafts or skills is a b’dieved [accepted only when absolutely necessary]. Certainly it is implied that one should stay away from economic pursuits that require the attainment of other intellectual disciplines. The second point was not universally accepted throughout the Torah world and was an expression of the elitism of the yeshivah world at that time, which constituted a relatively small segment of Orthodox life. With all due respect, this interpretation of the Rambam could be challenged. Even Reb Shimon bar Yochai, after coming out of the cave and experiencing some unpleasant events, seems to have modified his position. He even went so far at one point to guide his disciples not to disparage labor. In fact, he said that working gives Man dignity. This extreme attitude was undoubtedly rooted in the thought of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin and his understanding of Torah lishmah [Torah study for its own sake].
Was that rejectionism historically justifiable in hindsight? It did not curb the lure of modernity. Of course, one might argue that without the hostile stand, the hemorrhaging would have been even more serious. On the other hand, Rabbi Hirsch took the courageous stand and he was able, at least partially, to rebuild a community that was standing at the brink of total assimilation and oblivion. One must take note of the fact that modernity was not only a problem in the West. The level of defection in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in the larger cities, was substantial and on the rise. Different forms of Socialism of the Zionist and anti-Zionist variety and Haskalah in general were making inroads into Jewish life.
What is the situation now? It is true that the Torah community has experienced a significant resurgence. But we cannot close our eyes to the fact that we are constantly losing more then we are gaining. Some might take the attitude, “let history take its course: The non-observant community will disappear naturally through assimilation and intermarriage, as did other dissidents in Jewish history, and a strong and growing Orthodoxy will survive.” That is patently incorrect. Past dissidents were minorities. With all the great successes we have achieved, we are still a minority. Besides, such a position is theologically unacceptable. When Moshe Rabbeinu faced the possibility of seeing the sinful people of Israel obliterated, and that he would be given the great historical privilege to restart Am Yisrael, he passionately declined and Hashem conceded the issue to him.
Essentially, the Torah community is officially responding in the same manner as it did in pre-war Eastern Europe. Even though Zionism is no longer a movement or a dream but Medinat Yisrael is a reality, the attitude is still very ambivalent at best. Israel remains “politically incorrect.” Not only is there no official recognition of the great event, but not even a prayer is uttered for the Medinah and not even a Me’sheberach for the soldiers who defend the lives of all Jews in Israel, including those who are given exemptions from military service because they study Torah. Nowhere in the world does Torah receive so much financial government support as it does in Israel. While the government is not to our liking (because of our minority status) it still cannot be compared to some of the governments during Bayis Sheini [the Second Commonwealth] when chachmei haMesorah [sages] were literally slaughtered en masse.
The attitude to modernity is still the same: retrenchment, rejection and utter disparagement. While we may see more young men and women of Torah learning and loyalty slipping into the professions like medicine, law, accounting and (Hashem bless) the neutral computer field. Yet the official policy is still dominated by the ideas projected so clearly by Reb Boruch Ber: A) Non-Torah disciplines are rejected. B) At least in the Ashkenazic yeshivos, engaging in “plowing, planting and harvesting” is also projected as a b’dieved. The difference is that now it effects not merely a relatively small elite of gifted yeshivah students, but is more widespread throughout Orthodoxy. That brings us to the Talmud’s comment on the dispute between R. Shimon and R. Yishmael: “Many have followed R. Shimon and failed; many have followed R. Yishmael and succeeded.” It is safe to assume that Chazal were not statisticians, but made a normative statement. The Chassidic community differs in that respect: it does not disparage melachah and parnassah [labor and wages], and encourages open-ended learning only for the gifted. The young women in our seminaries are educated and trained to be mochel [forego] the obligations of a husband towards his wife. Many of them will not even date a young man if he shows signs that he may want to work and earn a living. It has created enormous burdens on parents and sometimes even grandparents, and fostered reliance on government welfare. Not only sociologists, but members of our own Torah community are beginning to sense the potential economic disaster of these policies.
One might argue, “What about members of the modern Orthodox community? They work; they attend universities.” That may be true. But their future does not seem to be that promising. First of all, it is a group that is barely demographically reproducing itself. There is also a greater rate of defection of its children to the left and to the right. Everybody is engaged in outreach; in fact, there are many yeshivish and Chassidic groups, working particularly with adults. Results are destined to be minimal. Reached are individuals who have naturally profound spiritual inclinations and those who are also prepared to reject the modern world for the moral damage it has done to them.
But all this outreach is not of a nature that can bring about a “turnaround” that was accomplished by Rav Hirsch. In short, if we want to turn Jewish life around, reach out to the exiting masses and make Orthodoxy once again dominant, we must create a contemporary form of Torah im Derech Eretz. By Torah im Derech Eretz I mean the type of integration achieved by Rav Hirsch and the vision of Rav Kook to bring kodesh [holiness] into the chol [mundane]. It is not enough merely to have limudei kodesh and limudei chol [religious and secular studies] running on parallel tracks. It is a formidable task, one that is much more difficult to achieve now than in the days of Rav Hirsch. The gap between genuine Torah and what goes now for derech eretz as practiced in the non-Orthodox, and more so in the gentile community around us, is much greater, even though articulate and meaningful books are published by individuals and marginal groups within Orthodoxy. Torah leadership and Torah institutions at the highest levels are still pointed to by the large masses as being insular and isolated from a world that has been transformed by waves of intellectual, technological and social revolutions.
I am confident that things will eventually happen in time. If and when it will happen, the Orthodox Union will play a significant role for such a Torah and derech eretz as it evolves. In fact, one may argue that the Union is already developing, at least in practice, such a pragmatic Torah im Derech Eretz. On the one hand it has always kept one eye on the individuals and institutions of the Torah world. Yet its symbiotic relationship with the Rabbinical Council of America and the great influence of Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, has preserved an openness which at times is not in sync with “the Torah world.” The OU has supported and given full recognition to Medinat Yisrael and extols its importance and redemptive dimensions. It has registered enormous successes with the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, recognizing the necessity of its coed nature as an outreach organization. The original Torah im Derech Eretz also had to deal with that problem.
With our genuine resolve and with the ever-present guidance of Divine Hashgachah, eventually we should be able to solve the problem of this tension between the mesorah and modernity — thus proving the basic tenet of our faith: that the Torah is eternal, that it is true for all ages in all places, and that compliance with Torah does not require artificially insulated environments.
Rabbi Grunblatt is the rabbi of the Queens Jewish Center (New York) and an adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Touro College. A member of the Jewish Action contributing editorial board, he is also rabbinic vice chairman of the Orthodox Union’s Youth Commission and author of Exile and Redemption (Ktav Publishing, 1988).