Rabbi Moshe I. Hauer

As our connection to Sinai has weakened, so has our relationship with God.

A person associated with Torah who is scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in conversation, and relates well to people…showing respect even to those who treat him with disdain; who conducts his transactions with integrity, and does not frequent the gatherings of the boorish, but rather is seen constantly involved in Torah, wrapped in tzitzit and crowned with tefillin, and conducting all of his affairs beyond the letter of the law while avoiding extreme and exaggerated behaviors; thus he reaches a point where people praise and admire him and seek to emulate his deeds.  Such a person has sanctified God’s name, and concerning him Scripture says, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I am glorified.’”        (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 5:11)

Kiddush Hashem.  Joseph is often cited in this regard as a Jew who truly enlightened the world as a Jew, glorifying God’s name.1  The wisdom of God which he brought to bear upon the crisis facing the Egyptians prompted them to react in amazement and respect:  “As God has informed you of all this, there is no wise and understanding person as you” (Genesis 41:39).  Yet even as Joseph was remarkably successful in generating admiration for himself and his God, he nevertheless found it necessary to keep elements of his religious life “in the closet.”  Thus he ate separately from the Egyptians because they could not bear to see him eat meat.

The model is instructive.  Evidently it is unrealistic to expect all of Torah to elicit appreciative responses from the non-committed.2  If God’s own offer of Torah to the nations could be spurned because they did not like all of its contents, neither Joseph nor any other great Jew can expect any better.  Only the unconditional deference of “naaseh v’nishma” [“We will do and we will hear,” affirmed at Sinai] can yield unconditional acceptance — and even appreciation — of the totality of Torah.  And it is precisely the contemporary absence of this kind of unconditional deference that compels us to look again at how we teach Torah.  Because although Joseph had only the Egyptians to worry about, we have our own brethren — and even ourselves — to contend with.  Be it regarding the nations whom we seek to enlighten; our disaffected brothers and sisters whom we desire to bring closer to Torah; the many of our own children we are struggling to keep within the fold; or the legions of women who genuinely struggle with their place in the world of Torah:  All of these seek not a Torah which they can accept; they seek a Torah to admire and appreciate.  A Torah defined not by its guidance of every step of our lives, but by its enrichment of those steps.

Truthfully, this is the contemporary version of Kabbalat HaTorah [receiving the Torah].  The overwhelming impact of God’s miracles at Egypt and of His awesome “appearance” at Sinai created a nation unconditionally committed to God and His Word.  We accepted Him as our God, and within the framework of that relationship we received the Torah.  In such a context, Torah study could focus on what God demanded of us, the particulars of how we were to follow its laws.  As to the question of why Torah, there was one more than adequate response: God.  His unlimited presence was the definitive element of that Kabbalat HaTorah.  However, as our connection to Sinai has weakened, so has our relationship with God.  And where the link to Sinai has been interrupted, it is realistically restored only through Torah.  Thus, whereas originally God was the reason to observe Torah, now Torah’s own value is taught as the reason to observe Torah, with the hope that it will ultimately introduce Jews to God.  We attract disaffected Jews by showing them the beauty of Sabbath observance; the marital health generated by the practice of family purity laws; the societal benefits of refraining from gossip and slander.  It is only at this point that the student is prepared to encounter the questions of how to observe correctly.  Thus the contemporary Kabbalat HaTorah has as its definitive element an appreciation of the value of Torah.  Are we equipped to generate such Kabbalat HaTorah, to introduce others to the value of Torah?

We can speak of three types of Jews:3  The first accepts and adheres to the Torah and its many mitzvot of ritual observance, but sees non-ritual, “secular” life as independent of Torah.  While Torah determines his society and culture, what he eats and where he sends his children to school, it does not define his relationships with spouse, parent or child; does not affect his sense of responsibility to society; and does not truly mold his character.

The second type of Jew shares the same limited perception of Torah, and because of that perception rejects Torah observance as parochial and irrelevant.  He refuses to clutter his days with apparently dated religious practices that seem completely divorced from real life.

The third — and the rarest — sees the Torah and its mitzvot as a system that affects and informs every part of life; that enriches and animates every area of human endeavor.  This Jew lives the Torat chaim.  He is not simply shomer Torah, an individual who observes and preserves the laws of Torah while distinctly attending to the rest of life.  He is the ben Torah, the individual truly formed and molded by the letter and spirit of God’s word as revealed in Torah and as applied to every nook and cranny of life.  It is he who personifies the Kiddush Hashem, “Israel, in whom I am glorified.”  And it is especially critical at this juncture in our history, when the Kabbalat HaTorah of our generation depends upon it, that we apply ourselves to developing ourselves as just such a community of Jews.  But how?

Torah endeavors are divided into the four categories of lilmod [learning Torah], l’lamed [teaching Torah], lishmor [observance and implementation of its principles] and la’asot [creative activity consistent with Torah].  I would like to briefly present a modest suggestion in each of these areas.

Lilmod :  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Ramchal) introduces his classic Derech Hashem with the following:

When an individual is confronted by many details and does not know how they relate to one another or their true place in a general system, then his inquisitive intellect is given nothing more than a difficult and unsatisfying burden.  He may struggle with it, but he will tire and grow weary long before he attains any gratification.  Each detail will arouse his curiosity, but not having access to the concept as a whole, he will remain frustrated….The exact opposite is true when one knows something in relation to its context.  Since he sees it within its framework, he can go on to grasp other concepts associated with it, and his success will bring him pleasure and elation.

Ramchal’s observation is simple and poignant.  Were we to learn Torah in the elegant and comprehensive manner described, it would indeed do much to address the enormous frustrations of many of the disaffected, be they our youth, our less observant brothers and sisters or ourselves!  To see Torah as the system that it is, and to be able to apply its principals beyond, will indeed bring “pleasure and elation.”  And imagine further the impact such learning would have on Torah living.  The calamity of Chillul Hashem derives from one source: inconsistency.  Torah observed rigorously here, but ignored there.  When Torah is approached as prescribed by Ramchal, as a system rather than as a “bag of tricks,” it guides its students to truly integrate Torah.  Torah becomes real and relevant, practical and applicable.

            L’lamed:  A critical element of effective teaching is the involvement of the students of Torah in the process of learning (Socratic method).  When the lesson is heard from others it is not truly integrated.  If we can complement our teaching of Torah with the provision of opportunities and guidance for the students’ own learning; if we will allow them to develop the idea instead of us feeding it to them, they will find themselves integrating the idea and taking responsibility for it.  Instead of feeding people Torah, we can enable them to be konei Torah, to claim Torah for themselves.

Lishmor :  There is much of life in our community that should feel the effect of Torah.  How, for instance, does our Torat chaim guide us in how we choose to expose our families to the increasingly toxic medium of television?4  How does it inform the choices we make between the enormous and growing human needs of our families and the ever-increasing demands of the competitive workplace?  How does it affect our perception of parenting, as an opportunity rather than a chore?  How does it react to the currently stylish, provocative modes of dress that find their way into our communities despite the implicit indignity that they bring to the Jewish woman?  If our Jewish community is to truly be defined by its commitment to Torah, then Torah must be brought to address issues such as these.

La’asot: The Talmud (Sotah 14a) points out to us that Torah begins and ends with chesed [acts of loving-kindness].  The classic story of an individual coming to Torah, the Book of Ruth, tells the story of an individual who came to Torah not because of what we would normally term a spiritual odyssey or a search for God, but out of a basic commitment of chesed to another human being.5  We must restore genuine chesed to its rightful position as the beginning and the end of Torah life.

For 100 years the Orthodox Union has served the Jewish community magnificently.  It has spoken for us with a strong voice, and it has provided us with myriad services that facilitate every aspect of Jewish life; and it has created and developed a variety of significant outreach and youth services.  The past few years have seen the Union move to speak even more directly to us, through the pages of this publication, through the Pardes Project, as well as a variety of other educational venues.  We need these efforts to continue and to intensify, to challenge us to raise Torah to the next level; to move us beyond the survival and maintenance of Torah, and even beyond its promulgation, to the deepening of our commitment to its fullness.  Let us work together as a community to integrate Torah into all areas of our lives, to achieve the day when God will again say, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I am glorified.”

Rabbi Hauer is the spiritual leader of the Bnai Jacob Congregation in Baltimore, Maryland.

Notes:

  1. This article focuses on the public aspects of Kiddush Hashem, based on the Rambam’s words in 5:11. Note, however, that Rambam in the previous paragraph (5:10) explicitly cites Joseph as an example of a very different definition of Kiddush HashemOne who knowingly and voluntarily transgresses any of the Torah’s commandments with insolence and spite has desecrated God’s name (Chillul Hashem).  Likewise, one who refrains from sin or who performs a mitzvah for no worldly motive … but because of the Creator, blessed be He, as Joseph did in resisting his master’s wife, has sanctified Hashem’s name (Kiddush Hashem).  Rambam certainly places great emphasis on Kiddush Hashem berabim (public Kiddush Hashem).  In fact, in his Sefer Hamitzvos (Ninth Positive Commandment), he cites favorably a passage from the Sifra that defines the public sanctification of His name as the singular mission of the Jewish people.  Yet the formulation quoted here is instructive in its citation of Joseph as creating the exemplary Kiddush Hashem.  Remember that in the eyes of the public, quite the opposite had occurred:  Joseph, the Hebrew slave, disgracefully took advantage of a moment alone with his master’s wife to prey upon her.  Yet the truth of what had transpired defined the moment as the consummate Kiddush Hashem, despite the public’s perception to the contrary.  As much as we are concerned — and rightfully so — with public perception, our ultimate concern is to do for the sake of God.
  1. There are aspects of Torah regarding which the nations express their admiration (Devarim 4:6: “And you shall observe and perform [the Torah] for it is your wisdom and understanding before the eyes of the nations…”), and those towards which they direct their disdain.  See Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2, and opening comment of Rama to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim.
  1. This categorization follows a similar pattern described by the Rambam in his commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin (10:1), where he writes about three types of students of Aggadot: The first assumes their superficial and literal meaning and accepts them as such, and is so left to live with an almost incomprehensible and irrelevant Torah.  The second also assumes their superficial and literal meaning, and because of their apparent incomprehensibility, rejects the Torah and its Sages as impractical fools (chas v’shalom).  The third — and the rarest — recognizes that these Aggadot have deeper metaphorical meanings, and studies them seriously to develop a meaningful understanding of their relevance.
  1. This is an area where we of the Orthodox Union can show critical leadership. At a time when, because of school violence and more, society as a whole is tentatively reevaluating its use of television, we can show leadership by initiating an honest internal discussion — within the national Orthodox community — about the place this medium currently occupies in our homes and lives, and about the place it should or should not occupy in our future.
  1. See Nachlas Yosef of Rabbi Yosef Lipovitz to Ruth 3:10. As Rambam writes (Issurei Bi’ah 13:15), a righteous convert is one who returns for reasons that are not of worldly value.  Chesed is not worldly; it is Godly!
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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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