…If serious and thoughtful musar learning and practice will make a comeback, then we have hope.
I will address myself to the second point of the symposium questions which appears to me to be the crux from which the solutions to most of the other issues must flow. If our Judaism is going to lack the spiritual depth referred to, then we will be vulnerable to all the ills, potential or actual, touched upon in the other questions. Militant feminism, the allures of the Internet, the vexing polarization which plagues our own camp, all will take their toll, gnawing away at the fringes and eating their pernicious way closer and closer to the core. We will act in ways which will repel rather than attract our estranged brothers and sisters, and will be ineffective in any attempts at mediation between the religious and secular camps in Israel or elsewhere. Our’s will be a surface beauty which will seem attractive mainly to the undiscriminating and the gullible. Our pride, in many ways justly earned, will easily degenerate into an ugly arrogance, our self-respect, where and when it counts, will often be weak and easily destroyed.
I am, however, not at all convinced that the symposium has the problem right. It is defined in terms of a clash between centripetal and centrifugal forces with modernity cast as the villain. I see it as home‑based and therefore doubly frightening. Of course it is possible that both are true. Nevertheless I suggest that we will miss the mark if we look outside ourselves for the sickness and therefore for the cure.
Shallow Judaism which enthusiastically embraces ever expanding areas of surface observances (And thank God for those expansions. Zehirus Bemitzvos [careful attention to observance of mitzvos] is spreading into all areas of Jewish life. The drift to the right is indeed a drift to do what is right.) while leaving the Jewish core untouched can drain the religious life of its lilt and its music. It goes without saying that mitzvos must first and foremost be kept and that no amount of philosophizing will ever replace simple obedience expressed in action. Nevertheless without a deep and carefully thought out appreciation of the values which the mitzvos express, we may distort our Judaism beyond recognition.
We could give examples from almost any aspect of Jewish life. Within the confines of a short essay we will need to concentrate on just one area. Let us examine what insufficient profundity can do to us as we make our way through our galus [dispersion].
Recently, one of our major Jewish publications carried a correspondence concerning the practice of many summer camps to organize a siyum during the “Nine Days” so that the campers would be able to have a meat meal. Apparently someone had written in to question the practice. I did not see the original letter, only the reply. The gist of the argument in favor of the practice was that it stimulated enthusiastic Torah learning and that the anticipation of having to make a siyum in front of a whole camp served as a powerful goad towards achieving excellence in learning.
I wish to argue that this response is an example of shallow thinking and that it misses the point entirely. Throughout the galus our mourning for a lost Yerushalayim and our longing for a return was an important defining feature of our Jewishness. We knew that, “Kol hamis’abel al Yerushalyim sofo lir’os be’nechamasah: Whoever mourns over Jerusalem will ultimately see her consolation,” and we cried and we dreamed and we hoped. Paradoxically, the establishment of the State of Israel made this form of identification much harder. It is one thing to close one’s eyes and conjure up King David’s Mt. Tzion in one’s mind, and quite another to hassle about lost luggage at Ben Gurion Airport or to sit fuming and befumed somewhere in Yerushalayim. It is not easy to cope Jewishly with an often sordid reality which could easily be duplicated in Rome or Paris.
I read recently that the holy Steipler Rov regularly recited Tikkun Chatzos. How many people reading this article have ever done so? How many of us even know anyone who may know someone who may ever have done so?
It has become dreadfully hard to feel galus. It has become very, very hard to shed tears, real tears, for a lost Yerushalayim.
Very few of us or of our children learn Tanach in any serious or sustained way. We have not jubilated with Dovid nor sobbed with Yirmiyahu. Our destiny fails to inspire or energize because, too often, our history is a murky jumble of shadowy figures of whom we understand little and absorb hardly anything at all.
And we have nine days during the year. Nine short days in which we can at least go through the motions. Nine days during which we could at least try to cry like Jews, to allow the flames of destruction to warm our frigid, goyish-influenced hearts, to forge a determination to be different, to really, really be metzapeh li’yeshuah [looking forward to the Redemption].
And instead we worry about a fleishige supper. We teach our children that aveilus for Yerushalayim is not a privilege that has to be wrested from the dross of a religiously debilitating exile existence, but a burden which, if you are smart enough and masmid enough, you can circumvent — and even get a mazel tov for a great hadran [siyum speech].
There are many other times when a camp siyum would indeed be a thing of rare beauty. It seems to me that the Nine Days are wholly inappropriate for this particular chizuk.
We have a problem which needs to be spelled out if we are to find a solution. It is this: The easier it has become to be an ehrlicher yid* the harder it has become to be an ehrlicher yid. A lot of temimus [simple innocence], a lot of earnest and deeply moving caring, has become lost amid the profusion of simplifiers and time-savers which are available to us both in learning and in shemiras hamitzvos [mitzvah observance]. A recent article in Yated Ne’eman caught the issue nicely. They were bemoaning the propensity of our yiden to go to hotels for Pesach. [Baruch Hashem, they can afford it.] To paraphrase their reproach: You save a lot of time, but you lose a lot of love. In a contemporary twist we might say that “Bodek” rids us of more than the pesky flies on our Romaine lettuce; it rids us of much of the yir’as cheit [fear of sin] engendered by hours of painstaking and frustrating bedikos [examinations for insects].
We have a real problem on our hands.
What might be a solution?
Certainly not to throw out “Bodek.” It may have its drawbacks, but on balance it is obviously a wonderful thing.
I can only repeat what I said a number of years ago while speaking at the sheva berachos of a talmid of the great musar teacher, HaRav Shlomo Wolbe. I argued that history has yet to pass judgment upon the enormous upswing of Torah learning which we are witnessing in this, our wonderful and frightening generation. All of us are inspired by what is happening, all of us hope and pray that it will not turn out to be a flash in the pan.
I believe that the jury is still out.
If Rav Wolbe prevails; if serious and thoughtful musar learning and practice will make a comeback, then we have hope. Then it will turn out that whatever shortcomings now worry us will have been part of the growing pains of a gradually maturing Orthodox Judaism which has resurrected itself from out of the flames of destruction. We cannot and must not expect perfection as we struggle back towards Jewish normalcy.
If we reject his message, we need to be deeply concerned. What the immortal Reb Chaim Brisker said about Volozhin when he refused to allow entry to the Musar system — that musar is for the sick, but that his yeshivah bachurim are from healthy stock — may not be true today.
We, all of us, need all the help that we can get.
Perhaps the vision of batei musar sprouting up for all our wonderful Orthodox baalei batim seems like an unattainable dream. But if the Orthodox Union — to which we all extend a hearty mazel tov upon its hundredth birthday — is seeking a thrust and focus in the next 100 years, it could do worse than consider the possibilities.
*Ed. Note – This term defies translation but implies an upright, sincere Jew.
Rabbi Eisemann is a rebbe at the Ner Israel Talmudical College in Baltimore, Md. He is the author of the ArtScroll editions of Yechezkel, Divrei HaYamim and Iyov. He has also written books of commentaries and essays on holiday-related materials including, Lighting Up the Night; A Pearl in the Sand and Shelter Amongst the Shadows.