As with individuals, every community experiences swings in its religious growth. There are spurts, declines and brief periods of maintenance. American Orthodoxy has experienced each. But while American Jewry has suffered disastrous rates of assimilation and non-Orthodox denominations have faltered, Orthodoxy’s overall religious trajectory, when viewed collectively, has been extraordinarily positive.
American Orthodoxy’s religious progress is particularly impressive when we consider the community’s origins and the myriad obstacles it has faced. Often the challenges have been circumstantial, such as economics, dislocation and religious illiteracy. Certain obstacles to observance were imposed by non-Jews, such as blue laws and job, housing and academic admissions discrimination. And certain obstacles to faith were imposed by non-Orthodox Jewish movements seeking to redefine Judaism by denying and distorting Torah, halachah and mesorah.
But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps American Orthodoxy’s spiritual success is not despite adversity but because of it. Perhaps a community’s religious growth emerges from the energy and passion expended by engaging in battle with formidable opposition. Perhaps the struggle is what defines us.
Tanach is replete with episodes of major segments of Jewry abandoning Torah. Such catastrophes have been repeated throughout history as Torah Judaism has suffered losses through endless internal and external religious confrontations. Examples include Jewish Hellenism, the Spanish Expulsion, the Enlightenment followed by the crumbling of the ghetto walls, the Iron Curtain and the still bubbling American melting pot.
Simultaneously, however, the valiant resistance of many observant Jews to these and myriad other challenges to our religious commitment may have been essential to the endurance of our faith and commitment through the millennia. We have been a people in constant turmoil, and we lament the struggles as destructive and exhausting. But perhaps we owe our survival to these religious battles.
The American Orthodox experience may be yet another such example. Our community has evolved over the past century by responding to grim challenges with passion, grit and creativity. This journey has cost innumerable individual Jews their religious commitment, but our community, as a collective entity, has been invigorated by the confrontations. The struggles have imbued us with a mission and sense of identity.
But what about contemporary American Orthodoxy? We are the beneficiaries of past battles. Do we still view ourselves as struggling—whether religiously, socially, or economically?
We each certainly have our personal religious challenges and many individuals continue to abandon observance. But on a communal level, the overall ease of halachic observance has increased significantly. This is facilitated by the availability of high-quality Jewish education and opportunities for childhood socialization as well as by easy access to kosher food and other religious goods and services, particularly in neighborhoods that are even moderately populated by Orthodox Jews.
Similarly, identifying socially as an Orthodox Jew is far less challenging than it was fifty or sixty years ago. In fact, most of us find it very appealing to be a member of the community. Several years ago, the judge in a case I was handling in a far-off city announced that he intended to conclude the trial that week, even if it continued through Friday. My colleagues asked me what I would do for the Sabbath. I responded that I would find someone to host me. They were astounded when I told them I had no friends or acquaintances in that town, but that as an Orthodox Jew I could more often than not find the welcoming Shabbos hospitality of strangers wherever there are other Orthodox Jews.
Economics continues to be a struggle for many Orthodox Jews, but far less than generations ago. Today’s financial challenges are more often related to tuition and mortgage payments, while for earlier generations, they were frequently the utility and grocery bills. Moreover, we enjoy a communal economic ecosystem that extends support to community members in severe financial distress, and a support system of friends and acquaintainces who assist with job placement and investment opportunities.
So does American Orthodoxy now enter a golden age of religious nirvana? Can we be confident in the religious commitment of our progeny, concerned only that they maintain the status quo, perpetuating the levels of observance and Torah scholarship that we have achieved? Need we engage in an ongoing struggle for continued religious growth, or can we finally relax?
For an Orthodox community, maintaining a religious status quo is neither feasible nor appealing. Nothing ever remains static, and religious commitment either ascends or falters. In addition, the ever-changing social and technological environment continually introduces new challenges to religious life, compelling the continual reassessment and reinvention of strategies and approaches necessary to sustain Torah Judaism.
Perhaps most significant, however, is that it is the struggle and not peaceful nirvana that is the core of a Torah-rich life. Our primary religious aspiration is to develop a relationship with the Almighty, but this objective introduces an endless and elusive struggle because His essence transcends our comprehension and our reality. Why then the effort? Because, however arduous, it is the very journey in seeking this connection to G-d that is the holiest of religious experiences.
Religious Status Quo Is Illusory
American Orthodoxy has thrived on each generation’s hope that the next generation would attain higher degrees of Torah scholarship and religious piety. A different attitude is emerging, however, among many contemporary Orthodox parents. They no longer aspire for their children to surpass themselves religiously, but rather to be neither less nor more religious than they are. These trends are evidenced in certain circles by the overwhelming majority of students enrolling in secular universities even after spending a gap year in Israel. In other circles it is noticeable by the decline in students planning careers in chinuch and klal work.
Even if we put aside the question of whether the parents’ religious achievements are worthy of emulation, the question that must be posed is the following: is perpetuating a religious status quo even an option?
Nothing in the human and physical world is static, and a community’s religiosity is the same. Every business proprietor knows that however impressive last year’s results are, the enterprise must pursue increased sales and profits or it will undoubtedly decline.
By nature, however, we perceive current realities as being likely to continue. Only the wise recognize that this is never the case, even in the most entrenched circumstances. Currencies of success, such as prestige and affluence, ebb and flow. Celebrated businesses, leading communal institutions and even sports franchises may bask in glorious triumph for years but rarely escape eventual decline. Dominant cultures and political philosophies escalate and fade. Even the mightiest of kingdoms and empires have crumbled and lowly nations ascended to dominance.
Long ago, a pious and wise client of mine was suffering a dramatic turn of fortune. On a particularly grim day, the gentleman shared with me a thought he had heard from the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l. The Satmar Rebbe had noted that in Megillas Koheles, King Solomon observed that there is a time for everything, including a time to weep and a time to laugh (Koheles 3:4).
Asked the Satmar Rebbe: do we really need Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of men, to teach us this lesson? Doesn’t even a simpleton know that sometimes we cry and sometimes we laugh? The Rebbe explained that while experiencing all-encompassing joy, we require wisdom to recognize that there will also come periods of sorrow. And while weeping bitterly, only an astute individual will have the discipline to reflect that the future will eventually include times of laughter.
Whether as an individual or a community, religious engagement and piety will always be ascending or descending, never standing still. Any attitude regarding religious observance and engagement that is founded on the preservation of the present is inherently flawed. For an Orthodox Jew, an ongoing, uninterrupted battle for religious growth for ourselves and for our children is imperative.
An Ever-Changing World Compels an Ongoing Religious Struggle
Even if our community’s level of religiosity were worthy of perpetuation, and even if the concept of sustaining a religious status quo were a possibility, the ever-changing experiences and influences affecting us and our children compel a constant struggle to accommodate and adjust to these new realities.
The great Torah thinker and writer Rav Shimshon Pincus, zt”l (1944–2001), emphasized this struggle in the introduction to his iconic sefer, Shearim B’Tefillah (Gates of Prayer, available in English translation).
Rav Pincus noted that his sefer is modeled on the study of prayer found in the sefer Sha’ar HaTefillah, written almost two hundred years earlier by the great Chassidic kabbalist Rav Chaim Tirar of Chernovitz, zt”l (1760–1816). Rav Pincus explained that it was necessary to convey the already written thoughts anew and in a different manner since only contemporary leaders and scholars can truly understand how to transmit the Torah experience and values in a manner and with language that will be understood and absorbed in the current time period. For this reason, explained Rav Pincus, students of every generation must be given access to the eternal truth of Torah through a tailored prism identifiable only by the Torah scholars of the time.
A similar thought is conveyed by the Kedushas Levi, the great Chassidic master Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, zt”l (1740–1809). He explores the term “teiku,” which is used throughout the Talmud when a scholarly debate is left unresolved. Teiku stands for the acronym of the Hebrew words “Tishbi (referencing Eliyahu HaNavi) yetareitz kushiyos v’abayos,” which means that upon the coming of Mashiach, Eliyahu HaNavi will resolve all such questions and problems.
The Kedushas Levi notes that Mashiach’s arrival will usher in the era of techiyas hameisim, resurrection of the deceased, and thus Moshe Rabbeinu will be available to resolve all Talmudic conundrums. The reason that Eliyahu HaNavi, rather than Moshe Rabbeinu, will be appropriate to the task is because of the tradition that Eliyahu HaNavi lives on through every generation. He is thus familiar with the experiences, personality and character of the folks of every era. Moshe Rabbeinu, despite his unparalleled greatness, will not enjoy this familiarity and, unlike Eliyahu HaNavi, will therefore be unable to resolve a vexing question in the manner appropriate to those living in the then current time period.
I happen to have had a front row seat in the classic business school case study regarding the impact of failing to objectively assess the consequences of change. In the 1990s I was a minor participant in a commercial effort to convince Eastman Kodak Corporation to expand its product line to include digital X-rays for dentists. Kodak, founded in 1892, scoffed at the overture, maintaining that its dental X-ray film business would undoubtedly continue its market supremacy and that newfangled technologies were folly and unnecessary. Kodak’s decades of indisputable industry dominance lulled it into ignoring the impending demise of analog photography. Less than twenty years later, my legal practice included representing clients in Kodak’s chapter 11 bankruptcy case.
For the Orthodox Jew, the struggle of applying the Torah to contemporary norms and experiences is particularly formidable in light of our recognition that Torah is eternal, and its values and halachic guidelines immutable. Encouraging adherence to Torah without introducing new approaches compelled by contemporary life is untenable, but altering Torah values or halachah to accommodate contemporary sensitivities is indefensible. This struggle will always preclude the option of religious complacency. Perpetuating a religious status quo in a volatile world is itself a struggle.
The Struggle’s the Thing
As noted earlier, though not true for every family, as a collective community our Orthodox life in America is appealing and comfortable. Hashem has favored us with material blessings and religious freedoms. We take pride in our generation’s Torah study, our adherence to halachah and our success in navigating America’s commercial and professional byways with minimal, if any, religious compromises.
We are mindful of the toil and sacrifices of our parents and grandparents to create our current religious circumstance, and we have every intention of realizing what we interpret to have been their hopes and dreams to provide us with an easier life.
But perhaps the intent of prior generations was otherwise. Rather than hoping to provide us with an easier life, maybe our forebears aspired to afford us the platform from which to strive for yet greater religious heights. This is similar to a family sacrificing comfort in order to accumulate assets upon which their children can build a financial empire, not a life of financial complacency.
In any event, we must recognize that the mission of Jewry is an unending struggle to grow religiously, in piety, in scholarship and in faith. Above all else, avoiding the struggle would be a rejection of our mission.
Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.