Orthodox Judaism is an expansive amalgamation of multiple cultures and traditions, even divergent halachic observances. It is a tapestry formed of communities originating from different countries and continents, each with unique practices and attitudes.
Segmentation within the Jewish people is as old as the nascent Jewish nation that was divided into twelve distinct tribes founded by Yaakov Avinu’s sons. Thereafter and throughout the ages these initial distinctions have been perpetuated, accompanied by the unceasing and deliberate introduction of additional divisions within Jewry, either reflecting intra-Jewish power struggles or varying philosophical attitudes and religious practices.
Many breakaway groups within Jewry have unfortunately sought to “innovate” by rejecting the Oral Torah or rabbinic authority. History has proven that these movements largely tend to vanish over time, with the Jewish identity of their adherents eventually and tragically vanishing as well. Other subgroups, however, have emerged, which introduced new approaches or attitudes into Jewish life while remaining fully committed to halachah and traditional principles of faith.
One prototypical divide was that of the schools of Hillel and Shammai during Talmudic times. Despite the very practical day-to-day communal barriers imposed by their divergent approaches to halachah, they each acknowledged the other’s validity and rightful place within Orthodoxy. Today, divides continue to frame the halachic community, some produced by geographic background, whether Ashkenazim, Sephardim, heimish or American, and others reflecting divergent philosophical or cultural approaches, ranging from shtreimlech to black hats to kippot serugot. This segmentation is further accentuated by the innumerable overlapping subgroups within each category.
Some members of our community are troubled by the diversity within Orthodoxy. They are simply uncomfortable with anyone different from themselves, whether in appearance, culture or lifestyle. Such individuals are offended by those who adhere to different religious leaders, speak with unfamiliar jargon or dialect or maintain contrary political views. Often in a tone of self-righteousness masked as piety, they express exasperation regarding differing religious practices, even while begrudgingly, if not clandestinely, conceding their validity.
Others are unequivocally certain that alternate minhagim (traditions) and shittos (perspectives) are corruptions of Yiddishkeit. Consequently, they feel compelled to mercilessly attack and denigrate all approaches to Torah life that are not their own. They are confident that, regardless of the stature of the Torah leaders guiding others, only their own approach to Orthodoxy is genuine and countenanced by G-d.
Finally, some concerned people are not troubled by the fragmentation but by the social disunity they believe it generates.
By contrast, many Orthodox Jews celebrate halachically sanctioned differences among various groups. Not only are they fascinated by the alternative social dynamics but they view the myriad traditions emanating from different regions, attitudes and cultures as proud scars incurred during a vicious yet victorious war; evidence of the eternal survival of Torah observance through two thousand years of Jewish exile and dispersion.
The value of having a multitude of traditions within Torah Judaism was impressed upon me as a yeshivah student in Baltimore in the 1970s. After the fall of the Shah in Iran, the menahel of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, Rabbi Herman Neuberger, zt”l, was instrumental in initially relocating several thousand young Persian Jews to the United States, with many others to follow. A significant segment of that cohort joined the Ner Israel student body.
In addition to the various minhagim they were encouraged to assiduously retain, the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman, zt”l, insisted that these young students conduct their own separate minyan on Shabbos and yom tov to ensure the preservation of their distinct nusach of tefillah (prayer). I suspect that the Rosh Yeshivah’s insistence was intended to also impress upon the non-Iranian students the cherished value of every divergent set of minhagim.
However one feels about Orthodox segmentation, it must be acknowledged as an enduring characteristic of our community. It is thus worthwhile to consider and take advantage of the many opportunities that this diversity generates.
Unity Rather than Uniformity
We are repeatedly taught that communal unity is indispensable to our religious growth. In fact, Jewish unity is so crucial that even receiving the Torah at Har Sinai depended on the Jewish people standing in unity as a “single person with a single heart.” Rather than compromising unity, Orthodox fragmentation is actually integral to it.
Communal unity is perhaps most expressly emphasized on Purim when the core mitzvos of the holiday include not only reading the megillah but also distributing alms to the poor, delivering gifts of food to neighbors and acquaintances, and celebrating a festive meal with friends and family, all to increase unity and camaraderie.
My rebbi, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, highlighted an apparent inconsistency within the observance of Purim. While the mitzvos of Purim are intended to emphasize and cultivate Jewish unity, Purim is the sole holiday celebrated on different calendar dates, depending upon where one lives. If there was ever a set of mitzvos appropriate to being observed homogeneously, should it not be mitzvos intended to generate unity?
Rav Weinberg resolved the paradox by explaining that there is a fundamental distinction between unity and uniformity. Uniformity requires everyone to look and act identically. Unity, by contrast, is achieved only when people with distinct roles and behaviors understand that they are acting in unison. Unity means sharing identical values and pursuing the same goal, albeit in the manner appropriate to each person, individually. Only in the absence of uniformity does this genuine unity exist.
On Purim, all agree that those living in a walled city celebrate the holiday on one date, while those who live elsewhere celebrate on a different date. The mutual appreciation of everyone’s different obligations is the essence of unity and is thus particularly appropriate to Purim. Rather than stymie Jewish unity, segmentation is intrinsic to it.
Segmentation Delineates the Parameters of Orthodoxy
In teaching that Torah has seventy faces (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15-16), the rabbis convey that Torah Judaism may be expressed in numerous fashions. Occasionally this dictum is referenced to justify values or supposedly religious practices that are actually anathema to Torah and to our community’s standards. Such deviant approaches to Judaism are summarily rejected by Orthodox leadership.
However one feels about Orthodox segmentation, it must be acknowledged as an enduring characteristic of our community.
Had Orthodoxy been monolithic, critics might assert that its rejection of nonconformism is simply small-minded and intolerant. It could have been alleged that Orthodox leaders dismiss all ideas or practices that are not identical to their own for no reason other than chauvinism or to retain power and influence. By embracing appropriate segmentation, the Torah community evidences its acceptance, or at least tolerance, of alternative approaches to Torah observance, so long as they prove to be wholly devoted to the traditional principles of faith and to the mesorah’s halachic framework.
Admittedly, in reaction to the damage to Judaism caused by past deviant movements, Orthodox leadership is extremely wary of innovation. Consequently, the process of assessing the faithfulness of new approaches may take time, sometimes measured in generations. But the eventual acceptance of certain new segments within Orthodoxy, while denying others as inappropriate, frames the outer parameters of acceptable Orthodoxy and repudiates any suggestion that alternatives within Orthodoxy are perforce rejected.
Fragmentation Actually Deepens our Orthodox Identity
The degree to which our core identity is that of an Orthodox Jew has a direct correlation to our commitment to Torah and mitzvos. Nurturing and deepening our Orthodox identity is thus one of the community’s most significant religious functions.
The Orthodox community indeed provides numerous opportunities for enhancing one’s religious identity. For example, as children our identity is nurtured by attending community schools, camps and youth clubs, and as adults by attending shul regularly and by volunteering for and socializing in Orthodox institutions.
Interestingly and perhaps counterintuitively, community fragmentation actually further intensifies our Orthodox identity. By birth or by choice, whether loosely or intensely, we each naturally affiliate with a “brand” of Orthodoxy, to the exclusion of others. It is much easier to create and solidify a deep sense of personal identity through our affiliation with a smaller homogeneous community segment than we could as simply by being a member of the larger Jewish community. But once our identity as an Orthodox Jew is crystallized through our integration into our own familiar and comfortable kehillah, we can begin to expand our identity to encompass broader spheres of Judaism.
Factionalism Provides Orthodox Alternatives for the Rebel, Skeptic and Contrarian
Most of us are immersed in and eventually adopt the lifestyle and mindset of the community faction in which we were raised, or in which we currently live. The faction’s environment and ethic shape our interests, attitudes and values; it may even influence many of our personality traits. Our families expect us to remain loyal to our native faction, and educators are similarly certain that their faction’s culture and mindset are optimal for all their students.
A certain percentage of people are rebels, skeptics or contrarians, perhaps innately, perhaps in response to trauma or tragedy, or perhaps simply by virtue of hanging out with others of that ilk. These individuals are too deeply affected by the particular environment or subgroup in which they were raised or currently live, but for them the result is not adoption but rather the rejection of the faction’s culture and mindset. This is true for those of any age, but particularly for individuals in their teens and twenties.
In addition, we each have a unique personality; distinct emotional and psychological needs and tendencies; our own particular intellectual orientation; and a personal blend of talents and weaknesses. Similarly, each Orthodox segment and sub-segment has a unique culture and arena of emphasis. On occasion, there is an irreconcilable clash between one’s personal makeup and the culture and emphasis of the Orthodox segment in which one was raised. When an observant Jew feels compelled to flee the lifestyle of his or her native religious environment, where do they go? If Orthodoxy were monolithic, there would be no alternative but to resettle beyond the borders of Torah Judaism. Sadly, that often occurs. Orthodox diversity, however, provides an alternative. Incompatible cultural norms and attitudes can be substituted with those of an alternate subgroup that one finds more inviting and accommodating, whether to the right or left on Orthodoxy’s religious spectrum. In fact, perhaps Hashem has destined multiple modes of Torah Judaism specifically for this reason.
A wise man once advised me that it is quite natural, if not healthy, for children to seek individuality by pursuing a life path distinct at least in some regard from their parents and upbringing. Sometimes the shift is subtle, other times dramatic. The objective of a parent should not be to stifle rebellion but rather to channel its direction.
Unfortunately, parents frequently insist that each child continue in the family’s path, even when an alternative Orthodox approach is clearly more appropriate. True, for the most part, remaining within the family’s subgroup has enormous benefits and should be presumed to be in the child’s best interests. But it is a primary duty of parents, as well as of religious educators, to consider when that presumption is misplaced, and to recognize the risks of failing to do so.
It is, however, often difficult for parents to be objective when reacting to a child leaning toward an alternative path within Orthodoxy. Parents fear that the child’s choices will disrupt the internal social dynamic of the family, or perhaps damage the shidduch prospects of the other, unmarried children. Less consciously, parents may feel that a child’s choice to follow a different path is a rejection of the parents’ own choices and a renunciation of the child’s upbringing and education. It is indeed difficult to cope with these feelings, but no one has ever suggested that parenting is easy.
By embracing the fragmentation of Orthodoxy, we can more readily direct our children, if necessary, to the faction most likely to allow for their fullest religious experience (and mental health). And while most of us are entirely comfortable within our current affiliation, we may also discover spiritual opportunities in other factions that can elevate us further.
Choices Breed Passion
It is often reported that various ba’alei teshuvah are at a loss in understanding why their children fail to mirror their own verve and excitement in being observant. In actuality, this bewilderment similarly confronts many parents raised Orthodox. Why are so many of our youth—throughout the religious and cultural spectrum of Orthodoxy—seriously committed to observance but with only minimal fervor and passion?
Perhaps tepid spirituality is the price paid by children raised within a religious environment so comfortable and natural that studying Torah and being observant is less a struggle than the path of least resistance. Perhaps religious passion is produced by wrestling with life decisions and personally making the choices that frame one’s religious journey.
But are parents actually expected to encourage such struggles? Are we not mandated to raise our children to be observant, and to inculcate them with Torah in a religious environment? In fact, to do otherwise is to be guilty of child religious endangerment. How then can we raise children within a solid Torah environment while simultaneously providing them with the opportunity to make their own religious choices?
Perhaps this very opportunity is provided by American Orthodoxy’s panoply of approaches to Torah Judaism. Parents raising their children to respect and appreciate the spiritual opportunities offered by Orthodox factions other than their own are providing them with the opportunity to make significant choices in framing their own religious journey. In choosing their own path as they emerge into adulthood, they will be more invested in their religious engagement and will likely be more passionate about their Yiddishkeit.
And the good news is that if we empower them to consider the broad spectrum of Torah lifestyle approaches, most of our children will choose to adopt the Orthodoxy of their childhood, but with the passion that emerges from making one’s own religious choices.
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.