President's Message

Increased Devotion but a Paucity of Passion

Two characteristics of the religious experience are devotion and passion. Often, however, we fail to view them as distinct from each other and thus neglect to ensure that each is independently developed and nurtured.   

For the Orthodox Jew, devotion denotes a sense of loyalty and commitment to halachah, to principles of faith and to the Jewish people. It means being guided by Torah and Torah values when making choices, whether in how to behave or in what to believe. A devoted Orthodox Jew is fully committed to serving God and dutifully fulfills these obligations as best as possible. 

Ongoing studies of American Orthodox Jewry, though still imprecise, indicate a significant surge in religious devotion. The number of students enrolled in day schools and yeshivos, adults attending Torah classes, lulav and esrog sets sold and pounds of shemurah matzah purchased for Pesach are just a few of the myriad examples illustrating this phenomenon. The rise in religious devotion is not only spiritually significant, but according to studies of American Jewry, it also plays a role in boosting Jewish identity and continuity. 

Religious passion, however, is not as clearly on the rise. Though easily confused with devotion, passion is quite different. It is not merely greater intensity of commitment or even inspiration, excitement or joy. Nor is passion evidenced by arguing one’s opinion louder than others, or espousing views with utter certainty in one’s position. Rather, passion signifies absolute and intense engagement with an ideal or goal such that pragmatic realities are no longer a restraint and seemingly impenetrable obstacles are no longer a barrier. Passion is a treasured drive to achieve more than can possibly be expected. It enables a writer to toil many lonely years penning a novel and the inventor or scientist to give birth to invaluable discoveries despite withstanding derision or frustration. Passion motivates the young idealist to not only dream of changing the world, but to actually attempt to do so. And religious passion, the most transformative passion of all, generates the energy and ratzon (human will) to achieve spiritual heights that surpass normative expectations. 

Over the ages, Judaism has thrived on the energy and ratzon generated by passion. We extol the religious zeal of Torah giants who achieved extraordinary scholarship despite living amidst harsh and difficult conditions, and our nation’s courageous heroes on the battlefield, from King David to the Maccabees to the modern-day defenders of our people. And we admire the fiery ardor of those who have, over the centuries, sacrificed their lives to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim 

But religious passion is also evident in less dramatic ways. What about the unnamed and unacclaimed individuals and families whose commitment to religious observance perseveres in the darkest of hours, or impoverished parents who allocate their paltry resources to provide their children with a religious education? What about those who toil in the challenging and often thankless fields of education and community service despite inadequate remuneration and insufficient appreciation? 

Certainly there are many individual American Orthodox Jews who exhibit such passion, and there are even groups who collectively aspire to it. But while religious devotion is a hallmark of our community, why is there not a widespread aspiration for achieving religious passion? 

Some of us feel passionate with regard to a particular cause or challenge. We may respond intensely about a sports team or political candidate, about  an insult we feel demands recompense, or about helping a friend in dire need. But what about religious passion? How often is our religious devotion complemented by a passionate yearning for closeness to God? And if and when we do respond affirmatively to moments of religious intensity, do we aspire to retain and sustain that drive? 

We educate our children to be devoted Jews, but do we also teach them how to be passionate Jews? Is it fair to suggest that we deeply hope that our children grow up to be religious, but give them the message that they, please, not be too religious; that they develop into “well-rounded” Orthodox adults, but should understand that there is no need to overdo it and become passionate idealists? Do we hope that our children care about the needs of others, about Torah scholarship, about justice and about the future of the Jewish people, but only if these characteristics are kept in proper balance? We speak of idealism as a virtue, but only if accompanied by a balanced lifestyle. Interestingly, our discouragement of the pursuit of true religious passion may be one of the few areas of religious parenting that we actually teach by example. 

Why are so many of us averse to religious passion? Are we fearful that too much religious passion will cause us to neglect life’s practicalities, leaving a sense of disillusionment in its wake once the passion dissipates? Has American Orthodoxy been too infused with materialism and affluence so that the cost of pursuing passionate idealism is simply too steep? Or is religious passion simply incongruous with the integration within the broader American society that we find so imperative? 

The grave repercussions of passion on a communal level may be another possible reason for our discomfort with religious passion even on an individual level. 

Communal Passion 
Communal passion is the stuff of social movements that advance justice and champion lofty values. But communal passion is also the fuel of revolutions, wars and ideological upheavals. It is an agent of change, and often generates extremism and fanaticism.   

Orthodox Judaism is wary of uncontrolled change, because the consequences are highly unpredictable. Orthodox Judaism is founded on timeless truths and non-negotiable halachic principles and dictates. While recognizing that change often preserves rather than distorts Torah and Torah values, necessary and positive change within Judaism is typically employed through evolution rather than revolution, and only when implemented with deliberate thoughtfulness, sensitivity and care. Change effected through communal zeal, by contrast, tends to be unwieldy and often progresses even beyond the control of its instigators. 

Communal passion is also commonly associated with extremism, which is anathema to our community. Such passion may or may not begin with a focus on God, but generally dissolves into bitter divisions within Judaism itself. Throughout Jewish history, fanaticism and extremism have served us poorly. A prime example is Churban Bayis Sheni, the destruction of the Second Temple, which was hastened by the Zealots, a break-away Jewish sect. Seeking to impose their political views by controlling Jerusalem’s destiny, they destroyed the besieged city’s food supply, leading to starvation, death and the Roman conquest of Jerusalem. 

We educate our children to be devoted Jews, but do we also teach them how to be passionate Jews?  

Notwithstanding their deep religious devotion, most American Orthodox Jews practice a Judaism of moderation and deliberateness, unlike the Israeli Orthodox community where religious fervor is commonplace. Israeli passion, however sacred it may be, often results in the very extremism that offends Americans, sometimes leading to hostility and alienation between Orthodox factions. Even those observant Americans who admire the religious passion of certain Israeli sects and communities and may even financially support them, typically decline to adopt such a lifestyle themselves. 

That is not to say that there is never an occasion when communal passion is appropriate. When confronted by a grave crisis—such as a severe threat to our physical selves or to our core theological principles—even moderate American Orthodox Jews will respond vigorously and passionately. In these situations, passion can generate the energy and will that are necessary to achieve results when failure is intolerable but pragmatic solutions are infeasible.  

For example, much of American Orthodoxy responded forcefully in support of the fledgling Jewish State in the aftermath of the Holocaust and campaigned vigorously to free Soviet Jews, who were spiritually and physically trapped behind the Iron Curtain. For these same reasons, American Orthodoxy’s educational and rabbinic leadership and their students passionately built yeshivos and day schools to reinvigorate Torah study among a precariously illiterate American Orthodoxy, and galvanized the late 1960s kiruv (outreach) movement in the face of rising assimilation. But in the absence of crisis, communal passion is not commonly found among American Orthodox Jews. 

The Role and Impact of Individual Passion 
Much of the resistance to communal passion is inapplicable to passion on an individual basis. That is not to suggest that passion is necessary or even appropriate to the endless stream of “wants” that evolve over the course of our lives and which inform our actions, emotions and choices. We begin by wanting ice cream, our parents’ approval, and friends. We then add academic success, the car keys and a seat at the cool kids table. As we get older, we want a spouse who can love and be loved, children who are happy and follow in our path, and a semblance of financial stability. When we age, we first realize that good health has been what we always wanted most. We then also hope to remain relevant to our children, and to not outlive our spouse and our savings. 

Passion, however, is not stuff with which to pursue our ordinary wants. Regardless of how essential the wants may be, passion is inappropriate.  Rather, passion belongs to our lofty goals and values, to the aspects of life that transcend the ordinary; allowing us to aspire to personal summits of achievement that are otherwise beyond our reach. Passion introduces personal ratzon, human will, which is the most powerful energy short of the Divine, that empowers us to attain unimaginable personal growth or to have an unfathomable impact on others. Ratzon allows us to tackle inconceivable challenges and to pierce the impenetrable. When meeting truly extraordinary individuals whose accomplishments, whether in scholarship, creativity, influence or otherwise, are seemingly beyond human comprehension, I often speculate that their most valuable resource is this unbridled ratzonwhich has allowed them to transcend their natural limitations. 

I have been privileged to observe individuals with enormous personal passion, and the power engendered by their passion. One such individual was Mr. Zev Wolfson, a”h, a visionary philanthropist who dictated realities rather than deferred to them. During a casual Pesach stroll in the 1990s he shared with me a thought that I later realized was the theme underlying his approach to communal activism. 

We were discussing the personalities and traits of Jewish leaders with whom he had interacted and I asked whether he had found a particular individual to be great. Our walk abruptly stopped and Mr. Wolfson looked at me and asked, “What makes a person great?” I scrambled for an answer he might find acceptable and I replied, “Great people are those who maximize their potential.” He scoffed dismissively, commenting that every individual is expected to maximize his or her potential; hence, doing so is good, but certainly not great. Bewildered, I asked: “What then makes an individual great?” He responded that great people are not those who meet their potential but those who exceed their potential. 

If we fail to aspire to passion, we diminish our chances of exceeding our potential, and stymie our children. Passion is the power of ratzon; the power of the individual to transcend potential; the opportunity to be great. 


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. 

This article was featured in the Spring 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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