Letters – Spring 2021

When a Child Leaves the Fold

I’m writing with regard to your symposium entitled “Faith and Family: When a Child Leaves the Fold” (spring 2020). While it is true that “there are no pat answers” as to why children leave and that “every individual and every situation is unique,” there are issues that were not discussed in the symposium. Many of the youth as well as adults who leave the Torah way of life do so because the world outside of Torah seems so appealing to them. We do not live in a bubble, especially with today’s technology. All too often young adults ask why they should adhere to mitzvot—putting on tefillin, refraining from using electricity and especially cell phones on Shabbat and holidays—which they view as restrictive.

I listen to what young people say as they slowly drift farther away from religious observance. Parental love or having high regard for one’s child is not necessarily the answer to bringing him back to Torah observance. If you are serious about getting truthful answers, you must go directly to the source. Honest conversation with those who have left or are pulling away is perhaps the only way to keep the path open for return.

Chaim Leib Allen 

Edison, New Jersey

 

Recalling Anglo-Jewish Classics

I must express my deepest appreciation for your refreshing and delicious article entitled “Great Summer Reads” (summer 2020). Thank you for reminding me of the delights of Sadie Rose Weilerstein’s What The Moon Brought. Ruth and Debby and their “little new angel” sibling initiated my love of reading. Its contents and prose set the bar high for children’s literature. Seeing so many of the books of my formative reading years, This Is My God, The Chosen, All for the Boss and The Little Midrash Says, to list but a few of the titles, had me heading down to my basement bookcases where so many of these wonderful Anglo-Jewish classics had been relegated. Retrieving them for a marathon-reading session reminded me that a “thing of beauty is a good read forever.” Your publication continues to be a bastion of well-written, informative and outstanding journalism.

Ahava Ehrenpreis 

Brooklyn, New York

 

Overlooking Younger Students

I read “Lessons from the Pandemic: Part II” (fall 2020) with great interest.
As the contributors mentioned, the Covid-19 shutdowns of schools have taken a serious toll on our children, parents and families and the menahalim and menahalot in the symposium answered with sincerity
and depth.

I would, however, like to point out a crucial oversight: Of the wonderful mechanchim and mechanchot who were interviewed, only one provided a brief insight (about snow days) directed at younger students, those in grades preschool through eighth grade. In my experience, younger students suffered terribly during the lockdown. Virtual learning is far more difficult for a first grader than for a high school junior, and younger children do not necessarily have the tools to express their needs, frustrations and emotions in order to seek solutions. Considering that the overwhelming majority of school-age children are in grades nursery to eighth grade, it would serve us well to reflect and focus on their social, emotional and academic needs during this difficult time.

Rabbi Isaac Entin

Head of School, Caskey Torah Academy
of Greater Philadelphia

Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

 

The Need for Leaders

In “What Makes a Jewish Leader” (fall 2020), Rabbi Warren Goldstein states that “the Torah seems to have a fundamental discomfort with the very idea of leadership.” It seems to me that on the contrary, Judaism is predicated upon the acceptance of leadership. When the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu, the prototype of the Jewish leader, is challenged by Korach, God’s punishment is swift. A talmid chacham who rules differently than the Sanhedrin after they had decided on a pesak must be put to death (Devarim 17:12).

A nation without a leader is like a ship without a captain. Before he passes away, Moshe Rabbeinu requests of God, “Let God . . . appoint a man over the congregation . . . [so that] the congregation of God will not be like a flock without a shepherd” (Bamidbar 27:16-17). After the death of Moshe, God promises Yehoshua, “No man shall stand up against you all the days of your life” (Joshua 1:5). The Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe assure the newly appointed Yehoshua, “As we listened to Moshe, so will we listen to you. . . . Any man who opposes your word and will not listen to everything you command shall be put to death” (Ibid. 1:18). The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim, chapter 3) discusses what constitutes a mored b’malchut, one who rebels against the king.

Even after the death of the last king of Yehuda, there were leaders: the nasi and the av beit din. The nasi’s authority was inviolable. There were always leaders—the gedolei hador, the great Chassidic rebbes, et cetera. We were never bereft.

On a simple level, the reason a king is needed is because as Pirkei Avot states:Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.” But on a deeper level, the king teaches his subjects the idea of subservience to God. The king had to be totally and exclusively subservient to Hashem, as exemplified by the din that when the king recited Shemoneh Esrei, he had to remain bowed the whole time. Through the king, the people learned the meaning of submissiveness to the One Above, of having kabbalat ol Malchut Shamayim, accepting upon themselves the rulership of Heaven.

Rabbi Goldstein’s point that every Jew has to be a leader is well taken (“Bimkom she’ein anashim, hishtadel lihiyot ish—In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”), but the premise that Judaism views leaders and leadership skeptically does not seem to be borne out.

Sterna Citron 

Los Angeles, California  

 

Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Responds:

The points that Ms. Citron raises in her letter are dealt with in my article. In fact, I set up the dichotomy and the paradox that on the one hand, Torah philosophy is uneasy with hierarchical structures, but on the other hand, it actually establishes and supports these structures.

The following is a direct quote from my article:

The Torah creates very definite leadership roles. There is the mitzvah to respect Torah scholars, and we turn to our rabbis for leadership and guidance. There are the kohanim and leviim tasked with running the temple services and other responsibilities. There is the judicial leadership of the Sanhedrin, the executive leadership of the king, and the spiritual leadership of the kohen gadol, among many other leadership positions.

The purpose of my article centered on how to resolve this apparent contradiction, and to then learn important lessons from this resolution.

It is apparent that there is some concern about hierarchical structures. Shmuel HaNavi very clearly warns the people about the appointment of a king. And there is much discussion in the midrashim and the Rishonim about how to understand the limits of appointing a king.

I delve into this in great detail in my book, Defending the Human Spirit, in which I examine how the Torah is so concerned with the potential for the abuse of power that it set up many restraints and mitzvot for the king to ensure that an abuse of power would not occur.

We also see that throughout Sefer Melachim, the Book of Kings,  some of the deepest concerns of the Torah and Shmuel HaNavi were, in fact, realized, with many disastrous consequences, including the exile and disappearance of the
Ten Tribes.

However, these concerns do not detract one iota from the fact that the Torah sets up very strong leadership structures for the Jewish people, and that these structures are vital for us.

The resolution that I suggest to this paradox in my article is the following:

Those who have been given official leadership positions merely have a wider circle of influence than others, but there is no categorical difference; our rabbis guide and direct and influence us in the way of Torah and mitzvot. But each of us must also assume responsibility to lead ourselves and influence others. Whether we have “official” titles or not, each of us has a responsibility to impact the world through our own circle of influence and make the world a better place.

The point that I was making in the article is that a rabbi has a position of leadership within the Jewish people, as does a king, as well as the head of the Sanhedrin and a kohen gadol. Each of these examples has official positions, and they are called on to use their official positions in order to lead and direct. But every Jew, even one without an official position, should do the same. So, in a sense, we are all leaders, but that does not detract from the fact that there are people with official positions. It simply means that their circle of influence and level of responsibility is greater with an official position.

The apparent contradiction between the discomfort with hierarchical structures and the fact that there are such structures within Torah law and philosophy was the main crux of my article, and thus the questions raised by Ms. Citron in her letter were directly addressed there, obviously with more depth and nuance than presented here in this short response.

 

Re-imagining Life After Covid

I read the section entitled “Re-Imagining Tefillah” (winter 2020) and I appreciated the views of the various contributors. I would, however, like to share my thoughts on the topic from a layman’s perspective.

I do not envision going back to davening in shul the way it was before the pandemic. Prior to Covid, I had long found davening in shul stressful because, to paraphrase Rabbi Zvi Engel, “shul had become reduced to a sort of religious train station where everything was governed by schedules and the goal was to arrive as expeditiously and painlessly as possible.” I care about standing before the Creator; I want to take my time and not just mumble words. In addition, I recall the casual use of cell phones for non-davening purposes that would cause further distractions to my kavanah. More importantly, what would bother me most was the talking in shul, especially on Shabbos. The full-page ads in Jewish newspapers, the bookmarks, signs, et cetera all saying, “Stop talking in shul,” seemed to have no effect.

After the shuls closed during the first lockdown, as I sat alone davening in my corner of the living room, I felt tremendous joy at being able to daven the entire tefillah service at my own pace and converse with Hakadosh Baruch Hu. On the other hand, I felt our Father in Heaven was saying to his children that if you cannot behave in shul, go home until you can behave
and wear a mask until you can refrain from conversing during tefillah.

I am looking forward to returning to tefillah b’tzibbur, bearing the words of both contributors Rabbi Shmuel Silber and Rabbi Engel in mind: “Meaningful prayer requires proper intent, and if one does not have the proper kavanos, the tefillah can be rendered invalid” and “Rather than invoking the language of transportation, tefillah should inspire the language of emunah and bitachon” With God’s help, the vaccines will soon end the Covid-19 pandemic. Are we prepared to take off the masks and resume tefillah b’tzibbur together? I hope so.

Gregg Levitan
Baltimore, Maryland

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This article was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Jewish Action.
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