A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt. He impressed me in person the way he impresses me in his writing. Rabbi Rosenblatt is a Charedi Jew who spent many years studying in Lakewood at Beth Medrash Gavoha (BMG). He knows what it’s all about. And he supports the Lakewood ideal of learning Torah L’Shma – for its own sake. Something we should all support, no matter what our Hashkafos are.
He went through the system and no doubt had absorbed the attitudes espoused in those circles about the outside world. Which amount to insulating yourself from external influences as much as possible. Those influences are deemed mostly negative and to be avoided. The addendum to that is that non Jews have views that are anathema to Judaism and are therefore to be avoided as well – as bad influences on us.
But R’ Yaakov’s experiences once he left the cocoon of the Lakewood environment provided him with an entirely different perspective on what non Jews are really like. This is a theme I have touched upon many times. And it is a theme R’ Yaakov has written about before – as he did once again in a recent Jewish Press article. And once again – he is critical of the kind of insularity he sees in his alma mater. His life experiences counter the impression he received as a student in Lakewood and literally ten of thousands – perhaps even hundreds of thousand students get there. The vast majority of whom will likely never leave that cocoon – or if they do enter another one like it.
R’ Yaakov rightly notes a subtle, seemingly innocuous change in the Lakewood of today that did not exist when he was a student there as little as 13 years ago – as a symbol of this mentality. Buildings that were built since his years there have mostly Hebrew with very little English. Older buildings had substantially more English.
Apparently the old guard felt it was important for those outside the confines of its insular world to know what Lakewood is all about. Today, they apparently don’t care. True – R’Yaakov points out – that Lakewood is mostly populated by its Yeshivaleit who can read the Hebrew. But they are not the only ones there. Why, he asks, does Lakewood want to hide what they do from the non Jews?
It is in my view a symptom of their desire to be so insular that they go out of their way to even address the outside world. The message is: We don’t really care about you and your values. And you don’t care about us and our values. Just leave us alone and we‘ll leave you alone.
R’ Yaakov’s point is that once one is outside the Daled Amos of the Yeshiva world one finds that non Jews do care about our values. And we ought not ignore that. As I have said many times – as recently as last Friday, we have an obligation to be a light unto the nations. That means trying to influence our surrounding culture and not simply withdraw from it for insularity purposes. Here is how he puts it:
A connection to God through learning Torah is the pathway afforded to Jews. But is a connection to God something only Jews should experience? If we have a Godly connection and see other people struggling in that regard, should we not share it?
The culture is indeed guided in large part by an entertainment medium that is increasingly distancing itself form the moral precepts of the Torah. A Torah that used to be a part of an America that valued its moral teachings in what is popularly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic. That ethic is slowly disappearing – giving way to a more liberal humanistic ethic.
We who value and honor Torah the most by adhering to its Halachic and should not be withdrawing from the world. We should be engaging with it and trying to influence our non Jewish citizens as much as possible to continue valuing ethics and morality that the Torah teaches us to be the right way for all of mankind to live. A morality that is generally contained in the Shiva Mitzvos Bnei Noach. Allowing this country to ‘define deviancy down’ (as the great Patrick Moynihan once said) without any attempt by us to influence it is done at our own peril.
We Centrists already know this. And we engage with the world. The left wing of Orthodoxy has made an art of this – taking it to dangerous extremes in my view. But the right wing has taken the other extreme by increasing its insularity to the point of not even wanting to identify its buildings in English. This may seem trivial. But I agree with R’ Yaakov. This is a symptom of the dangerous path referred to by British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
And what was the response to Rabbi Sacks? He was blasted by the right for even suggesting it by Agudath Israel. They denied this to be the case by saying how involved they are in public affairs via their lobby in Washington. They accused him of wanting to undermine their protective layer of insularity and disparaging the Yeshiva world and disparaging the Charedi Torah for it as being dangerous to Judaism
But as I said the few community activists that are involved in such lobbying are few. The majority of their number are told to insulate as much as possible. And this is reinforced subliminally by insular innovations like no longer having English identifiers on their new buildings.
I am glad that R’ Yaakov has learned the truth about the world outside of ‘Lakewood’. He has learned from experience which is a lot better than learning from lectures given by the insular mentors he had in Lakewood… mentors that are still there and whose message is becoming increasingly more insular.
And yet, I fear that R’ Yaakov, and Chief Rabbi Sacks are waging an uphill battle. The tide against them is too great to overcome. They have both experienced the real world and have come to a similar conclusion. But how many people who attend Lakewood will ever be able to have the ‘hands-on’ experiences that will teach them the truth? The only truth the vast majority of Lakewood students will see is the truth they hear from their mentors in Lakewood. And that means that the fastest growing segment of Judaism will have the least amount of influence upon the culture that will define the country. And as Chief Sacks so accurately pointed out, we do so at our own peril.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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