Do you know what you are? I, for one, am not sure what to make of myself.
Recently, while filling out a questionnaire on an Orthodox-content website, I was asked to identify myself by choosing one of several options – haredi, chassidish, Lubavitch, yeshivish, Sephardic, or Modern Orthodox.
How to choose? Personally, I find it discomfiting when asked to affix a particular label to my religious identity. Must we so neatly box ourselves in?
There are things I happen to appreciate, and even admire, in each of the above-mentioned groups, in addition to others not listed (i.e. outside the strictly Orthodox spectrum). Wouldn’t it be ideal if we could construct a community comprised of a healthy amalgamation of them all? In other words, why can’t we check off a box marked “all of the above (plus)”?
Is this being naïve or simple-minded? Is this interest in experiencing diverse, and sometimes contradictory, strains of Jewish spiritual thought and practice a watering-down of – or worse, a rebellion against – the haredi/yeshivish way of life in which I was raised?
Or perhaps it reflects a genuine striving to follow the advice of Chazal – “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.”
Many of us in the Orthodox world today, particularly those in the 25-40 demographic, have greatly expanded our Jewish horizons. We feel no need to serve as lifetime representatives or champions of the particular communities into which we happened to have been born. We resist the pressure to carry the flag of denominational tribalism.
Most of all, we wish not to be religiously and intellectually confined – as we feel we were in the course of our chinuch.
We enjoy such varied activities as “doing the Daf,” often on iPods during the frenzied work commute; following current events, whether by radio, TV, print media or online; or joining a shiur in chassidus.
We appreciate intellectual pursuits and expanding our minds – but we don’t believe those pursuits must be restricted to limudei kodesh alone.
We’re deeply concerned about protecting our families from objectionable material online – but we simply will not pull the plug on the Internet.
We value being an integral part of our shuls and communities – but we don’t see our civic duties ending where the eruv does; as proud Americans, our citizenship extends much farther.
We have had sufficient interaction with the outside world to be fairly confident that our non-Jewish neighbors and colleagues are not all closet anti-Semites plotting to do us harm.
We strive to be “Cosmopolitan Orthodox” (a new label to add to the list?).
We want to raise our children to dance to the rhythm of Torah, to sing its songs, to cherish its teachings. We are not, however, interested in scaring them with threats of Gehenom.
We refuse to join in the chorus denouncing streams of Judaism or individual Jews we disagree with as being manifestations of Amalek.
Most of all, we truly love Torah and Orthodox Jewish life and want our lives infused with it – just not suffocated by it.
* * * * *
I was raised in a Flatbush-style “black and white” dress yeshiva. Life appeared to be just that – so black and white, so seductively simple: Jews good, goyim bad. Learning Torah good, bitul zeman bad. Black hat good, kippah serugah bad.
This kind of comforting, easy-to-grasp take on life gave us a secure footing within the walls of our community throughout high school and a few years beyond. Then, at the conclusion of our teenage years, there began a frenetic race to marry us off. The earlier in life we wed, the sooner we settle down. The sooner we settle down, the sooner we have children and, most important, become bricks in the wall of the community.
I do not mean to condemn this reality. We truly cherish community, and rightfully so. It is the bread and butter of Orthodox life. Nothing else so sustains and perpetuates the Jewish vision.
The problem is, there will often be an irreconcilable tension between the interests of the community and those of the individual. The community seeks to impose conformity while the individual desires a distinct identity and the opportunity to explore life’s many possibilities. Not all of us want to settle down by 22, with our still relatively immature view of the world remaining forever frozen at that stage.
Our communities are clearly not thrilled about the prospect of youth embarking on any kind of exploration, let alone one of a religious nature. From the very get-go, parents, in tandem with yeshivas, map out a narrow path for their children. We don’t want our kids looking, talking, or even thinking differently from ourselves. We want them to be just like us.
But why do so many of us as parents or teachers feel we deserve to be emulated in such precise and exacting fashion? Are we truly the picture of perfection, the inspiring model for future generations? And what about all those who are raising their own children in a manner that appears to us so alien? Can we easily and unthinkingly write them off as nothing more than simpletons, fools, or even sinners?
The answer, to many of us, is clear. No one is perfect, no man or community is an island. We cannot live in a vacuum or a bubble. As clichéd as this may sound, there are no two ways about it: We must not only tolerate each other but respect each other, teach each other and learn from each other.
Unless, that is, we possess enough hubris to proclaim to the world and to ourselves, “I have the whole truth, and everyone else is misguided.” Sadly, such an unseemly attitude is the rule rather than the exception in many religious communities.
I don’t believe this is solely a Jewish religious quirk. People everywhere are drawn to choose one viewpoint, one “home team,” and then passionately and exclusively root for it. For example, why are so many New Yorkers diehard Mets fans? Because that’s what they know – it’s familiar, it’s what their fathers were, it’s what they were born into. (It’s surely not because the Mets have consistently been a model of excellence.)
So what, some might argue. What’s wrong with wearing the caps of, and rallying for, our home team? Are we not entitled to do so?
The question, of course, is this: Are spectator sports and Torah Judaism to be played on the same field, according to the same rules? Is God looking for us to be diehard Lakewood fans, Lubavitch fans, Satmar fans, Agudah fans, YU fans, fill-in-the-blank fans?
Is this what Judaism has become? A winner-take-all competition?
Further, there exists a potentially toxic tendency in the very nature of competition itself, in walking the delicately fine line between simply playing against another team and desiring to wholly crush that team. That’s the reason why in competitive sports we have rules, along with referees to enforce them. Otherwise, the game would likely deteriorate into outright war.
Is there any referee, however, in the arena of religious competition? Are there any rules?
For centuries, the great religious battles were fought between Jews and gentiles – between Judaism and multiple forms of paganism and, later on, various strains of Christianity. At least on the surface, the non-Jews almost always won. After all, they had both numbers and better equipment. And there were no rules or referees.
Such a game could go on for only so long until people began to realize it was no fun anymore. And so in civilization’s modern age, players on both teams began heading for the sidelines.
But some of us want to continue playing. So we’ve created whole new leagues to satisfy our yearning for competition. The gentiles refuse to play? We can match up Orthodox versus Reform. The Reform don’t really care to compete any longer? How about haredi versus Modern Orthodox? And so on.
* * * * *
From where stems this Jewish ethno-religious drive to compete?
Perhaps after so many centuries of galus we’ve become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as entrenched in some kind of metaphysical World Series (best of seven) or Olympics (race to the finish line) against the rest of the world. Certainly in the grand narrative of history we take great pride in having thus far outpaced everyone else.
When we were children we were given a picture of what the epoch of Mashiach would look like. Was it not a scenario of the Jews claiming ultimate victory, to the sounds of grief and misery from those on the wrong side? Were we not taught that the “losers’” would either be punished and die or serve as slaves for eternity?
On the topic of Mashiach, there is an intriguing and enigmatic statement from Chazal that may actually help shed light on our subject:
“Ein ben David ba ela b’dor she’kulo zakai oh kulo chayiv” – the son of David [Mashiach] will come only in a generation that is completely righteous or completely guilty – or, alternately, a generation that is all right or all wrong.
There surely are many ways to interpret this. In our context, however, I would suggest that our sages, with an almost prophetic inspiration, succinctly articulated the most significant problem of our generation – that of unyielding partisanship.
“I’m all right and you’re all wrong.” There is no in-between, no allowance for the possibility that perhaps we are both a little right and both a little wrong. This is precisely where the son of David is so desperately needed. If humanity in general and Jews in particular cannot find a way to work together, if each group is looking only to affirm its individuality by killing the legitimacy of the other, mankind is on a sure-fire route to self-destruction.
Our generation may go down in history as the one that fatally lost the precious human capacity for cooperation and compromise (we see this clearly in both American and Israeli politics). Instead of using our accumulated wisdom to mature beyond such primal humanoid behavior as tribal rifts, petty squabbles and outright warfare, we have done the opposite, regressing to a dark and primitive place. Zealously guarding our homestead has become the paramount value of our time.
The even bigger tragedy is how Jews, far from being a beacon of light to others, are energetically kicking open the doors leading to the fiery depths. “I’m all right and you’re all wrong” – can Satan possess a more powerful instrument for wreaking havoc on earth than those few words?
It is chilling enough that Jewish history began that way, with Yosef and his brothers – our ancestors, the very roots of our DNA – engaging in “kulo zakai kulo chayav” judgmentalism. Each one dug his heels firmly into position, the end goal for all of them being winning the exclusive love of their father.
We all want to believe we’re special. But two kings cannot wear the same crown. And so we make life into a dizzying affair of Us versus Them, Me against You. This cycle does not stop until the two parties kill each other, literally or figuratively. For all those many years, Yosef was dead to his brothers, as his brothers were dead to him.
This perhaps is the underlying meaning of that most pernicious of human traits – sinas chinam, baseless hatred. Why is it called baseless? Because there’s absolutely no reason for it; God has more than enough love for everyone. It doesn’t have to cost a thing.
The problem with sinas chinam is not simply that it is evil but that it is so disastrously primitive. It thwarts God’s desire for His creatures to move beyond mere animal instinct. Our minds were designed with the capability for complex thought processes – thinking out of the box and with a boundless capacity for finding creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. But when all we do is expend energy on defending our turf, the treasures of the mind and the beauty it can uncover go to shameful waste.
Sinas chinam contracts and ultimately implodes the mind. Its flip side, ahavas chinam, expands the mind.
Chazal teach that while the sinas chinam of the Shivtei Ka, the holy tribes, was festering, God was sowing the light of Mashiach. All is not hopeless, then. “Ein ben David ba ela b’dor she’kulo zakai oh kulo chayiv.”
While we’re busy doing our thing, picking petty fights with those closest to us, Heaven is doing its thing. The son of David will come to extricate us from the mess we’ve made. He will serve as the referee with his own special whistle – “teka b’shofar gadol l’cheiruseinu” – blowing the great shofar of our freedom, arriving just in time to prevent our infighting from causing irreparable injury.
Should we not all get a head start in making his job a little easier? Surely it would be much appreciated.
About the Author: D. Tzvi Trenk is a practicing attorney in New York City who resides in New Jersey with his wife and children. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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