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September 19, 2014 / 24 Elul, 5774
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Orthodoxy, Then and Now

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn was the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (widely known as the Frierdiker – Yiddish for “previous” – Rebbe). He served in that position for 30 years, from 1920 until his passing on Shabbos morning, January 28, 1950. He was buried at Montefiore Cemetery in Queens, New York.

Recently, someone sent me a link to a video clip of his levaya (www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9RSdGG6Y3E). From the clip one can see a number of external differences between Orthodoxy circa 1950 and Orthodoxy today.

First, most of the men in the crowd are wearing hats and coats that are not black. Indeed, gray seems to have been the favored color for men’s hats at the time.

Second, the majority of the men shown are clean shaven.

Third, men and women are standing together in the crowd. Apparently, no separation of the sexes was imposed upon those gathered to give the Rebbe a final tribute.

In short, this assemblage does not look anything like what one would see today at the funeral of a well-known rebbe or rosh yeshiva.

Orthodox Judaism was indeed different in 1950.

Yeshiva education was just beginning to expand, and a large number of elementary yeshiva graduates went on to public high school. Fewer went on to study in a bais medrash after high school, and fewer still entered kollel. The average level of Torah knowledge among baalei batim was nowhere near as high as it is today.

A relatively small percentage of women covered their hair. Mixed dancing was still part of the social life of many Orthodox shuls. There was little separation of the sexes, so boys and girls more often than not interacted with each other at social gatherings. The dating system so prevalent in our day was not followed by most young Orthodox men and women. (Some might argue that this was a plus.)

It was indeed a very different Orthodox world.

Today we can point to many improvements. These include, but are certainly not limited to, a probably unprecedented commitment to and level of Torah study on the part of Orthodox young people; a considerably higher level of tzinius – modesty – in many circles; a sharp increase in daily synagogue attendance; stricter kashrus standards, including the use of chalav Yisrael products, by many; a proliferation of chesed organizations; a more stringent approach to shmiras Shabbos by those who consider themselves Orthodox; and a surprising number of Mincha minyanim – a phenomenon that hardly existed years ago – in some cities.

Each of us can undoubtedly add more items to this list. But there’s no denying the fact that today, more careful attention is given to the performance of mitzvos – some of which were often neglected in the fifties.

* * *

The above is indeed good news for Orthodoxy. Still, there are those who feel there is much missing from today’s Orthodoxy. They decry what they believe is an unhealthy focus on appearances and chumros at the expense of good middos and ehrlichkeit.

Many who project the image of being very frum seem at the same time to be overly concerned with materialism.

True, more women cover their hair today, but some seem to think nothing of spending a small fortune on a shaitel. Only the finest name-brand apparel will do for many families. It is not uncommon to see an observant man driving a car that costs as much as some people make in a year.

Emphasis on form at the expense of substance seems to be in vogue; image is all important to far too many. Some of our children have come to think that this emphasis on externalities is the acid test of religious observance.

A friend of mine once told me that after his children had viewed the wedding album of his parents, they asked, “Abba, were Bobby and Zaidy Jewish when they got married?”

There are other real differences between the nature of Orthodoxy in the 1950s and Orthodoxy today.

Chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name – has become all too prevalent. I cringe whenever I see the media report on so-called frum Jews in an unflattering light. I am not implying that there was no wrongdoing years ago. There certainly was.

Nonetheless, it seems that what has transpired with far too much regularity in recent years has resulted in a most unflattering light being trained on Orthodox Jews.

In his essay “Chillul Hashem,” first published in 1975 in the periodical Mitteilungen and reprinted on pages 213 to 216 of Selected Writings (C.I.S. Publications, 1988), Rav Shimon Schwab, zt”l, wrote:

The second sentence of Sh’ma Yisroel begins with the command: “You shall love Hashem,” which is interpreted by our Sages: “Let the name of Hashem become beloved through you.” In other words, we are supposed to lead the kind of exemplary life which would contribute to the universal adoration of [Hashem] and which would, in turn, enhance the glory and lustre of the Torah, adding respect for the dignity of the Jewish people as a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.

The very opposite of the sanctification is the desecration of the Name as condemned by the Prophet with the scathing words (Yechezkel 36): “They came to the nations and desecrated my Holy Name, so that one said to them, is this the people of [Hashem] who came from His land?”

Every form of Chillul Hashem lowers the awareness of the Divine Presence in the world. But if the desecrator happens to be a professed Torah observer or, even worse, a so-called scholar of the Torah, then the Chillul Hashem not only weakens the respect for Torah on one hand, but strengthens on the other hand the defiance of the non-observer and adds fuel to the scoffers, fanning the fires of religious insurrection all around. Chillul Hashem is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the increase of frivolity, heresy and licentiousness in the world.

* * *

Respect for one’s elders seems to have become a thing of the past for many young people. One even encounters so-called frum adults who appear to have never learned that derech eretz toward one’s fellow man and woman should be part and parcel of one’s dealings with others.

The Torah commands us to honor our parents, our older siblings and older people in general. Indeed, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch pointed out that honoring parents is one of the foundation stones of Yahadus, because our basis for accepting the truth of the Torah is something that is passed on from one generation to the next.

When I was growing up (I was born in 1941), it was made very clear to me that you never called an adult by his or her first name. It was always “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Miss” or “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Calling an older person by his or her first name would instantly result in a rebuke from my parents.

Today I often hear children call their adult aunts or uncles by their first names. Some years ago one of my sons had a classmate over for Shabbos. (The boys were 10 years old at the time.) After Shabbos I asked our guest what he was going to do now, since his parents had gone away. He replied, “I am going to call Shloime. He will pick me up.” I asked, “Who is Shloime?” The boy replied, “My uncle.” I was taken aback at how this young man thought nothing of calling his uncle, who was, of course, an adult, by his first name.

I have asked people in their twenties and thirties and even older why they let themselves be called by their first names. They reply, “Being called ‘Uncle’ (or ‘Aunt’) makes me feel old.” They do not seem to realize that they are doing a disservice to their nieces and nephews. Allowing them to address older people by their first names fosters the idea that everyone is on an equal level. This is not true. The Torah tells us that age deserves respect, and children have to be made aware of this as often as possible.

And then there are the youngsters who push ahead of me when I am about to leave shul. Often I put my hand on the shoulder of such a fellow and say to him, somewhat facetiously, “Sir! I believe that I am a bit older than you are!” More often than not the young man has no idea what I am talking about.

I was taught that you always let an older person go through a door before you. It was just one more part of practicing derech eretz, but it seems to have been lost in many circles today.

Unfortunately, lack of derech eretz is widespread, and it evidences itself in the way all too many children and youngsters behave in yeshiva and Bais Yaakov. Fifty years ago the overwhelming majority of Orthodox parents made it very clear to their children that a key ingredient in going to yeshiva was behaving properly and treating the teachers with respect. Why is this not also the case today?

* * *

Could it be that we have become lost in the forest for the trees? While we may be outwardly more observant than people were a generation or two ago, some would maintain that our grandparents embraced far more menschlichkeit and ehrlichkeit than we see today. Their Yiddishkeit seems to have been simpler and more to the point than ours often is.

Our grandparents were able to transmit their Yiddishkeit in a fairly simple fashion. One might summarize their teachings as follows: Be a mensch, learn Torah, and make the most of every minute of every day. Keep in mind that people are watching you and they will judge Yiddishkeit by how you behave, so make sure that whatever you do is viewed as a kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name. Be sure to become self-sufficient through honest labor and contribute to the community at large. And, above all, be ehrlich in all of your dealings with others.

This message was clear and straightforward, and it led to the rebuilding of Yiddishkeit after the terrible loses that we experienced during the Holocaust. The guidance our grandparents gave their children kept them from the confusing blend of halacha, minhag, chumrah and common practice that has left too many today groping for an understanding of what is important and what is not. There were no mixed messages about what they taught the next generation, because they lived these values each and every day of their lives.

Another area in which we are sadly lacking today is that of mesiras nefesh. For some, the notion of sacrifice hardly seems to exist anymore. One can only wonder how they would react if confronted with the challenges our parents and grandparents faced in the 1950s.

No one should desire or look for tests. Still, in light of the current financial situation that is creating such difficulties for so many, now is perhaps the time for each of us to evaluate the substance upon which our religious observance is based. What should be the basis of our relationship to Hashem? How should our actions and values reflect our relationship to the Creator?

Rav Hirsch gives us insight into this. In his commentary on Shemos 20:9 – “Six days shall you serve and do all your [creating] work” – he wrote:

Not for your own glory should you do your work, by which you rule over the world. You should regard your work as “service,” service in God’s kingdom, done in the service of God. Do your work at His bidding and for the sake of His world, in which He has placed you, “to serve it and to keep it.” By appropriating, transforming and altering the world’s resources, you are to elevate this world from blind physical compulsion to the purpose of moral freedom and the service of God in freedom. [The Hirsch Chumash, Sefer Shemos, (New) English Translation by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers and Judaica Press, 2005.]

Rav Hirsch goes on to comment on Shemos 20:14 – “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his servant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor”:

All “religion” and all “worship of God in heart and spirit” are worthless if they lack the power to control our words and deeds, our family life and social life. Only through our actions and way of life can we prove that we are truly and genuinely God’s servants. Conversely, all social virtue is worthless and crumbles at the first test, as long as it aims merely at outward correctness and at doing what is right in the eyes of man, but neglects inner loyalty and does not base itself on conscientiousness and on the purity of inner conviction, which only God can see and judge. [Ibid.]

Striving to accomplish this means maintaining the higher level of mitzvah observance we see today combined with the values of our grandparents. The result will be a more meaningful synthesis of externalities and our connection to Hashem, giving us the best of both worlds – in other words, a Yiddishkeit our grandparents would be proud of, and nothing less than a kiddush Hashem.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine recently retired after serving for forty years as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His regular Jewish Press column, “Glimpses Into American Jewish History,” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.


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