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Expressing Ourselves Inside And Outside The Walls

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Editor’s Note: In our July 13 front-page essay, “Birth of a Leather-Kippah Jew,” Mordecai Bienstock described his personal journey on the path to becoming what he called a “Leather Kippah Jew.” Here he elaborates on that vision.

Two centuries ago Napoleon’s armies swept through Europe, tearing down ghetto walls along their way. A river of Jewish souls flowed out, washed out to sea in the roiling waters of enlightenment and assimilation.

Today we have rebuilt those walls. They stand strong. From the simple brick of Brooklyn and Lakewood to the gold and platinum of Long Island and Northern New Jersey, the new ghetto walls provide not only shelter from the excesses of modern society but also space for us to develop, create, and express our own values.

Life within the walls is a model of modesty, virtue and justice.

But all of us travel, in one way or another, outside of those walls. We vote, we pay taxes, we earn our daily bread. We read the newspapers, travel the buses and drive the highways. We search the Internet.

Some of us find ourselves, entirely by accident, walking alone and late at night outside of the walls’ protection. Others willingly seek the world outside, feeling trapped by the walls around them.

On the other hand, many millions of Jews live entirely outside the walls, with no means of understanding or accessing the wonders within. In a generation, these millions will be entirely lost to the Jewish people.

I do not propose that we change the world within the walls. The opposite is true. I propose that we channel the same zeal and dedication that has invigorated our lives within these walls to shine brightly to the world without, so that it infuses our broader relationships with society.

I do not propose that we reduce the role of Torah in the world. I propose that we expand it, using established Torah models to express our values as citizens and members of society.

Orthodox Judaism it today triply blessed.

First, we have created extraordinary institutions of Torah study and observance. The depth of Torah learning and quality of Torah observance in the frum community is unprecedented on this continent.

Second, we live in a unique period of history in which Orthodox Jews are unusually welcome to participate fully in American society. Orthodox Jews have served as leaders across every avenue of society – including as a vice-presidential candidate and a White House chief of staff.

They hold these positions not because of their religious identity and not despite it, but rather because of the kind of people their religious identity has enabled them to be.

Thus, the second pillar is that, as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch taught, living a life of Torah and mitzvahs can create Jews who are the greatest of citizens; Jews who participate in society at the highest levels.

Third, we live in a period in which Orthodox Jews are free to pursue professions and trades and interests that are particular to their own identities. We can be truly ourselves in all of our pursuits, expressing the wonderful individualistic neshamahs Hashem has granted us through the application of our special natures in the physical world, what the Ba’al Shem Tov and his disciples discovered as the basis for avodah b’gashmiyut.

In other words, we live in a world where one can combine the learning and diligence of the Lithuanian yeshiva with the social consciousness of the German-Jewish tradition and the spiritual intensity of chassidus. We can be Litvish chassidish Yekkes.

We live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. A technological revolution is increasingly bringing the world outside to us, even as challenging economic conditions are forcing us back out into the world.

We live in danger of discovering one day that our walls are not really built of bricks or stone or precious metals at all; they are only virtual walls. No army will be needed to breach them – only a few clicks on a smart phone or some suddenly insolvent fathers-in-law.

As the walls are threatened, it may perhaps be useful to have at our disposal a more fully developed model for expressing our Torah values as part of society, not only apart from it. That, in my view, is the role of the Leather-Kippah Jew.

I can only hope my humble attempts at formulating that concept will contribute in some small measure to that effort.

Mordecai Bienstock is a partner in the law firm of Wilson Elser where he practices health care law, government policy, and litigation. He lives in Albany, New York with his wife, Karen, and their three children.

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