I have tried to lead a life in which the core values are Ahavas Torah and Ahavas Yisrael. To the extent I have succeeded I did so by taking an unusual route – one I do not generally recommend. I moved into the Torah world and Torah learning after I already had a sophisticated secular education and a clear path to a wide choice of prestigious professional opportunities.
I struggled mightily – I hope with some success – to crack the barriers of Talmudic text after I had a drawer full of Ivy League honors.
I write this not to make sure readers know my individual history, but as a preface to the message I’d like to convey – basically, that life and people are complex and in our day there is too much stereotyping to reflect the true complexities of whom we really are and the challenges we face.
Many of us understand the need to navigate the outside world, which includes making a living that enables one not only to support his or her family in dignity, but hopefully also to help others and to sustain our institutions.
What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to drag along either part of life in mediocrity. You can be truly excellent and committed in both parts of your life – the learning of Torah and the living of a Torah life (surely the first priority) and the conduct of a business or professional career.
Today there are role models all over the place: Great lawyers, doctors, bankers, builders of businesses, academics who at the same time are serious talmidei chachamim – individuals who make serious contributions to the Jewish world and live exemplary Torah lives.
There is no inconsistency between being a true ben Torah and having an outstanding career.
I want to make another suggestion about the avoidance of stereotypes and the responsibilities of bnei Torah.
Miracles are everywhere to those who see. And in my lifetime at least two very profound miracles have occurred to Klal Yisrael.
Seventy years ago the Jewish people helplessly stood by during the slaughter of forty percent of our population, which included a much higher percentage of the Torah world. Many of those not caught in the storm, especially here in America, were in denial, and those who weren’t seemed to have no idea how to stop the horror.
The infinitely rich Torah life of Eastern Europe appeared to have been obliterated. I am old enough to remember a time in America when the vast majority of Jews assumed that the Judaism we call Orthodox was inevitably flickering out, to be replaced by a new and totally assimilated and artificial form of Judaism.
Even in Israel, Ben-Gurion assumed that so few men would choose yeshiva deferments that he had no problem giving them.
Seventy years is a big part of our lives, but a fleeting moment in Jewish history.
Today, the reality confounds every prognosticator of seventy years ago. The number of people learning in major yeshivas in Israel, America and other parts of the Jewish world is staggering. Orthodoxy is by far the fastest growing segment of Jewry all over the world and the general Torah educational level of Orthodoxy is astounding.
Our young people are incredibly fortunate to have been brought up in this Torah world, and many of our ancestors who lived in immediate postwar America stare down from heaven in disbelief.
Second miracle: The Jewish people are helpless no more.
A Jewish government and a Jewish army control the Jewish homeland where every Jew has the right to live. And ultimately that army and that government protect every Jew in the world.
Primarily for this reason, the attitude of Diaspora Jews – including those of us in America – about our rights and our power to advocate for the protection of ourselves and of Jews in Israel and the rest of the world is completely different from what it was seventy years ago. We feel entitled and at ease arguing our case as a united Jewish community in the highest halls of government and power.
These two miracles, the revival of Torah and the control by Jews of our own homeland, are intrinsically related phenomena.
About the Author: Richard B. Stone, a longtime Jewish activist, is chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. This essay is adapted from his remarks on accepting an honorary degree from Touro College at the graduation ceremonies of The Lander Colleges earlier this month.
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