We live in a time not just of paradox but also of extreme impulses that call to mind Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
There seems to be no ballast at the core of our experience, nothing to root us and give rational context to the local, national, and international forces pulling us farther and farther apart from one another.
Black Lives Matter. Angry police unions. KKK. Occupy Wall Street. ISIS. Hamas. The tenor of our debate is fierce and violent. We are pulled to extremes. “Are you with us or against us?” And remember – those “against” us have no redeeming views; they are as devils. They are the enemy.
Would that the Jewish community was not also victim of this violent dissension. But it is. The idea that “we are one people, one nation” is mocked each and every day, by our own words and behavior.
Contradiction defines us. Even as Jewish learning exists on a level never before known, the degree of Jewish ignorance and secularization is astounding. The numbers of ba’alei teshuvah grow, even as thousands leave the fold. Greater levels of observance. Greater neglect. More Jews eat shmurah matzah even as greater numbers of Jews eat chametz.
More commitment. More defection. More hope. More crisis. Fifty-plus years ago, news about Orthodoxy focused almost entirely on its decay and “certain” disappearance. However, by 1972 the sociologist Marshall Sklare would write, “In less than three decades Orthodoxy has transformed its image of that of a dying movement to one whose strength and opinions must be reckoned with in any realistic appraisal of the Jewish community.”
The political scientist Charles Liebman concluded his exhaustive study Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life by declaring, “The only remaining vestige of Jewish passion in America resides in the Orthodox community, and it is passion and dedication, not psychoanalytic studies of divorce, which will stem the tide of intermarriage.”
So much hope! And yet at the same time, so much crisis, including the existential threats of intermarriage, assimilation, and disaffection with Israel.
One might suggest that each generation bears its own conflict and paradox. True. But in the past, the threats against our people and existence came from without. Today, we suffer an inner crisis, emanating not from those with whom we may never agree but rather a crisis festering in the core of our greatest hope, the Orthodox movement.
In light of the Pew Report’s findings regarding the Orthodox community’s growing strength and the unfortunate ongoing decline of the non-observant community, it would seem logical that the Orthodox would focus their resources, strengths, and talents l’hagdil Torah ul’ahadira – on unity and strength.
After all, every segment of the Orthodox community – modern, centrist, yeshivish, chassidish, and Litvish – establishes a solid foundation for our children and students. Yet, ironically, the more successful and accomplished we become, the more petty, splintered, and irrational we become. We grow suspicious of one another, intolerant, and worse. A vise of zealousness has gripped so many within the observant community. Our fervor has not lifted us up but has reduced us to smallness.
* * * * *
I ask, for example: Why the approbation in certain circles toward Modern Orthodoxy? Is Modern Orthodoxy a philosophy of compromise, as some would have it, or an authentic version of Judaism, as we know it?
Or take, as another case in point, the Orthodox response and reference, or lack of it, to the state of Israel. For the first time in two thousand years the Jewish people have regained statehood and sovereignty in the land promised by God. The wandering and persecuted Jew has finally arrived home. We witness an ingathering of exiles from Russia to Ethiopia, from the far four corners of the earth.
The city of Jerusalem is rebuilt. The desert has indeed once again begun to bloom. For the first time in millennia, we direct our national destiny, govern our affairs, defend our borders, speak our language, and renew our Torah, culture, and history. That this miracle would follow the greatest churban and tragedy in Jewish history, the Holocaust, is astonishing. The gates of Auschwitz closed and the gates of Haifa opened.
Could there ever be a greater confirmation of the Divine Covenant, of our eternal relationship with God and Torah? With the rebirth of Israel in 1948, not only was our great hope lifted but simultaneously the head of every Jew everywhere – “in all their dwelling places.”
Without Israel, the Jewish people remains naked and vulnerable in a harsh and hating world. Israel is fundamental to who we are as Jews living in the twenty-first century.
We are once again a people in possession of the land God promised us. And yet the majority of Orthodox Jews in America acts as though nothing significant occurred on May 14, 1948.
They refuse to acknowledge God’s outstretched arm. They reject the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice on new Yamim Tovim in thanks to the God of time and history. They rarely, if ever, mention the commandment of aliyah.
In Israel there is much antipathy in large segments of the Orthodox world toward those who love, support, and sacrifice for our homeland. Too many Orthodox Jews who serve in Israel’s military are anything but respected by their communities.
Haredi soldiers are regularly confronted by groups of haredi children and adults screaming the derogatory term “hardak” (a slur that demeans their faithfulness while at the same time evokes the Hebrew word for “germ”) yelling at them to leave the neighborhood or shul.
“One nation, one people”?
That modern Israel may not yet be the fulfillment of all Messianic dreams does not – must not – mean that we are to deny it, disdain it, or reject it.
* * * * *
So how should the Orthodox Jew who lives and loves Torah and who must walk modern streets conduct his life? I always refer to the precious words of Rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz, zt”l, who addressed this question clearly:
“We can expect a feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status. There will be those whom we will applaud, those whom we will oppose, those who will give us pain, even make us cry. But we will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed. And we will keep an outer door, to the outside world, open as well. To be sure, it will have a screen. Not everything is needed or wanted. But it is, after all, God’s world and we live in it, not despite it.”
But we see too many in the Orthodox community using their fervor to build walls rather than open gateways. They are indeed zealous, but what is the nature of their zealotry? And what must be our response to this zealousness and extremism?
In Parshat Pinchas we learn of Pinchas’s zealotry. When he killed Zimri and Kosbi, a great controversy was unleashed among the people. Were his actions correct? Were they murderous? Ultimately, we learn that his zealotry was correct, as God rewarded him with “the covenant of eternal kahuna” and the “covenant of peace.”
Much about what he did is anathema to us, as it was to his contemporaries. He killed a man without trial or warning, without testimony, and in defiance of all judicial procedure as prescribed by Torah. In short, he took the law into his own hands.
The Jerusalem Talmud states that Pinchas earned the approbation of Moshe and the elders. One of the Talmudic sages goes so far as to say that Pinchas would have been excommunicated had not the Holy Spirit come forth and declared, V’hayta to brit k’hunat olam.
So how do we, citizens in a modern world seemingly defined by zealotry and extremism, distinguish zeal from the “pious” face of hate?
The only measure we have that differentiates zealousness from extremism is that zealousness is rooted in the authentic and genuine interests of God’s glory. Extremism, though it might appear to be the same as zealousness, is always weighted with baser motives.
Rabbi Baruch Epstein speaks of the distinction this way: “Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In this case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the sages wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.”
What are the motives of the zealot? How can we interpret a man’s motives? After all, it is only God who can see into a man’s heart. For Jews – among whom oneness is paramount and the community is holy – there is a way. Does the zealot seek to separate himself from the community or does he remain b’tocham – “among them”? Pinchas, even in his anger, zeal, and defiance continued to place himself within the total community.
Another zealous man who acted for the community was Eliyahu. Ultimately, he is called upon to guarantee his unswerving commitment and uncompromising love for the Jewish nation by being an agent for its ultimate redemption.
Until that final redemption, we Jews must cultivate, to reiterate the words of Rabbi Rabinowitz, a “feeling of love for all Jews, whatever their background, whatever their status…. We will try never to forget that we are one and that the inner door should never be closed.”
Those in the Orthodox community who build walls, who condemn rather than teach and redeem, who dare demean the crowning event of the modern Jewish world – the reestablishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland – must look into their hearts and ask themselves: Are we like Pinchas? Is our zealousness true?
Do they seek to protect and reward the oneness of the Jewish community? Do they seek to open doors or do they wish to build walls?
Let their answer be their judge.Rabbi Eliyahu Safran