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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Wilson Elser’

Expressing Ourselves Inside And Outside The Walls

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

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.

Birth Of A Leather-Kippah Jew

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

“Let me be honest with you,” the rosh yeshiva began.

It was not a good sign. I was sitting for a farher, an entrance interview, with the rosh yeshiva of a well-known yeshiva in Jerusalem, and it was about to go very badly.

I was, to be fair, a very unusual applicant. I had just graduated from law school. My classmates and friends were headed off to prestigious clerkships or to seek their fortunes. I had other plans. My secular learning had now outpaced my Torah learning, and it was time, I believed, to catch up.

So I applied to a yeshiva renowned for its commitment and the dedication of its students. I prepared thoroughly and was sure my learning – my scholarship – was up to par.

I hadn’t gotten the look down quite right, I knew. My suit was too blue; my shoes too un-scuffed; my black hat somehow at the wrong angle. But surely, I told myself, these things didn’t matter; my commitment, my dedication and my ability were what mattered most.

The rosh yeshiva was about to disabuse me of my innocence. Time seemed to slow down. I took a deep breath, glanced at the magnificent golden Jerusalem stone outside, and leaned in to hear the unpleasant truth.

“You’ve been to university, no?” the rosh yeshiva said, more statement than question.

“Acutally, law school,” I responded confidently. That couldn’t be a problem.

“Ah, law school,” he nodded back. “Noch besser. We don’t take students here who have gone to university.”

I sat there, stunned. I wasn’t getting in. My ability and my commitment weren’t what mattered after all. I was of the wrong caste. I was unsuitable.

But I had traveled a long way and sacrificed a great deal to be in that room, so I wasn’t going to give up so easily. A note of desperation crept into my voice. I nearly begged: “But I’ll follow all the rules. I’ll keep all the sedarim!”

“No, no, no!” came his excited reply. “That would be worse!”

He grew animated, as earnest in his convictions as I was in mine.

“You see,” he continued, his voice rising, “we teach our students that university is chazer treyf. Chazer treyf! If you kept the sedarim, if you followed the rules, that would just become confusing to our students. I’m sorry, but it’s out of the question; you cannot come to this yeshiva.”

The interview over, I shuffled out of the room, passing by the beis medrash to which I had just been denied entrance. I glanced in and recognized some old friends. That was when the realization really hit me. It was me he was rejecting. My old friends sitting in that beis medrashhad also gone to college.

* * * * *

With hindsight, I was able to decipher what the rosh yeshiva was saying, what it was about me in particular he wouldn’t – couldn’t – allow in. He was telling me I was “modern.” He was telling me that, unlike the other college graduates, when I went to law school I hadn’t just learned a trade – I had also absorbed its values.

The rosh yeshiva was right. In three years of law school I had come to believe that Washington and Lincoln were important men; that the American Revolution and the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement were important events; and that free speech, democracy and tolerance were important ideals. They weren’t Torah, to be sure. But the values of Madison and Jefferson and Hamilton had become my values as well, and those values were “modern.”

The problem was I didn’t want to be “modern.” I had shown up at that yeshiva’s doorstep because I had, in my earlier yeshiva days, developed a great love for the life of the yeshiva. The modern world seemed devoid of spirituality while the world of the yeshiva provided a wonderful spirit, from the simple activities of its daily life to the fiery passion of Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur.

The modern world seemed barren of ethics; the yeshiva provided access to a life of ethical purity. The modern world seemed lacking in intellectual honesty; the yeshiva was committed to the purest, most honest of intellectual activities.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/birth-of-a-leather-kippah-jew/2012/07/11/

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