Jewish Continuity Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

Long-standing journalistic tradition has it that although writers of articles and opinion pieces may suggest titles for their submitted work, editors have full discretion to use titles of their own devising. So one might imagine that Messrs. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker greeted publication of their recent piece in The Forward with some consternation, finding it beneath the inflammatory title, “Does Orthodox Explosion Signal Doom for Conservative and Reform?

What the authors provided was a thoughtful and cogent demographic analysis of the Jewish community, divided into three relevant groups: the Orthodox, the liberal movements (Conservative, Reform, and smaller denominations), and the “nondenominational” Jews. Among their conclusions are the following:

The number of middle-aged Jews in 2045 or so is destined to be smaller than it is today… We have a surge of nondenominational Jews in their 20s, possibly owing to the fact that so many children of Reform and Conservative parents have eschewed their childhood denominational identities… At least until now, the nondenominational Jews are far from reproducing themselves. Accordingly, they are destined to decline some decades down the road — unless their numbers are replenished by “dropouts” from the religious denominations.

But the truly startling situation is among Conservative and Reform Jews… If current trends continue, then, in 30 years, we’ll see about half as many Conservative and Reform Jews age 60-69 as we have today. And the number of Conservative and Reform children do not reverse the decline.

Turning to the Orthodox, we find wildly different trends. While just 40,000 are in their 60s, we have triple their number — 120,000 — in their 30s. And, perhaps even more astounding are the number of kids aged 0-9. They amount to 230,000 — over five times the number of people in their 60s.

They bring their data to life with the following contrast:

Metaphorically, every 100 Conservative and Reform Boomers have only 56 photos of Jewish grandchildren in their wallets (or smart phones)… If 100 Orthodox grandparents gathered in shul, they could show their friends photos of 575 grandchildren on their smart phones (but not on Shabbat, of course).

Yes, you read that correctly. The Orthodox are projected to have ten times the number of Jewish grandchildren, and to grow six times as large in two generations — while the liberal population is sliced nearly by half.

The data does “tell a jarring story” — simply that the two communities are heading in opposite directions, and at an accelerating rate. That, however, has no relevance to the chosen title hanging over this important content.

The Forward must engage its readers and entice them with catchy headlines, and it is a journal not known for its fondness for the beliefs or practices of observant Jews. But there is something uniquely unseemly about a title implying that Orthodoxy’s gains are somehow related to Conservative and Reform’s losses. One cannot determine whether the editor imagined a thriving Orthodox community to be merely an indicator of liberal decline, or a causative factor — as the article beneath that headline utterly contradicts either implication.

It was once true that there was an inverse relationship between Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism; at that time, immigrants worked on Shabbos (in an era where one was likely to lose a job otherwise) yet prayed in Orthodox synagogues — but their children turned primarily to the Conservative movement. So the decline in Orthodoxy contributed to the rise of the Conservatives, making the latter the dominant American movement for much of the twentieth century. The next generations moved yet further to the left, such that the Reform peaked in the 1970s or 80s.

Intensive Jewish education and commitment reversed Orthodoxy’s decline; today neither an Orthodox nor liberal upbringing feeds into the other in significant numbers. Although it may be true that many Jews from non-Orthodox families adopt Jewish observance each year, their numbers are at most a minor factor in the decline of the non-Orthodox movements. Cohen, Gussow and Pinker don’t even mention this aspect. And, perhaps tellingly, those who drop out of observance after obtaining a day school education rarely join either of the liberal movements. So the growth of Orthodoxy and decline of liberal Judaism are independent phenomena.

Not only are the Orthodox not contributing to the implosion of liberal Judaism, but they are in the forefront of efforts to hold it back. Among the identity-enhancing Jewish activities suggested by the authors are several in which Orthodox Jews help to inspire non-Orthodox youth and young adults: Jewish day schools, Chabad on campus, Hillel, and trips to Israel. Olami on campus and Orthodox-run websites like Aish.com, Chabad.org and Torah.org are but a few other examples. While Orthodox teachers and guides in these programs would readily agree that full Jewish observance might be the ideal outcome, they would also tally anyone who commits to building a Jewish home as a “success,” and acknowledge that this is the far more likely outcome of their efforts.

The American Jewish population is not a zero-sum game; one community’s failure to perpetuate itself cannot be blamed upon the other. Several of the reasons for Orthodoxy’s burgeoning growth were beautifully described by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in her op-ed which appeared the same day — none of these come at the expense of liberal Judaism. If the prognosis for Conservative and Reform Judaism is “doom,” it is not because of Orthodoxy, but despite Orthodox efforts to help their more liberal brethren to stanch their losses.

One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor

Recently, Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote in these [Hamodia’s] pages that it is important to avoid partisanship, or what he called the “political sports team mentality.” He correctly criticized those who stick to political positions until they “bend over backward to justify the unjustifiable.”

What he did not say, however, is that observant Jews will be deemed “partisan” simply for following the Torah. One political party has now staked out positions on moral issues so grievously divergent from our own that we cannot avoid being described as “taking sides.”

This was not necessarily the case in the past. But to be a mainstream Democrat today, one must support the public celebration of forbidden relationships and the redefinition of marriage, and oppose reserving school bathrooms for the use of a single biological gender. To an increasing extent, one must also believe that Jews in Israel are stealing “Palestinian land,” a notion derived directly from the ancient canards of anti-Semitism, and employed once again to justify atrocities. This is why Lakewood, NJ provided the widest point spread in favor of the President of any New Jersey town last November.

With tremendous respect to organizations like Agudath Israel which carefully lobby state legislators hostile to our basic beliefs, the vibrant and growing Orthodox community is also obligated to respond to the ongoing chilul Hashem created by the leaders of American liberal Jewish movements, who declare that “Judaism” requires support for the aforementioned violations of Torah and “political” positions that threaten the safety of our brethren in Eretz Yisrael.

Consider, as well, that were today’s version of the Nazi boycott spearheaded by neo-Nazis, no one would join. It is leftist groups that are stirring hatred on campus under the guise of an “Israel” boycott. This being the case, criticism of a President willing to condemn bigotry on “many sides” after the riots in Charlottesville was wrongheaded and counterproductive — in fact, he deserved our gratitude.

It is worth dwelling on this example. Rabbi Shafran asserts the following:

An actual fact is that, at the “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville, one side was entirely composed of white supremacists of varied stripes but the other was mostly comprised of non-radical, non-violent opponents of white supremacy. And that the former group contained no very fine people.

Eyewitnesses, however, tell a very different story. The New York Times reported the comments of Michelle Piercy, who “drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.” The Times, hardly a right-wing news outlet, described Piercy’s feeling that she and others are subjected to “a harsh double standard that demands they answer for the sins of a radical, racist fringe.” These mainstream conservatives were the “very fine people” to whom President Trump referred and contrasted with the “neo-Nazis and white nationalists.”

The claim that “the other [side] was mostly comprised of non-radical, non-violent opponents” fares no better under critical examination. Isabella Ciambotti, a student at the University of Virginia, observed multiple acts of violence against the “white supremacist crowd,” including an older man beaten with a stick while already down until she “screamed and ran over with several other strangers to help him to his feet.”

The report of Charlottesville resident Rebekah Manning is still more illustrative:

I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn’t enough… we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp… But we didn’t have to, because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I’ve never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time.

From Boston to Berkeley, Antifa used the following weeks to prove the President correct about the bigotry and violence “on many sides.” Thus while it was true, politically, that the President should have specifically called out groups that supported him in the election, his comments were both accurate and helpful to our interests.

So we must question: from where did Rabbi Shafran receive his distorted picture of the reality in Charlottesville? This is not difficult to discern.

Just days after a neo-Nazi drove his car into counter protesters in Charlottesville, there was a much more massive and planned vehicle-ramming attack committed by Muslim terrorists in Barcelona, Spain. Two CNN broadcasters immediately suggested a “copycat” relationship between the attacks — apparently unaware that Charlottesville was the eighth vehicle-ramming attack of 2017, and all of the previous seven were committed by Muslim extremists, all but one in Europe. The idea that Charlottesville provided the model for Barcelona was and remains patently ludicrous, but the media itself has become so partisan that it often cannot report neutral facts.

A nonpartisan stance does not balance objective reality against partisan falsehoods. The fact that Israel attempts to avoid civilian casualties while its enemies celebrate the murder of children is not a partisan, pro-Israel position. Support of comments that call out bigotry and violence on “many sides” is not partisan, either.

And as mentioned earlier, our self-identification as “conservatives” on a host of issues is not, in actuality, partisan, but the unavoidable consequence of being shomrei Torah U’Mitzvos. If we acknowledge that Torah ideas are now understood to be the underpinnings of a first-world society, then stating our true beliefs is valuable shtadlanus as well, good for America and for its millions of Jewish citizens.

This article was first published in Hamodia.

Daunting or Doable?

It is not in Heaven, such that one could say ‘who will go up to Heaven and take it for us’… For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” [30:12, 14].

At first glance Torah observance can seem daunting, filled with myriad rules and regulations governing every aspect of life. It seems impossible for a person to know everything! And in reality, this is true: Rabbi Tarfon says in the Chapters of the Fathers that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate yourself from it.” A person will never know and understand the entire Torah, but rather has a lifelong obligation to study, learn and grow.

This is only true, however, because there is unlimited depth and breadth to the Torah. That which we need to know in the daily course of our lives is well within our limits.

We find a similar concept in secular law: we follow complex legal regulations every day without a second thought, simply because we learn patterns of correct behavior. All of us learn to operate turn signals while we learn to drive a car, and from then on use those turn signals even when turning right at an empty intersection. At least, most of us use our turn signals! When you come across a complex situation that requires greater knowledge (think taxes), then we consult experts and try to follow their advice.

Once you learn to put on the right shoe first and tie the left shoe first, it becomes daily practice, even without learning the deeper meaning behind this behavior that elevates it to the status of a religious act. The Torah enables every person to perform the basic, correct behaviors, but all of the Torah that we learn continues to add depth and refinement to those same acts.

In discussing the Commandment to love G-d (as found in the daily recitation of Shema Yisrael from the Torah), Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim (whose Yahrtzeit is today, Erev Shabbos), cautions against simply reading the words without putting them into action. He compares this to a factory foreman who carefully writes the instructions given by the owner into a manual, and then each day gathers the workers and reads through the manual from beginning to end while the machines sit idle the entire day.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not only the Day of Judgment, but the beginning of a 10 day process of self-reflection, which should spark within us the desire to refine our behaviors during this coming year, to correct what we are doing incorrectly, and further perfect even what we are already doing correctly at more basic levels. There is always room for improvement that always room for growth, yet it is never so intimidating that we can’t get started.

May the coming holidays lead us to greater growth and commitment, to better behaviors that will manifest themselves throughout the coming year. May it be a new year of success, growth, and happiness for us and our families!

President Trump Is Right, Again

President Trump was roundly criticized for failing to call out neo-Nazis or the KKK by name in his first statement on the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend. Even many others in the GOP, including Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch, indicated that the President should have been specific.

Yet the fact that the planned rally turned into a very two-sided violent melee is undeniable. And here’s what the President said:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time. It has no place in America. What is vital now is a swift restoration of law and order and the protection of innocent lives. No citizen should ever fear for their safety and security in our society.

The words others found offensive were: “on many sides.” Why, they demand, didn’t the President immediately condemn the neo-Nazis and the KKK by name? When pressed on this, the President replied:

“What about the ‘alt-left’ that came charging at, as you say, the ‘alt-right’? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”

The President is right. The presence of odious hate groups on one side does not excuse violence by hate groups on the other. But the left prefers to pretend that left-wing hate doesn’t exist, rather than addressing it.

Maxine Waters responded to the President by tweeting, “No, Trump. Not on many sides, your side.” This is both factually wrong and profoundly dangerous.

The problem with condemning the Nazis or KKK is that it is simply too easy. Just days earlier, a friend and colleague criticized a particular organization as being so weak that it could make no public comment on any issue “except to condemn Hitler.” The only people who don’t regard Nazis as evil are other Nazis.

The question which we should be asking is: why is the left whitewashing Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Antifa?

Of all these groups, the Neo-Nazis, the KKK, BLM and Antifa, which one called for violence against police, which manifested itself in shootings of law enforcement officers in Texas and Louisiana? Which of these groups threatens free speech on college campuses in this country, violently preventing students from hearing opposing views?

I don’t know about you, but I consider policies and procedures that facilitate the disproportionate murder of young black men to be racist. And although every police force must police itself and remove racism from within its ranks, BLM’s hateful agitation has not only led to murdered police officers.

In Baltimore, the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 led to riots and the politically-motivated prosecution of six officers (half of whom were black themselves) for following what was standard procedure at the time. This led to police being afraid to do the aggressive work necessary to get illegal guns off the street before they are used.

The results can only be described as horrific. 2015 was the most murderous year per-capita in Baltimore history, with 2016 coming in second. 2017 is on track to exceed both. And in all three years, young black men have been hugely overrepresented among the victims. A 10-month-old baby nearly died in her car, which remained locked following the murder of her 26-year-old father in May—until a police officer heard her cry.

The fact that the officer was white shouldn’t even deserve mention. The killing fields of Baltimore are a violent white supremacist’s dreamland, thanks to BLM.

But the media won’t talk that way. The left prefers to imagine that BLM is a civil rights movement, solving a real problem. And this is hardly the only example of left-wing “human rights” causes serving as convenient cover for anarchy, hatred and violence.

If we are going to tear down hateful monuments, we should not start with statues of Robert E. Lee, whom most historians consider to be no more racist than many Northerners of his day. We should start with the Arch of Titus in Rome, celebrating the military victories of that Emperor. After all, the Arch focuses specifically upon the plunder of Jerusalem, and the desecration of the treasures of its Holy Temple. It is an indisputable celebration of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

But that is exactly why it should not be removed. We need to remember our history, in order to avoid repeating it.

Which of the following statements has incited more murders in 2017: “Heil Hitler” or “Free Palestine”?

Again, the answer is obvious. Everyone knows that Hitler was a Nazi. But all too many people forget that “Palestine” is the name given to the land of Judea by the same hateful invaders who built that Arch, in an attempt to sever the connection between the land and those whose home it truly is. Forget that Palestine is a name birthed from barbarism and ethnic cleansing, forget that it was nothing more than a distant province to its Arab rulers, none of whom possessed it within the past 500 years (save for a brief period of Egyptian control in the 1830s), and you can make “Free Palestine” sound like a civil rights movement.

But what does it really stand for? Consider that there are dozens of unquestioned occupations around the world, in places like Tibet, Chechnya, and even Northern Ireland. But only one call for “justice” is used to justify the murder of children.

There is hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. It is easy to recognize the hate of 50 years ago; it takes discernment to recognize the hate of today, especially when the left is deliberately masking the hate groups in their midst.

The President should have named all of the hate groups involved, or none. The President was right the first time.

An earlier version of this article was first published in American Greatness, and discussed on the editor’s radio program.

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

Division at the Western Wall is No Path to Unity

By Rabbi Pesach Lerner and Rabbi Yaakov Menken

The statements from American Jewish movements, the Jewish Agency, and various op-ed writers could hardly have been more repetitive. Following the decision of Israeli PM Netanyahu and his cabinet to suspend the “deal” that would have created a large plaza for mixed prayer at the Western Wall, most rushed to offer opinions no more varied than the news reports, as if there were only one reasonable position that writers (and readers) could take.

Their consistent thesis was that Netanyahu’s decision caved to “political pressure” from the charedi political parties (universally described as “ultra-Orthodox”) and that suspension of the deal was divisive, a rejection of American Jewry. Pejoratives are not merely mean-spirited and divisive in their own right; in this case, they were used to upend the reality.

Neither Uri Ariel nor Betzalel Smotrich, MKs of the Jewish Home party, could remotely be described as “ultra-Orthodox.” Yet both wrote a letter to Netanyahu urging that the deal be scrapped; after it was, Ariel said in a prepared statement that “we succeeded in preventing an unnecessary split among the Jewish people and an attack on the social and religious fabric of Israeli society and the Jewish people.”

So which position unites us, and which divides? Each claims to side with unity, but only one can be correct.

Read the full op-ed at the Jerusalem Post.

The Limits of Human Comprehension

This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!

The Eye of the Beholder

When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!

No Apologies Necessary, Rabbi Gordimer!

Rabbi Gordimer, with all due respect, you’re mistaken. You didn’t have any explaining to do. You were gracious in your apology, but you cannot truly offer penance when you have done no wrong. What you wrote wasn’t revolutionary, wasn’t offensive, and, honestly, I think most of us understood your intent quite well. You have now assuaged one who misunderstood you, but your original critique still rings true.

Full disclaimer: I am neither a student of the Rav, nor more than casually familiar with his oeuvre. My father-in-law was considered one of his brilliant talmidim in his day, but we did not have long discussions about his Rebbe’s opinion on various subjects. So I approach this discussion as an outsider. That means I can look at general principles that arose in your discussion far more than I could hope to address anything unique to Rav Soloveitchik. So it is in that vein, with full disclosure of my limitations, that I contribute my thoughts.

You wrote:

… when dealing with master disseminators of Torah – rebbeim – one cannot sever their temporal existence and their writings from their eternal and living legacies. One must look to the closest disciples of a Torah disseminator to determine his focal impact and long-term emphases, and to understand the traditions, insights and attitudes he transmitted and exemplified.

The only thing you said with which one could possibly quibble is the phrase “when dealing with master disseminators of Torah.” I believe that what you wrote is true of any writer.

One who reads a teacher’s books or essays is obviously going to remain a distant second to that scholar’s “closest disciples,” those who studied under his tutelage for several years, when it comes to correctly portraying the thoughts and beliefs of their teacher. The only exception to that rule would be a student who deliberately misconstrued his teacher’s positions — and the remedy to that is found by looking at what other close associates and students have to say. From everything I have heard from others, your essay reflected the consensus, rather than the positions of an outlier.

What you wrote was no insult. No one was declared “unfit.” What you found at issue is the very reason why we are told not merely to study the works of Talmidei Chachamim, but to be “meshamesh,” which is perhaps poorly translated as “serving” them. A Shamash is not an Eved. In modern terms, Executive Assistant would be a more accurate term. By being close at hand, by listening even to the ordinary dialogue of a person, one learns things which cannot be gleaned from books. And Chazal exhorted us to have this experience with Sages, in order to learn to emulate them — to learn to think as they do.

And as I said, the disparity between readers and close associates is not limited to “master disseminators of Torah.” Rabbi Gordimer, you are a prolific writer, so I’m certain you can identify instances where your own written work has been misunderstood and misconstrued. I am sure that you can identify times when various readers ascribed to you motivations, emotions, and implications which you simply did not possess at the time. I’ve certainly had this experience often enough (yes, my writing can be inadequately clear. But still).

These are often exercises in projection: someone angered by something I wrote (although considering how I studiously avoid controversial topics, I cannot understand how that happens) might describe me as “angry.” On at least a few of those occasions, I remember chuckling as I was writing the “angry” comment. [I do laugh at my own jokes, and even sarcasm. It’s a problem.] In fact, I now fully expect someone to comment what a fool I am to not recognize that I write about contentious topics, although I think my sarcasm was obvious. It is simply all too easy to read what one wishes to see in the writings of another.

I have heard more than once that the Talmud is deliberately cryptic for this reason. As we know, a neophyte cannot simply sit down with a Gemara and start reading. Rather, it requires years of training to be able to so much as read through a page on one’s own, even to understand which type of punctuation is implied at what point, where a sentence begins and ends, and whether it is a question or answer. While Artscroll may have removed much of the guesswork, one still needs a great deal of assistance to comprehend what the page intends to tell you.

As I said, I understand this to be no accident. Rather, Rav Ashi and Ravina wanted to preserve the Oral Law, yet require that a student acquire the skills necessary by learning with a teacher. Rebbe Yochanan did precisely the same; in fact, the Yerushalmi is still less comprehensible to beginners. They all recognized the very danger that is the topic of our discussion. The chain of our Mesorah is not a trail of books.

In his response to you, R’ Avrohom, Prof. Kolbrener wrote: “Confining the legacy of R. Soloveitchik to that ever-contracting circle, the batei midrashim, is a much surer way of ‘killing off’ the reputation of the Rav, and consigning his legacy to antiquarians and the already converted.”

I believe this very revealing quote confirms that the phenomenon I mentioned earlier is relevant here. Prof. Kolbrener fell into the trap of reading the material in a way that confirmed what he wished to find.

With no embarrassment, I had to look up “antiquarian.” It means a person who studies or collects antiques. And let’s be honest: to one who looks at physical age, a 3300-year-old document is an antique. The Talmud is an antique. The Mishnah Berurah is called “recent” yet is a century old, and, like more modern halachic literature, builds upon earlier conclusions and applies very ancient principles to new situations. These are the “antiques” under discussion in this context.

In other words, Prof. Kolbrenner believes it would “kill off” the reputation of the author of Halakhic Man to leave his legacy in the hands of those studying Halakha. Need I say more?

Yes. Because he also defined the Batei Medrash as “that ever-contracting circle.”

He certainly didn’t mean this in any physical sense. It is well-established that the number and size of batei medrash is growing, and following an exponential curve at that. The Mir in Jerusalem was a single Beis Medrash a generation ago; now there are five buildings. A plethora of new institutions have opened and expanded at the same time, all over Israel and the United States. It’s easy to understand why there are housing issues in Lakewood, because hundreds of newly-married couples rent their first apartments there every month.

So it seems apparent that Prof. Kolbrener intends this in the sense of diversity of thought. This is an astounding statement, because there are now hundreds more teachers for these thousands more students, and all of these new teachers bring their own methodologies and opinions along with them — unless one believes that all of this expansion has been accompanied by increasing rigidity in terms of what types of thoughts are “acceptable.”

Without apology, that would be mistaken — actually, it defies logic. New teachers from diverse institutions mean increased diversity of thought. The surfeit of students means that it is easier, not harder, to gather a “critical mass” of them around a new set of ideas, whether or not they were ever previously considered acceptable. [See, for example, Open Orthodoxy, committed to beliefs that R’ Avi Weiss himself said were not permissible less than two decades ago.]

It is the same circle. It’s called the “dalet amos of Halacha,” and it’s not getting tighter. It’s just getting a lot more crowded. To an ever-increasing extent, Jews are recognizing that our place is within that circle. Which, even for those minimally familiar withRav Soloveitchik’s writing, we recognize as the central topic of Halakhic Man.