By Yonoson Rosenblum
Torah isn’t just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable. Above all, it is the Truth
Rabbi Berel Wein has famously remarked, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” As great as my admiration and affection for Rabbi Wein is, I have never been a fan of this particular comment.
Most important, it is futile: We all know — and need to know — that Judaism is being judged all the time by the Jews, and particularly by the most identifiable among us. That is particularly true for the gentiles judging Judaism, but also for nonobservant Jews as well.
Nevertheless, I recently came to appreciate a new profundity in Rabbi Wein’s line, in a context other than the one I always understood it. I have always assumed that Rabbi Wein was addressing his words to those on the outside of Torah Judaism looking in.
But lately it dawned upon me that he might well have been speaking to those on the inside dismayed by the behavior of their fellow Orthodox Jews. The occasion for my reevaluation was a call I received this week from a baal teshuvah of decades’ standing. He told me that he finds himself terribly disillusioned by those whom he most respected, and that he is hearing the same from many friends who, like him, are baalei teshuvah of longstanding, and even from those who were born into religious families.
My caller — someone whom I have never met — and his friends were particularly upset by the communal response to COVID-19. He had a particular grievance, as he is a doctor who has treated many of the Torah scholars in his community and their families. And he has grown increasingly exasperated at being told, “The doctors don’t know what they are talking about [with respect to urging people to wear masks, especially inside, or maintaining social distancing].” He had always been taught that the halachah pesukah is to act in accord with the best consensus among doctors at that particular moment in history.
THAT PHONE CALL left me badly shaken, and since that conversation, I have been thinking about what I could tell my caller.
Let me begin with a couple of quasi-sociological observations. The first I heard well over thirty years ago from Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb: No one becomes an Orthodox Jew exclusively for intellectual reasons. (And that is even more the case for those born into the Orthodox world.) For the baal teshuvah, the beauty of the Shabbos table, the warm families (albeit often idealized), the desire to connect oneself to the great chain of the Jewish People, the awe one feels for figures totally unlike anyone whom one has met before — in my case, Rabbi Nachman Bulman and, ybdlcht”a, Rabbi Aharon Feldman — all play a role.
Second observation: Community plays an outsized role for an observant Jew, as compared to his secular neighbors. Every Jew is defined by his membership in Klal Yisrael (and in many cases various sub-communities thereof as well). Many of our basic obligations depend on a larger community for their optimal performance. And the feeling of being part of a community of people who care about one another is one of the great joys of a Torah life. The decision of a number of chassidic rebbes to go ahead with Tu B’Shevat gatherings of thousands was, I’m told, based on the fear that without such communal events, many would feel that their Yiddishkeit had been drained of all meaning.
Yet we have to remember that we are not only members of a community. We are also individuals, with our own unique relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. As I have written many times in the name of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, “On Rosh Hashanah, we confront Hashem as a solitary individual, stripped of social context.”
At some point, we have to make sure that our constant question is: What does Hashem want from me at this moment? And not: What will the neighbors say? When we do that, we will find other kindred souls on the path. Disappointment with a particular rav or even with a large part of a community need not leave one alone or bereft. As I pointed out to my caller, many of the most prominent local rabbanim and poskim in his community fully support his position, and the shul with the largest number of daily mispallelim is also the strictest with regard to masks and social distancing.
In order to overcome the inevitable disappointment that arises when our idealized vision of having moved into a perfect community does not pan out, we have to remember that Torah is not just a lifestyle choice, no matter how attractive or comfortable it happens to be. Above all, it is the Truth. Lifestyles can be cast aside when they no longer satisfy or they become a source of embarrassment. But the Truth obligates us, even when we are alienated to one degree another from the community. Once one perceives the Torah as the ultimate Truth, he can no longer imagine himself living a life other than as a Torah Jew.
In one sense, baalei teshuvah have it easier than FFBs. The initial idealistic excitement of upending their lives brings a tremendous momentum to their entry into the Torah world. Yet in the end that momentum will not be sufficient to sustain one over a lifetime, any more than maintaining the default position of having been born into a religious family will sustain a rich religious life.
We were born to labor, and labor we must. Always. When one feels distraught over certain perceived communal shortcomings, it is time to turn inward and focus more intensely on our individual tasks as Torah Jews.
The Maharal in his introduction to Derech Hachayim on Pirkei Avos describes man as coming into the world with a threefold task: to complete himself with respect to his fellow man; to complete himself with respect to Hashem; and to complete himself in relation to himself. The three cardinal sins, which require one to give up one’s life rather than commit them, each derive from the fact that they render completion in one of those areas impossible: murder, with respect to connecting to one’s fellow man; idolatry, with respect to one’s relationship to Hashem; and animalistic licentiousness with respect to completion of oneself. A remarkable two-volume work by the late Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Greenwald, With Truth and with Love, explores these different forms of connection in detail and in the context of an overarching Torah vision.
But the necessary precondition for marshaling all our kochos for self-completion is to be constantly reinforcing our conviction in the truth of Torah. There are many ways and combinations of ways toward developing knowledge of the Truth of Hashem and His Torah. But it is critical that each of us be involved in them. For some it will be the contemplation of the quality of human beings formed by the deepest immersion in Torah. One need go no further than the three extraordinary Jews portrayed in the last issue of Mishpacha. For others, it might be reflection on history’s long-lasting miracle, the survival of the Jewish People, and, in particular, those Jews grounded in Torah.
Some will find compelling science-based proofs for the Creator. In his explication of the Divine Name Shakkai (the expression of Hashem as He Who imposes limits), in Exodus: A Parasha Companion, for instance, Rabbi David Fohrman cites leading cosmologists to show that had there been any infinitesimal variation in the relative strengths of the four forces that comprise the universe — gravity, electromagnetic, the nuclear strong force, and the nuclear weak force — it could not have come into existence.
I cannot imagine a week without hours devoted to Chumash and delving into the commentaries, both ancient and modern, that derive infinite layers of meaning from the text and guidance for our everyday lives. Or a day without participation in the same debates that have engrossed the greatest minds for thousands of years.
That immersion will not keep me from feeling frustration over those actions by chareidi Jews that push other Jews away from ever experiencing the excitement and feeling of connectedness that I do. But it ensures that I would never wish to be leading a life different from the one I am at present.
Originally Published in Mishpacha Magazine – February 10, 2021