(Photo: Menachem Weinreb/Unsplash).
Can We Learn From Each Other?
Tales from Lakewood, Young Israel and Beyond
BY RABBI MOSHE TAUB
Rules of engagement
Although, b’chasdei Hashem, I have been writing a weekly column for the past twelve years, this article has been the most painstaking one to complete. With fits and starts I have, over the course of two months, repeatedly rewritten and overhauled this essay.
It is axiomatic that every frum Jew believes that his or her hashkafah is the most authentic form of yiddishkeit. No serious Torah Jews believe that they or their communities are but a footnote in the eternal story of Judaism, playing only a secondary role in bringing the Mashiach. When discussing different communities and their ways of life, we must be mindful that challenging someone’s hashkafah, if done insultingly and without tact, could be an act of emotional murder. We must be careful.
At the same time, we mustn’t put our heads in the sand and ignore the fact that our differences are very real, and often in weighty ways. Only when we can openly admit this and let some steam out of the proverbial pressure cooker can we get on to the critically important work of learning from each other. Otherwise, cries of “why can’t we all just get along?!” become pollyannaish and incantational.
When considering what each community can learn from the other, the first step is to avoid the ‘changing of minds’ trap. If that is your goal, you’re likely to be disappointed. We must accept that other Jews have their own rebbeim and parents, and so long as they are following in their path of mesorah, our job is only to support them and not to seek to change them (Iggrot Moshe, Or HaChaim 1:186 s.v. v’af).
Humility is critical to this discussion. There was a time when articles or books of Jewish thought were written only by the greatest poskim and gedolim of a generation, and even in those cases it was rare – Rav Sa’adia Gaon, Rambam, Maharal, to name a few. It is only in modern times when everyone feels they can weigh into this mighty and turbulent sea without the life jacket that is the entire corpus of the written and oral Torah.
Lastly, I do not intend to write a polemic, but rather to share my personal experiences and attempt to live in both the Charedi and Religious Zionist communities.
Living in two worlds, trusted in none
I was raised in my father’s Modern Orthodox shul, yet went to yeshivah in Lakewood. I learned from Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik, but have served as a rav at two Young Israel shuls. I currently teach in a Beis Ya’akov and a Telshe Yeshivah, while also writing and editing for what some would describe as a Chassidishe-leaning magazine, Ami.
I have the unique perch of not just working with people of all stripes, but also to learn, negotiate and consult with them in matters of Torah and hashkafah.
Living in many ‘worlds’ may sound like a pleasant ideal, however, in reality, it just means that neither ‘side’ trusts me. Those on the ‘right’ think I may have fallen under the spell of culture, and those on the ‘left’ feel I am a quasi-secret agent, seeking to hypnotize their children to adorn a black hat and grow payot behind their ears.
But they are both wrong.
Growing up, I attended the Eitz Chaim elementary school, where the rebbeim were from Lakewood, Yeshiva University and Chabad while the students were a mix of Chassidic, Modern Orthodox, yeshivish and not-yet-frum. It was an idyllic upbringing, perhaps lost to time.
As a child, the greatest lay Torah scholar I knew was a man named Dr. Silverberg, who wore a kippah serugah. Who cares what kippah he wore? While somewhere deep in the recesses of mind I knew our hashkafot may not have been fully aligned, I viewed our differences like the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. Though the Sephardic approach to chazara (warming food on Shabbat) is considered a violation of Shabbat by Ashkenazim, I understand that Sephardim are following their own poskim and rabbanim and so their approach is legitimate. Perhaps a more apt allegory for these hashkafic differences is, lehavdil, Major League Baseball’s American and National Leagues. I grew up in Toronto watching the American League, and so whenever I stumbled upon a National League game some of their rules and customs seemed foreign to me – but the game was essentially the same.
Moving to New York in 2015 was a culture shock. The lines in the sand between our communities have hardened and the ideal of respecting the mesorah of others is too often a mere pantomime instead of a deep and innate feeling.
What follows may seem passé, yet sometimes we must have the courage to be unoriginal.
We are living in frightening times. Our youth are being spiritually challenged in ways not seen since the days of Hellenism. Satan is many things, but being a fool is not among them. The bnei Torah from each camp must now focus on the myriad of concerns we share and work together to protect our youth. The dangers of technology and modern culture and its many poisons must not be seen as a Charedi or Religious Zionist issue. We must fight together for a culture that is palatable for our most precious souls.
Noach, in the greatest failure of a ba’al teshuvah movement in history, was unsuccessful in leading humanity in repentance to Hashem. But perhaps this was inevitable – for Noach was alone.
Rav Shraga Feivel once pondered: What happened to Avraham’s many students? Where are they? What happened to their families? He explained that Avraham could only offer one religious path – the path of chessed. Only after Yitzchak and Ya’akov introduced new ways to serve Hashem, through gevurah and Torah, would students be able to find the proper religious paths for themselves and remain committed to Hashem for generations.
Our youth are looking for a teiva, an ark, to steer them through a very stormy world. We have the tools to save them. They need a multitude of leaders and streams of thought, all culled from mesorah, to choose from. Without these choices, many young people will ultimately choose to leave Torah observance altogether.
It is not a coincidence that the story of the dor haflagah, the generation of dispersion, follows the story of Noach. While Noach teaches us that we cannot succeed alone, the dor haflagah reminds us of the challenges of working together with a group.
Rav Hutner, in one of his famous bon mots, once said: “The miracle of seventy rabbis sitting in different rooms and making the same changes for Ptolemy’s translation was a great one. But even greater still would be if they were in the same room and agreed on those changes!”
I propose a meeting of the minds. A get-together of activists, askanim and leaders from both camps to discuss the common issues that are in front of us.
Rav Kook and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld had significant disagreements, yet joined together on their Shabbat campaign throughout the Land of Israel. We must do the same.
I recall several years ago, when in Buffalo, a young Chassidic chatan stayed in the hotel across the street from the shul for Shabbat. He came to every shiur. After Shabbat he cried to me: “I was always told that modern Jews were not frum. But I learned so much from this Shabbos! I was touched in ways I never felt before.”
Each mesorah has so much to offer!
The Baal HaTanya and his rebbe, the Maggid of Mezeritch, once entered a wedding together. The proverbial “you go first” debate ensued. Finally, the Baal HaTanya said, “I will go through the door and you, being a ba’al mofes (a miracle worker), can go through the wall!”
The Maggid looked at his student and, with a twinkle in his eye, responded, “Let us make an even greater miracle. Let us widen the doorway and we then can hold hands and walk through together.”
Rabbi Moshe Taub serves as the Rabbi at Young Israel of Holliswood. He teaches in many NYC yeshivot and schools and serves as Rabbinic Editor and weekly columnist at Ami Magazine.