Sunday, June 29, 2008

The TIDEs They Are A-Changin'

The recent brouhaha at K'hal Adath Jeshurun's celebration of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch's bicentennial overshadowed the miracle on display that evening, namely that two centuries after the birth of the man credited with bringing Judaism out of the ghetto without sacrificing its authenticity, his movement, Torah Im Derech Eretz, is the primary representative of 21st Century Judaism.

I do not know the new rav of KAJ, Yisroel Mantel. I don't know his hashkafos. I don't even know precisely what he said, because he said it on Shabbos and nobody taped it or transcribed it on the spot. What we have is a Jewish Press report summing up his point that TIDE "is not viable in the absence of its chief advocate." Many took this statement as a direct quote from the rav, which, in absence of quote marks in the article, it was not.

Be that as it may.

Ironically, what seemed to upset people was the rav's contention that Jews must be directed by "The Gedolim." This was seen as codeword for "We must kowtow to chareidi hashkafos." However, in line with the principle of "Dor dor vedorshov," that G-d provides leaders for each generation appropriate to that generation, Rav Mantel's remarks were unobjectionable.

Rav Hirsch himself describes TIDE as fluid, in effect, a moving target, based on the "developments of changing times." Even in his own generation, Rav Hirsch refused to endorse Rav Azriel Hildesheimer's program for an orphanage in Palestine, writing him, "Just as only in Berlin is it possible to determine what is the best and most advantageous course of action for Berlin, and only in Frankfurt can it be known what is best for Frankfurt, so also only our brothers in the Holy Land and their rabbis can know what is beneficial and a source of blessing for them."

I believe Rav Hirsch would take one look at the 21st Century American Jewish community and be overjoyed at the success of the Torah community from left to right. It may have taken the better part of two centuries, but Hirschian Orthodoxy has emerged triumphant and dominant.

Most of us attend minyan daily, study Torah regularly, and spend enormous amounts of money to educate our children in our holy heritage. At the same time, we go to work, speak unaccented English, and are friendly and honest with the "outside" world. Even in Lakewood, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the vast majority of heads of households are not sitting in kollel but hold jobs that require them to deal with, and participate in, the outside world. Lakewood is not the ghetto that it is perceived (and, perhaps, perceives itself) to be.

So if Hirsch is reigning champion, why all the gloom in Washington Heights?

Two reasons.

First, the incident is an embarrassment for the already fragile and fraying Washington Heights KAJ community. But the German-Jewish absorption into the melting pot of Orthodox Jewish America is tragic only in the nostalgic sense. It is time to recognize that TIDE is not necessarily the Yekkes' to define. As one of my rabbonim noted, let's not confuse the philosophy of TIDE with minhagei Frankfurt. If TIDE is an - some would argue, The - authentic representation of Torah living, then it never really was German to begin with. Even if it took a German rabbi to breathe life back into it.

Second, many, inside and outside the Yekke community, see TIDE as more, even much more, than the above description, and are dismayed to see its slide to the right. This version of TIDE, which includes a greater stress on secular studies and is akin to Torah U'Mada, and has been rejected by the KAJ rabbinate long before Rav Mantel came along, but his comments served to underscore the direction in which the community is going.

There is, however, a fundamental distinction between the two: While Torah Im Derech Eretz is a lifestyle, Torah U'Mada is a curriculum. That is why Torah U'Mada is the slogan of a university, while TIDE defines a community.

Even if one believes that Rav Hirsch was indeed a powerful proponent of secular studies in his day, it does not follow that he would have been equally passionate about the subject in our times. TIDE, by his own definition, evolves. To that end, several points are in order regarding secular studies.

I find that at work, I am the most educated and eloquent of my colleagues - and I barely went to college. I don't work in a factory or in a mall; I work for one of the largest banks in the world. Suit and tie every day. The secular world has been so dumbed down that one need not possess a classic Harvard education to fit in, or, even, to excel.

Furthermore, college today is not what it was even fifty years ago. Newsflash to the critics who disparage going to school "simply to make a living": that's precisely what the goyim are doing. The notion of studying for a higher purpose is happening at precious few institutions today - and one of them happens to be in Lakewood, New Jersey. Describing the "college experience," today's budding scholars are less likely to reference Kierkegaard and Newton, and more likely to focus on keg parties and Spring Break.

Lastly, the culture has deteriorated considerably. Few are rushing to see La Boheme at the Met. Instead it's the latest dreck from Judd Apatow & Co. that sells the tickets. America's crass culture is downright dangerous for the spiritually selective. Don't forget: the other side of Rav Hirsch's TIDE was his institution of Austritt. I'd hate to think what he might have said about youtube.

In the end, what we ought to glean from Rav Hirsch is his passion for uncompromised Judaism, his love of all Jews and his desire to reach out to them, and his positive outlook in the face of a picture much bleaker than the one we face today. He would be overwhelmed at the opportunities for outreach in America, both inside and outside the Orthodox community. With somewhere between three million and five million Jews lacking a basic Jewish education, and without any serious intellectual threat preventing their return, he would be ecstatic at the chance to impact them all.

Mark my words: if Rav S. R. Hirsch was brought back to this earth, the first thing he would do is learn to touch-type.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


As we, here in the United States, make our way toward electing a new President, we seek meaning in past actions and behaviors of the candidates as indications as to what sort of leader this one or that one will be. We dissect and assess the candidates' policy statements, voting records, public appearances, business associations, and personal relationships in order to gain an understanding of the totality of the person and how he or she will act as our political representative.

As Jews, we sometimes find ourselves in a similar predicament. When choosing a school to send our children to, or a synagogue to attend, we look for teachers and rabbis who we feel will do the best job. But how can we know what we are really getting? How do we know that the rabbi who gives the best sermon, or who teaches the most provocative class, will also be the one to answer our halachic questions properly or give us the best spiritual guidance when we seek his counsel?

I believe we only need to look for one thing: Humility.

After high school, I spent two years studying in Israel. As my second year drew to a close, I decided to stay past the end of my yeshiva's zman and continue learning at another yeshiva whose zman lasted into the summer. The rosh yeshiva of the new yeshiva welcomed me and placed me in one of the higher shiurim, but after a couple of weeks there - and with only a month left before returning to the States - I wanted to maximize my opportunity and asked to be placed in the rosh yeshiva's shiur for the duration of my stay.

The rosh yeshiva didn't merely deny my request; he exploded at me. "My shiur!?" he bellowed in the middle of a Jerusalem street, where I had followed him out during the lunch break. "You think you're ready for my shiur!?" He went on about how difficult it was to attain placement in his shiur and how much work was involved in arriving there - but I had pretty much stopped listening at that point. He had me at "my shiur."

Those words still ring in my ears.

Even then, still a teenager, I was not disappointed or hurt or embarrassed. I was simply shocked that this rosh yeshiva - this man - could speak in such a way about himself, and about others in relation to him. He could have gently told me that he felt the shiur I was in was appropriate, that he believed his shiur would prove too difficult for me, and that with so little time left until I went home he didn't want to risk spoiling my stay. Instead, he taught me a very valuable lesson.

To this day, he is a highly-respected rosh yeshiva and a world-class talmid chacham. I can personally testify to his erudition and his hasmadah. But if that sense of self-importance is the price I would have to pay to achieve his level of Torah scholarship, I would decline. It is too high a price.

Last week's parshah does not say that Moshe was the most learned of men though he surely was; it does not say he was the most pious of men, though he certainly was that, too; it says he was the humblest of men. And for that - perhaps because of that - he spoke with G-d "face-to-face," as it were.

A few weeks back, I began attending - via satellite - the Saturday night shiur of Rav Yisroel Reisman. I had heard of the shiur and its popularity, and, due to an awful quirk in my personality, avoided it for just that reason. But one day I received a fundraising letter in the mail accompanied by a CD of one of his shiurim, and, with precious else to listen to while cleaning for Pesach, I popped it in the player.

I can't say that I was blown away by the shiur, but I appreciated it enough that when I discovered that a local shul shows a video simulcast of his shiur, I decided to try it out. Last week was the final shiur of the "season" and only the third one I attended. But even after just three lectures, listening and watching him up close (the video feed places you right in front of him; I'm told about two thousand people attend the live version), what struck me most was his humility. He sees himself not as a great rav (though he is) with a huge fan base (by Orthodox standards), but as a very fortunate Jew who is Divinely blessed with the capacity to spend his time studying and teaching Torah. For someone who could allow himself a pat on the back every now and then, he does not leak even a whiff of pretension.

Years ago, I visited Rav Shimon Schwab, zt"l, for some guidance. He responded to one question I posed to him by telling me, "you need to ask a gadol beYisrael that question." I stammered, "But I believe I am speaking now to a gadol beYisrael."

"I'm not a gadol beYisrael," he said simply. And, as nonsensical as it was, for a nanosecond I believed it. Though I do remember getting an answer to my question, after pressing a bit further, I don't recall what the answer was. Nor do I recall the question. What I really took away from that exchange was more fundamental: the picture of humility.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Random Acts of Achdus

Several summers ago, on a Friday afternoon, I was driving up to the Catskills to join some friends at a camp when my car overheated. I had to pull over the side of the road to allow the car to cool down. After a few rounds of this - watching the gauge hit its limit, pulling over, pacing nervously by the side of the road watching the sun begin it’s slow descent toward the horizon - I determined that my car is done for the day (and for the rest of days, as it turned out).

I got off at the next exit, about twenty miles from my destination, and pulled into a gas station-slash-convenience store. I rushed inside and asked the guy behind the counter if he knew the number of a taxi service. I was in Monticello, New York. A chasidishe guy, buying a newspaper, overheard my plight and seeing my yarmulke and asked me where I was going. I told him. “Here,” he said, flipping me his keys. "Take my car.” I was stunned. It took me a second to process what he had said: Take my car. My instinct was to decline his offer, but Shabbos was coming! I accepted, and, after driving him back to his nearby bungalow, I hot-footed it to the camp, racing into the driveway with about two minutes to spare.

When I arrived at the camp, and told the tale, people were amazed. “What terrific luck," one said, "that you ran into a friend of yours at a gas station in Monticello.” "But you don't understand," I said. "I never met the fellow before in my life." Jaws dropped. While they understood the concept of doing nice things for people, they could not comprehend that degree of kindness. A level that does not so much transcend selflessness as redefine the sense of self to encompass the members of one’s nation. This attachment we call achdus.

Random acts of achdus, manifested by acts of chesed, abound. In my experience they are systemic to the Jewish people. What is strange is not that they happen but that they happen with such frequency that no one seems to notice anymore. Groups such as Hatzolah, the various Tomchei Shabbos, and countless Bikur Cholim organizations in communities across the country testify to the commitment that Jews feel to one another.

Beyond chesed groups, the world of business also testifies to this connection. One of the largest Modern Orthodox employers, Howard Jonas of IDT Corp., is renowned for hiring and training thousands of people from yeshivish and chasidishe backgrounds, both in the United States and in Israel. Similarly, the chasidishe-owned and highly successful B&H Electronics in midtown has Jewish employees of all backgrounds.

And then there's the matter of all the dollars and manhours spent on kiruv programs aimed at people who are completely unaffiliated with Torah Judaism. I have heard many debates on the merits of different programming and forms of outreach, but never a word on the wisdom of the overall effort. That the effort is worthwhile is axiomatic. It’s called achdus.

Which is why it's so difficult to swallow the constant chorus of critics who regularly bash Jews for not displaying enough achdus. Many seem to be afflicted by the media's bad habit of always focusing on the exception and never the rule.

Furthermore, Judaism is not always homogeneous, and critics seem to pick up on this when lamenting their perceived lack of achdus. But it would be improper, not to mention imprudent, to confuse divisions with divisiveness. To the extent that there are divisions in Klal Yisrael, they tend to be normal, healthy, and part of the Master game plan. The Jewish nation was initially divided into twelve tribes. As Jacob’s varied blessings to his sons makes clear, this division was not simply logistical. Each tribe was charged with a different mission. Today the tribes break down among different communities with differing customs: Sephardim and Ashkenazim, chassidim and misnagdim, yeshivish and modern orthodox, kollel students and Torah im derech eretz-niks. Each brings a unique and valid approach to serving the Creator. While these approaches will sometimes clash on the playing field of Halachah and society, rarely have they gotten bloody.

Chasidim play a role, Zionists play a role. Kollel students play a role, professionals play a role. That these groups promote their own beliefs, sometimes at the expense of the other, is a tribute to the passion of their positions. And though these distinctions may at times flare into an unethical machlokes, bridges are generally not burned.

Davening in a shtibel in Monsey recently, I watched a chasid reading the latest Rav Soloveithcik release. How did I know that it was the latest release? Because I had seen it the week before at Eichler’s in Flatbush. Prominently displayed. It was also available at Eichler’s in Boro Park. Browsing the main seforim store in Lakewood, I was pleasantly shocked to see the Gutnick Edition Chumash—featuring the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l.

That Friday afternoon, speeding through the Catskills in the borrowed car of someone whose name I no longer remember (and almost forgot to ask), I felt the unity of Klal Yisrael. I was - and remain - fiercely proud to be a small part of it.