Posted on | October 11, 2010 | By Guest Contributor | 6 Comments
Rabbi Micah Segelman
The Orthodox community is poised to assume the mantle of Jewish leadership in America. Demographics attest to our continued growth both in absolute terms and as a portion of the overall Jewish community. We are the most passionate and knowledgeable about Judaism and Israel and are the most willing to give of our time and money for Jewish causes. We are the stewards of the Torah’s wisdom and thus have so much to share with other Jews. But are we thinking and acting like leaders?
Klal Yisroel’s mission as the chosen people is to lead the entire world in drawing closer to Hashem (1). “Thus it became necessary that one nation be introduced into the ranks of the nations which, through its history and life, should declare that G-d is the only creative cause of existence, and that the fulfillment of His will is the only goal of life (2).” This requires that we adhere to higher standards and that to a degree we separate ourselves from the world around us (1). “Such a mission imposed upon this people another duty, the duty of separation, of ethical and spiritual separateness (2).”
While separation is required it seems to me that total isolation from the world around us is incompatible with the leadership that the Torah demands of us. If we only have the ability to relate to people within the Torah camp then we’re not fulfilling our great mission. We can’t influence a world from which we have retreated.
Jewish interests are constantly threatened. We are faced with disproportionate criticism and inappropriate censure of Israel. We are confronted by secularism, materialism, and promiscuity. Our Orthodox interests are threatened by groups of Jews who oppose Torah study and observance and we are challenged by the extreme left wing of modern Orthodoxy. We must forcefully and honestly engage our antagonists and lay our rightful claim to the moral high ground. Yet in doing so we must display leadership and not succumb to narrow parochialism. When we show disdain for other viewpoints we antagonize people who are outside of our own community. We must use calm and compelling logic and not resort to strident and intolerant language. Instead of confident and reasoned arguments we sometimes resort to shrill tones and personal attacks. We are alienating those who could become our supporters.
A friend of mine grew up in a traditional but non-frum home and the children were enrolled in an elementary school Yeshiva. One day his brother’s Rebbe told the class that “Golda Meir is a rasha” (this story happened in the early 70′s). Largely as a result of this incident all of the children in my friend’s family were transferred to public school. My friend is a fine Ben Torah and Marbitz Torah. But none of his siblings are frum.
We can learn how to effectively lead from many of the recent responses to the issue of ordaining a woman to serve in a Rabbinical role. The statements from the Moetzes Gedolei Torah and the recent letter from HaRav Shmuel Kamenetsky (3) were forceful but not strident. Many of the articles written (such as those by Rabbi Adlerstein, Rabbi Ginzberg, and Rabbi Shafan) also struck the right balance. Unfortunately, even a well formulated and constructive article written in a moderate tone can generate negativity when a few phrases are seen as unnecessarily harsh, especially when they are taken out of context (4). This too should be instructive for us.
If we fail to teach our children and students how to relate to people outside the Torah camp we are building a future Torah community incapable of leadership. We must set boundaries for our children and students in their interaction with the outside world. We correctly stress the dangers which the world around them presents. However, our ultimate intent is to equip them to make their way in the world as confident Bnei Torah. Our intent should be to prepare them to confront the outside world – not to paralyze their interaction with the world around them.
In discussing whether a ben Torah should go to college one of my Rebbeim said that he’s “Pro Torah” and not “Anti College.” This seems to me to be a much healthier message than telling people that college is “treif.” If we stigmatize secular education we are teaching people to be afraid of the outside world. Whether to pursue secular education is an individual decision to be made with great care and proper guidance. Furthermore, there are different valid Torah approaches to this issue.
However, I would hope that all agree that we can’t produce a generation of Bnei Torah who are thoroughly insulated from the world around them. This doesn’t require advanced secular education per se. But it requires a healthy attitude towards and the ability to understand and communicate effectively with the outside world.
I once returned home after being away in Yeshiva for a few months and came to shul for shacharis. Even to this day I often wear colored or striped shirts. However, on that particular day I was wearing a white shirt, dark pants, and a dark jacket. A man in shul whispered a derisive remark (which I unfortunately overheard) to the effect that, “Looks like they did a good job brainwashing him.” Clothing is fairly innocuous and yet it created a tremendous barrier, even for a person who is Orthodox. Imagine the barrier that would have been created if I truly came across as cloistered. And imagine if the other person was much further removed from Torah than my critic was.
Being comfortable in the outside world will be helpful to people in earning a living. But this isn’t the only motivation in engaging the world around us. Being overly restrictive carries the risk of alienating people who don’t want to live an isolated life. Cloistering ourselves makes us incapable of bringing other Jews closer to Torah. The inability to engage the outside world precludes us from advocating for causes that are important to us.
We have an opportunity to lead and to make a tremendous Kiddush Hashem. But are we up to the task?
(1)Seforno, Shemos 19:4-6
(2)Rav Hirsch, The Nineteen Letters (Spring Valley, NY 1988), Letter Four
(3)Five Towns Jewish Times, Letters to the Editor, July 8, 2010
(4)Jewish Week, ‘Rabba’ Appearance Stirs Up Controversy, June 30, 2010
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