Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Is Connecting Real?
Enter one of the numerous batei medrash in Lakewood, New Jersey and experience the thunderous cacophony of Torah study. The vigor and excitement are palpable. Review the attendance rolls of incoming first-grade classes of Orthodox day schools, cheders and Bais Yaakovs across the United States; the annually increasing enrollment will inevitably impress even the cynic. Women’s Torah classes and Tehillim sessions abound. Tens of thousands, representing yet thousands of others, will soon celebrate the upcoming Siyum HaShas, all committed to studying Talmud daily. Halachic observance is also growing. Kosher consumption rises, and even non-Orthodox communities increasingly embrace traditional ritual and observance. True, there is a small percentage of Orthodox dropouts, and much of the community’s growth is attributable to a strong birth rate. Yet, overall, the system apparently works.
Too many observant Jews, however, have a commitment to Torah and halacha that is impressively broad, but a relationship with G-d that is admittedly shallow. They follow halacha with great care, and often sacrifice, but realize little meaning and even less fervor. Like the tepid marriage of a deeply loyal, middle-aged couple, the commitment is there. But what happened to the passion? Beneath the surface is the gnawing fear that such commitment is to a Judaism of culture, not of spirituality. Connection to avodas Hashem has long been supplanted by an urgency to fit in and an eagerness for personal peace of mind and fulfillment. But rather than in religion, satisfaction is typically sought in family and profession and, failing those, through entertainment and distractions. Life is a struggle – but not a struggle to relate to G-d.
In light of the community’s apparent overall success, is there really a problem, at all? Does the fading of passionate romance deem a marriage loveless? Perhaps spiritual relations are unique, and fretting over a spiritual void is a wasteful lament, since a relationship between G-d and neshama (soul), though real, is imperceptible. Perhaps the coveted “spiritual high” is actually a cheap emotional sensation, devoid of authentic ruchniyus (spirituality). Is not true Torah Judaism simply doing the right thing for the right reason in the proper frame of mind? Could hoping to feel the Torah-induced growth taking place within our neshama merely be a primitive wish reflecting simple-mindedness, or even selfishness?
To the contrary – nothing can be more authentic and sophisticated than pursuing an intense and passionate relationship with G-d. That relationship, called devaikus, is what Judaism is all about. And, like any relationship, it is real only if perceptible, or at least potentially perceptible. Devaikus must be felt. As in any relationship, the more intense the relationship the more intense the feelings. Sometimes the feeling is joy, sometimes exhilaration. And sometimes a relationship makes you sad or troubled, and occasionally even pained. But, if there are no feelings and no passion – just a sense of obligation, it can hardly be called a relationship.
Shir Hashirim, the most poetic of love songs, presents the paradigm of the relationship between the Jew and HKBH. Passionate, thrilling, a sense of longing. Devaikus is supposed to be real – not merely a concept – and the beauty of its journey is the music of Yiddishkeit, the Jew’s sustaining melody. Halachic Judaism is not intended to be merely a legal system or a behavioral discipline, but rather the essential parameters of a wondrous love story. The search for a relationship with G-d is intended to be urgent, reflecting the intense longing for one’s beloved. But when the heart is not broken but merely hollow, when the sole feeling is commitment (and perhaps guilt), when the marriage is one of mere pragmatism, how long can it last?
The Unspoken Factor
I enjoy an advantage not available to other contributors to this issue of Klal Perspectives in that I have been privy to the other submissions before writing my own. I marvel at the brilliant insights proffered by great minds, and hope that many readers will adopt the numerous valuable suggestions. But the community that I see is vastly different from that observed by others.
Surveying the Orthodox disconnected, others see Jews who are, at best, insufficiently motivated and educated, if not self-absorbed and lazy. Jews who appear to be connecting to G-d are lauded as the pious and focused, while all others are viewed as misguided, uneducated or simply self-centered. And the path to becoming connected is so obvious. If only the disconnected would make the effort. After all, a relationship with G-d is very accessible, if only they had been taught the correct lessons in grade school, or would now read the correct books, attend the correct minyan, or seek guidance from the proper mentor. And the list of solutions goes on.
By contrast, the Orthodox community I see is neither lazy nor self-centered. Rather, it is heroic and brave, though scared and wary. The small cadre of American Jews still loyal to halacha – nary ten percent of American Jewry – aspire to connect to G-d. But they are scarred and they are pained. They are spurned lovers. They feel abandoned by the very Creator whose relationship they crave, but whose presence and accessibility remains elusive. They deeply believe in G-d and his Torah, and therefore willingly and consistently distinguish themselves from American society in profound manners of lifestyle and behavior. But they feel distant. How can it be otherwise when they reflect on two thousand years of efforts to embrace G-d, only to have their reaching arms met with nothing but the assurance that the object of their yearning is responding, but in ways that they cannot feel, hear or even perceive?
And then there are the unspeakable tragedies. First, they must come to terms with a Father in Heaven who chooses to veil his face behind the curtain of hester panim (a “hidden face”). But if the pain of abandonment alone is not sufficient to dampen the enthusiastic love of loyal children, the veil is accompanied by displacement. Their Father’s home destroyed, they are separated brother from sister and dispersed throughout the world. But, nevertheless, these loyal children long for their Father. Rather than rue the source of their exile, they blame themselves.
And it gets far bleaker. The pain and suffering begins. As weaklings among the bullies of time, the children suffer centuries of abuse and disdain, and much worse. Ravaging their bodies and souls, the attacks persist and worsen. But, they do not blame their Father, who observes from behind the veil, allowing the abuse to continue. Rather, they turn to Him for comfort; they turn to Him. And they blame themselves. And then – the ultimate of unimaginable horrors. In unspeakable tragedy of incomprehensible magnitude, they watch as their parents, siblings and children are slaughtered in an indescribable Holocaust. Yet among the survivors there are still those who continue the search for devaikus. These loyal Jews do not blame their Father, who observes from behind the veil. In fact, they continue to seek His comfort and approval. They study His words and follow His precepts.
But beneath the dutiful observance, and deep in their hearts, the children wonder – why is Father allowing this all to happen to us? No doubt we misbehave, but are we really so wicked? No doubt we can do better, but to allow them to slaughter us? And our children, as well? One million of our children! And the wondering turns to resentment, the resentment to anger, and then to rage. And then to numbness.
Over the centuries of exile, many Jews simply could not tolerate the persistent abandonment and pain. The oppression was simply too harsh to bear and they forfeited the relationship altogether. Many sought to meld into the fabric of humanity through assimilation, hoping to shed the Jewish identity that had imposed so much pain. Others pursued secular Zionism, hoping that nationalism would supplant religion, and thereby deflect the animosity thought attributable to their Jewish uniqueness. Akin to the child whose violent behavior is precipitated by baseless accusations of destruction, perhaps these Jews were trying to validate the libelous accusation that they had earlier killed a god, and so were doing so now. Others also abandoned authentic Judaism but, rather than declare religion forfeited, they converted Judaism into an antiseptic and humanistic practice, thereby reducing reliance on an elusive and unresponsive god.
But for some, the relationship is just too precious to abandon. They appreciate that G-d’s ways are incomprehensible, but that Father knows best and humans are but pawns in G-d’s greater plan. All that occurs is ultimately for the good, and true reward and punishment are reserved for the World to Come. Despite the tragedies and hardships, despite the sense of frustration and abandonment, these Jews remain loyal to G-d and his Torah. But the challenges facing this small cadre of committed Jews must always be considered in the context of a two–thousand-year exile of bitterness and pain which culminated in the Holocaust. Only by recognizing that the contemporary Jew lives in the unnatural state of hester panim, and that such hester panim has repeatedly resulted in pain and oppression, can there be a serious exploration of the relationship between the Jew and his Creator, and how that relationship can be enhanced.
In America, observant Jews enjoy unprecedented freedom and religious accommodation. Communal wealth is staggering, and physical luxuries are accompanied by extensive religious conveniences. But as is often the case, there is pain beneath the surface, often imperceptible to even the players themselves. The tragedies of this bitter golus are embedded into the very core of the Jew – even the spoiled and contented American Jew. The depth and intensity of the hester panim shapes our choices and our behavior. And thus, consideration of this hester panim and appreciation for the communal scars that cannot possibly have yet healed must play a central role in the exploration of the disconnect being felt by so many.
No doubt, many must believe that referencing the inquisitions, the pogroms and even the Holocaust in addressing American Jewry’s contemporary relationship with G-d is questionable, if not misguided. They may argue that the horrors of the past two thousand years play little role in the minds and attitudes of younger American Jews, who relate to these events as mere historical references, such as the destruction of the holy Temples. Moreover, they may assert, including past persecutions are distracting, and reflect a persecution complex that is better left behind, and while these terrible episodes in our history should be taught and remembered, the tragic past is neither relevant to, nor influential on, the psyche and behavior of the contemporary American Jew. I vehemently disagree.
The commonality of the disconnect experienced by large segments of American Orthodoxy cannot be viewed on an individual basis because its expression is so broadly manifest. Rather, the disconnect is a communal experience that is reflective of a communal psyche. A behavioral or psychological study of a previously-abused and battered individual must necessarily consider such earlier experiences and assume that the past abuse continues to play a profound role in the individual’s subsequent behavior and attitudes, even when the beatings have subsided and safety assured. Though the subject may appear to have transcended the past completely, a professional knows that this is rarely the case. Dramatic and repeated abuse will continue to affect the individual to his core, even when the threats have subsided, and even when the subject believes he is healed. To proceed otherwise in studying an abused individual would be irresponsible. The study of an abused community is no different.
Each observant Jew struggles through golus in a desperate attempt to cope with hester panim, and to sustain a connection – any connection at all. There are many strategies. Some seek spiritual sustenance in intensive personal improvement, while others embrace charismatic leadership. Frenetic charity or goodness allows some to cope with their doubts and pain, while others pursue outreach, finding an outlet in vehement advocacy.
Some escape the opaqueness of G-d in history by delving into Torah study, embracing the world of Ravina and Rav Ashi, of Bais Hillel and Bais Shamai. Their spiritual life dwells in the world of Torah, supplanting the painful challenges of survival and with the manageable challenges of a difficult Tosfos and a perplexing Rambam. They may not understand G-d’s ways, but they can seek to comprehend his Word. The realities and challenges of a dark and threatening golus retreat as they cope by the glow of Torah’s fire. The Talmud advises that in the times of hester panim there is nothing other than the daled amos (four cubits) of halacha. That is where their reality resides, and there is no other.
While also observing halacha and studying Torah, religious Zionists cope by adopting the State of Israel as their focus, and its protection as their cause. They see golus as fading, and are confident that an accessible relationship with G-d is imminent. Rather than retreat from the dark threats of golus into the esoteric realm of Torah’s academic spirituality, they confront the excruciating history of golus in their conviction that the dreadful exile is nearing completion. The era of aschalta d’geula (the advent of redemption) has commenced, and we need only hang on to our holy aspirations through this last period of terror. The hester panim is finally about to conclude.
Yet another small segment of the observant community proclaims that the messianic era is well underway. As was declared by others in previous periods of the dark exile, this group declares that the Moshiach has arrived, and that it is solely the failure to recognize his arrival that imposes a barrier to redemption.
And finally, there is a group of observant Jews that employs that most classic of coping techniques – avoidance. They refrain from questioning G-d’s role in the community’s past suffering. In fact, they refrain from questioning just about anything. It is safer that way. Though they may appear to be apathetic and disconnected, they generally adhere to the rules and observe the rituals. They deeply wish to retain their affiliation and commitment, but fear that looking deeper into their souls and asking the more probing questions may force issues that are too scary to confront. Like a spouse in a long-standing, yet tenuous relationship, it is often thought wiser to refrain from asking “do you still love me?” Better to leave well enough alone.
From as early as Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, the intensity of the connection between the Jew and his Creator has been intrinsically intertwined with the degree of unity of the Jewish People. Even the receipt of Torah at Mount Sinai was conditioned upon the Jews accepting the Torah collectively – as one person with a single heart.
The first step in unity is collective identification. Though each individual has a personal relationship with G-d, nevertheless, accessibility to devaikus is facilitated by being an integrated member of the community. If this was true at Mount Sinai when each individual heard G-d directly, as it were, how much more so this must be true today. In our era of hester panim, we no longer see the direct and irrefutable influence of G-d. We know of His love only through the lessons we are taught by others, through our mesorah. For some, these truths are learned mostly from parents, while others are taught mostly by teachers. But beyond the actual lessons, our allegiance to this mesorah is sustained primarily through the communal consciousness in which we are immersed, since absent a deep and sustained integration with a community that shares this adherence to the mesorah, one is unlikely to assume and sustain the perspective necessary to maintain loyalty.
Without these connections with other committed Jews, we have nothing – no understanding of G-d, no appreciation for G-d’s role, and no way to know how to seek devaikus. In golus, the integration of the Jew into the Jewish people is not merely a sociological technique for the preservation of Jewish identity while a stranger in a foreign land. Far more significantly, it is a spiritual technique. Absent integration into the community of observant Jews, the weary, scarred and lonely soul of the Jew can hardly aspire to relate to G-d.
And thus, throughout Jewish history, connecting to the community has assumed a critical role for the Jew. For many centuries of exile, belonging to the formal Jewish community was essentially mandated by external forces – sometimes sociological influences and other times governmental. But, for the observant Jew in golus, whose relationship with G-d was always vulnerable, this communal integration was vital. And when the compelled integration was compromised, the results were devastating. For the observant Jew in America, this became a terrifying challenge.
The American Community
As observant Jews increasingly immigrated to America, it quickly became apparent that American culture was inhospitable to Jewish communal integration. No longer encountering non-Jews as particularly boorish and unethical, even the Orthodox Jew in the United States found enticing the American values of democracy, individuality, entrepreneurship and human rights. While halachic observance was facilitated by America’s spectacular and perhaps unprecedented religious freedom, the melting-pot environment strained fidelity to Orthodoxy. Observant Jews suddenly enjoyed enormous social, environmental and professional opportunities, and relationships between Orthodox Jews and others thereby became common and normative. Throughout the periods of golus, the observant Jew confronted ideas and values alien to Torah Judaism. But in America, the friendships that naturally blossomed with non-Jews and non-believers made these alien ideas and values increasingly familiar and far less threatening.
The greatest impact, however, came from the ubiquitous American value of equality. After centuries of persecution and prejudice, the American idea that “all men are created equal” was most welcome to the Jew. And as the Jew embraced the principle of human equality with regard to economic opportunity and before the law, the spiritual distinction between Jew and gentile began to wither.
Adopting a strategy that had been utilized in far less threatening lands, the American Orthodox community of the twentieth century focused extensively on the creation of an internal Orthodox culture and community. Orthodox culture became an increasingly dominant dimension of the observant lifestyle, in some regards on a broad, communal basis, but even more intensely through the encouragement of Orthodox community segments. These smaller communal units assumed a broad array of cultural norms, ranging from wardrobe style to lingo, from shidduch accessibility to educational models. Each segment distinguishing itself from not only the non-Orthodox community but from the other observant segments, members of each Orthodox segment embraced an internal sense of “frum” identity and connection. Segment members may live in close proximity but more importantly they dress and speak alike, think alike, and share an intense sense of culture and identification.
A series of cultural ghettos was constructed, whether adorned by streimlach, black hats or kippot srugot. The cultural indicia were often frivolous, and many isolationist characteristics were harmful. But the insular camaraderie and pride of belonging to a cultural ghetto served as the glue that bonded Orthodox Jews to religious commitment, despite being otherwise engaged in the norms and practices of general American society. The attitude of “us and them” that was nurtured by these cultural ghettos created significant disharmony among factions of American Orthodoxy. But this haughtiness also blunted the identification of community members with non-Orthodox society, and provided a cultural comfort zone which defined people’s choices and tendencies. No longer was the focus on theology and G-d’s role in suffering, but on the small, insular community which marked one’s identity. Moreover, the intense sense of belonging allowed the community members to assume the validity of Torah and halacha, notwithstanding the powerful waves of secularism that pervaded American society, and which captured the souls of the less observant and less integrated Jews.
The Current Threat
For most Orthodox Jews, the walls of the cultural ghetto are wearing thin, and their sense of insular, frum identity is fading. A culture dominated by chulent, Borsalino hats, unsophisticated music and kosher cruises can be attractive and engaging for only so long. The lines of demarcation among the segments of American Orthodoxy are blurring, and pride in one’s distinctive communal or yeshiva affiliation is increasingly ineffective in blunting the allures of secular society. Moreover, rather than ultimately facilitating Jewish unity, the imposition of communal segments is increasingly serving as a barrier among Orthodox Jews.
Potentially more consequential is the waning of the observant Jew’s exclusive identification with the Orthodox Jewish community. Human equality increasingly resonates. The distinction and uniqueness alleged to belong to frum Jews is further compromised by the pervasive unethical, and often illegal, behavior and standards of community members and institutions. Compromised moral standards are alienating and embarrassing, and recognizing their pervasiveness shakes the very foundation of the conviction that Torah study and Torah Jewry represent moral superiority.
In addition, as Orthodox men and women both realize greater integration and professional success in American society, the scope and familiarity of their personal friendships beyond the community have expanded. Though the frum Jew often does not view these relationships as his or her “inner circle” of friends, the increased familiarity and comfort with those of different backgrounds and values dilutes the exclusive identification with a community that assumes the axioms of Torah and halacha. Simultaneously, the unprecedented intrusion of the media’s influence into the minds of even the most isolated American Orthodox Jews has created a further sense of familiarity and identification with norms and attitudes antithetical to Torah values, even for those who have few personal relationships outside the frum community.
Finally, the observant Jew’s integration into the frum community is further compromised by the diminishing social interaction among Orthodox Jews – a trend that permeates contemporary Orthodox society. Today’s Orthodox lifestyle simply leaves little time and energy for developing close friendships. Social encounters tend to be rushed, and casual socializing deemed frivolous. Getting together “with the boys” for reasons other than Torah study, fundraising or attending a simcha reflects a lack of seriousness (or of being underemployed). For women, chatting with friends only exacerbates the work-induced guilt over inadequate child-rearing time or homemaking. And for most healthy, thoughtful couples, mindful that, similar to religion, marriage also requires attention, precious free time is best spent alone as a couple. Even caring for a fellow Jew in need is often relegated to writing a check rather than extending a hand. While people may compile lengthy lists of necessary invitees to their simchas, true friendships that reflect frequent contact and the sharing of intimate concerns are increasingly rare.
Greater piety and sensitivity to religious considerations have also reduced social interactions. Shul attendance is far less social for those who refrain from talking during davening, and certainly from joining the Kiddush club. Concern over violating hilchos loshon horah has made a dent in casual schmoozing (I suspect women paying greater heed than men). And heightened sensitivity to co-gender socializing has precluded many social activities outside the family, with some communities discouraging even Shabbos visits among families. No doubt, these developments reflect an admirable increased appreciation for halacha. But the costly social price being paid must be recognized and addressed.
The critical social bond among community members is thus rapidly loosening, naturally compromising the Jewish religion along with Jewish peoplehood. Diminishing connection to the Jewish community thus undermines the connection to G-d and Torah, as well. Though a tighter and more exclusive identification with other frum Jews will not, alone, ensure passion and meaning in Torah observance, their absence certainly intensifies the challenge.
Steps Toward A Remedy
To survive this horrid golus, the connections among Torah Jews must be reinvigorated and intensified. The strategy of the cultural ghetto has run its course, disunity abounds, and so a new approach is needed.
The observant Jew must be encouraged to embrace a deeper identification with Torah Jewry, without viewing this exclusive identification as parochial, if not bigoted. The theological premises of Jewish uniqueness must be explained in a manner that will resonate for the contemporary Jew, who is inculcated with the values of equality, and who sees non-Jews as decent and wonderful human beings. The special role of the Jewish people must be illustrated in the context of an elevated respect for the humanity of others, as well as a deep and authentic respect for others’ rights, intelligence and goodness.
In addition, Jews’ identification with the observant Jewish community is sustainable only if the community is a source of pride. If community conduct and ethical standards are compromised, many will abandon their social allegiance, ultimately resulting in a theological abandonment, as well. These are the fundamental principles of chillul Hashem, and the implications are enormous. Ethical business practices, family harmony, and basic menchlichkeit must become hallmarks of being a frum Jew, as one would expect authentic Torah to mandate. If accomplished, frum Jews could then take pride in their community, and see the community’s values as demarcations with which to identify.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there must be a renewed emphasis on deepening the basic social connections between members of the Orthodox community. The importance of friendships with others who share one’s values must be emphasized and facilitated. Time spent with others within the community must be encouraged. It is critical that the expansive role that observant people play in their professional and business environments does not redefine them socially, as well. Connecting with G-d begins with connecting to Klal Yisrael, and these efforts must be forged through shuls, schools and other communal organizations. Attending shiurim or learning in chaburas often provide the needed camaraderie, as do chesed endeavors, but not all Jews have access to these opportunities. Ordinary social interaction, per se, among frum Jews must also play a critical role.
American society is a very lonely place. Older singles and divorcees are often socially abandoned, and even fulsome families, starved for broader social interaction, are constrained by multiple demands on time. But the vital influence of friendship needs to regain a prominent role in the community’s religious agenda. Communal leaders need to re-examine the efforts necessary for all communal members to be included in the “in crowd.” Not only is a bais haknesses (synagogue) a place of prayer and Torah study, but, as implied by its name, it should also provide social context, encouraging the development of relationships and camaraderie. If the large, communal shul with its many important functions cannot facilitate the necessary degree of personal identification, allowing its members get lost in the crowd, then smaller units must be created to allow frum people to feel connected to each other. Perhaps the popularity of shteiblach and break-away minyanim reflects this growing need. Other dynamics must be similarly lauded if they lead to a greater integration and intimacy among members of the Orthodox community.
The golus in which we live is long and painful. We have suffered unbearable tragedy, and yet we remain loyal to G-d, and we yearn for his presence. We indulge in the comforts and accommodations of the American dream, but we cannot escape the darkness and the absence of the revelation that is veiled during hester panim. And so we try. We each choose an approach, hoping that Moshiach arrives before we or our children grow too weary. We beseech G-d to stop testing us, since we are weak and our stamina is growing thin. And in the interim, we lean on each other – as siblings enduring the absence of their parents. And if we cease being there for each other, no doubt our future is in peril.
To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
Moishe Bane is a partner at Ropes & Gray, LLP and is the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Orthodox Union.
 See Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 10:5