Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
The Paradox of Living Orthodox
In the next twenty years, I humbly submit that it will be paradoxically both easier than ever and harder than ever to be an Orthodox Jew. Our communal strategy in response to this new reality will, in my opinion, determine in large part, the future well-being and success of American Orthodoxy.
On the one hand, every aspect of Jewish living has been rendered progressively easier, more comfortable and requiring of less sacrifice. Endless varieties of kosher products are available in every supermarket in North America and beyond. We have pop-up Sukkos and pre-packaged hadassim and aravos. Gone are the days of preparing the menorah by filling small glasses with water and oil and placing a wick. Today, we purchase complete Chanuka sets already pre-assembled and ready to use. Endless potato recipes for Pesach have been replaced by kosher l’pesach bagels, cereal and pancakes. No longer do mourners hurt their backs sitting on uncomfortable cardboard boxes for seven days. Now, we have specially manufactured padded, leather arm chairs, designed specifically for sitting shiva.
Artscroll has revolutionized learning, making what were once closed texts accessible to the masses for study. Bar Ilan, HebrewBooks.org and Otzar Ha’Chochma have provided anyone with an internet connection a Torah library with tens of thousands of volumes. One can select from over 100,000 audio shiurim online, ranging in subject matter and delivered by a diverse range of speakers.
Looking for a list of the closest kosher restaurants including menus, directions and reviews? There is an app for that. Looking for a list of minyanim within proximity to your exact location? There is an app for that. Want to know if a particular kosher symbol is reliable or exactly how to check broccoli for insects? There is an app for that.
One can safely predict that the next two decades will bring more inventions, devices, gadgets and programs to ease the observance of Torah and mitzvos. As a result, fidelity to halacha will require less sacrifice, less compromise and less effort.
Yet, at the same time, living a richly spiritual and meaningful Jewish life that is inspired by an authentic sense of yiras shamayim and ahavas Hashem is growing increasingly more difficult and challenging.
The next twenty years will bring greater competition for our time and attention. The very technological innovations that were designed to liberate us and free up our time have instead become addictive, diverting, and time consuming. Overcoming the distraction of our gadgets to concentrate in davening, find quality time with our loved ones or learn Torah without interruption requires nearly heroic and superhuman effort.
The cost of living an observant lifestyle is oppressive, burdensome and often discouraging. The price of Jewish education and kosher food demands working longer hours with greater effort, resulting in less time and diminished energy for family and spiritual pursuits.
Promiscuity and seductive imagery abound on billboards, subways, busses, TV, magazines and the web, enticing even the most modest observers to gaze. Infidelity and divorce rates are on the rise, with growing dysfunction in the family unit.
On the surface, the statistics among Orthodox communities are promising and worth celebrating. We have record enrollment in Jewish day schools, more young men learning Torah full time than ever before in our history, and vibrant and dynamic Orthodox communities across the United States.
And yet, if we are willing to scratch beneath the surface, I believe we will find increasingly the rote performance of mitzvos, which are practically devoid of meaning, purpose and enthusiasm. Yes – more people than ever are attending daily minyan. But have the quality of our prayers improved? True – attendance at daf yomi is impressive, and yeshivos and kollelim are overflowing. But are we collectively better informed and are we producing more talmidei chachamim?
Is all of the vigilance and scrupulousness in observance of Halacha, Torah learning, and davening attendance yielding more honest, kind, wholesome and good people? If we compare an Orthodox community against one that is secular, would we measure a noticeably more ethical, moral and elevated people?
There is no population among whom the consequences of this paradox can be felt more profoundly than Orthodox teenagers. An informal analysis will make unequivocally clear that despite our teenagers’ greater access to smart-boards, advanced curriculums, and rebbeim and teachers with whom they can relate, their struggle to find relevance in our sacred traditions and practices is greater than ever.
Many of our teenagers cannot overcome the urge to send text messages on Shabbos, despite their general commitment to its observance. Meaningful tefillah experiences seem to be an anomaly for teens, many of whom don’t even go through the motions or even the outer appearances of participating in prayer.
As is widely discussed, the cost of Jewish day school tuition is becoming prohibitive. It seems to me that the intersection of the socio-economic challenges with the spiritual apathy and complacency found among many of our teenagers will leave more and more parents wondering: why work so hard to pay for an education that will ultimately graduate an uninspired, perhaps non-fully-observant teenager?
To ensure that Orthodox Judaism doesn’t regress from the outstanding advancements made in the latter half of the twentieth century, I believe we will need to formulate meaningful responses to questions such as these: How will we as a community provide an educational experience that is compelling, persuasive and clearly worth the effort and sacrifices necessary to afford it? Are we willing to recognize the paradox of our Orthodox circumstance and seek new ways to inspire and motivate our youth? Can we continue to embrace scrupulous observance of Halacha while shifting the emphasis of our message from ritual and rote to spiritual and uplifting? Do we have the courage to communicate – and the tenacity to model – a lifestyle that includes sacrifice, effort and struggle, which are necessary ingredients for a life of meaning and purpose?
The answers to these questions are undoubtedly complicated, nuanced and varied depending on different communities, but one thing is blatantly clear to me. The leadership of our people must actively set the agenda moving forward and no longer react responsively to whoever creates the loudest stir or commotion. If Orthodox Judaism is to not only survive but thrive and flourish, we must strategize and plan for how we will confront our modern paradoxical circumstances and their particular challenges and trials. We cannot afford to be distracted by the crises of the moment, which are often manufactured by individuals seeking to hijack our community agenda.
To succeed in advancing a positive and uplifting religious, Jewish experience, we must remain vigilant in evaluating every innovation and change and seek to anticipate its’ potential long term impact and influence. If we want our children and grandchildren to be imbued with the memories of building a sukkah, making matzah balls from scratch, preparing the menorah or selecting hadassim and aravos, perhaps we were too quick to embrace the commercialization and mass production of these mitzvos. If we want to retain the capacity to connect through prayer, perhaps we were hasty in embracing technology’s ability to keep us connected at all times and in all places without building in provisions and regulations to shut down and disconnect.
While daily Jewish living demands the overwhelming bulk of communal resources, from schools, shuls, kollelim, chesed organizations and more, I believe we would be remiss and short-sighted in not allocating both human and financial capital to addressing the questions I raise above. With changes occurring so rapidly, we cannot afford to remain in the micro, consistently in a responsive mode. I believe that our community must spend time and energy looking at the macro. Orthodox Jewish conferences and conventions should spend time not only zoomed in to the current challenges of the day, but should zoom out to address the larger trends and developments in the Orthodox Jewish community.
The contemporary paradox of living Orthodox positions American Orthodox Jewry at a crossroads. If we allow momentum to carry us blindly, without embracing change judiciously, we run the risk of Judaism growing increasingly irrelevant and it failing to resonate, particularly with our youth. If however, we proactively plan and set our communal agenda moving forward, we can not only preserve our magnificent heritage, tradition and past, but I believe we can be confident that the Jewish’s people’s best is yet to come.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the Senior Rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue.