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Rabbi Shalom Baum

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Looking Inward to Move Upward

THE ACCEPTABLE HASHKAFOS of Orthodox Judaism are held by deeply committed men and women of all ages. At the same time, however, I agree with Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, who wrote that there are “increasing numbers from across the spectrum who feel no meaningful connection to Hashem, His Torah, or even His people.” In fact, the complexity of the human experience and the diversity of the Orthodox community require us to look not only at external stimuli that may be causing this trend but to look primarily at what seems to be the decreased value placed on serious internal reflection and cheshbon hanefesh (self analysis).

The focus of my analysis will be on individuals who identify with, and generally act within the framework of, our halachic system. In theory, these people are loyal to the entire corpus of the halachic system and identify with Orthodox theology. Many of these individuals regard halachic codes such as the Mishna Berura as axiomatic, view contemporary rabbinic mentors as authoritative links in the mesorah and identify the thirteen ikarim (fundamentals) of the Rambam as their theological anchors. However, a closer look at this population will reveal two distinct groups.

The first one, which I have labeled the Keenly Observant for purposes of identification, includes people who have consciously and deliberately chosen their observant lifestyle. The other, which I have labeled Culturally Observant, includes those who clearly self-identify as Orthodox and generally follow the halacha, but either they have never willfully considered or committed to the full spiritual breadth of their observant lifestyle or they have chosen to set aside some of its components over time.

Both of these groups, as well as the many variations of these somewhat contrived categories, could benefit from an evaluation and reconsideration of their strengths and weaknesses. The goal of this process should not be to further fragment the Orthodox community or to be judgmental of our fellow Jews. Rather, increased self-awareness should contribute to a greater integration among Orthodox Jews who are spiritually disconnected from one another, while simultaneously elevating the self-esteem of many disheartened Orthodox constituents.

The Keenly Observant consist mostly of those within our ranks who were born into Orthodoxy, as well as baalei teshuva. Through both thinking and acting, they undergo a continuous process of spiritual elevation. They see the ongoing process of reflection, self-evaluation and improvement as part of their religious commitment. This group may be best positioned to confront the seemingly unending challenges of living a halachic lifestyle in the face of a conflicting secular culture, and they are more likely to maintain, or even intensify, their religious bonds at times of personal or family crisis.

While some of these individuals are stimulated by music and other experiential aspects of Judaism, I find that their long-term devotion is based primarily on a more cerebral approach. The healthiest and most stable of these individuals are able to raise themselves up within the context of a broader community without succumbing to elitism or to denigrating those less religiously committed than they are. Ultimately, the Keenly Observant may have a positive influence on less passionate individuals, including members of their own families.

However, there is one area in which the Keenly Observant are, at times, lacking. Despite the ever-increasing numbers of Torah publications that are available, precious few are devoted to matters of introspection. An increasing number of Keenly Observant individuals do not publicly acknowledge the value of the existential struggle for inner growth. Their focus is outward – concerned with protecting the purity of Orthodox life from an outside world and external forces they view as the “enemy.” While these dangers are real and we must guard against them, an attitude that over-emphasizes threats from without can be consuming – distracting substantially from the importance of internal and individualized religious struggle. Too often, the yetzer hara is viewed as an outside evil force that seeks to taint us, rather than as a dimension of our personality with which we must contend throughout our lives.

The Keenly Observant would benefit from reading, for example, the works of Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt”l, (e.g Kuntras Habechirah, Michtav MaEliyahu, Vol. 1, page 111-119), Rav Hutner, zt”l, (Pachad Yitzchak, Letters, page 28) and Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, zt”l, (Halachik Man, pages 139-143). These should draw their attention to the value and legitimacy of religious struggle and enable them to communicate these concepts with those within their own families and communities who are less motivated. Allowing and facilitating the entry into our lexicon of terms such as victory, defeat, success and failure, along with classical terms such as aliyah, yerida, koach and gevura, may help recalibrate the intellectual, emotional and sometimes judgmental energies of the Keenly Observant and redirect them to more reflective pursuits.

An additional benefit of promoting these ideas would be increasing the awareness throughout the general community that many deeply committed coreligionists experience spiritual and emotional challenges as a natural part of their growth. There seems to be an unhealthy aversion today to addressing emotional and practical struggles with matters of difficulty in maintaining perfect Torah observance, for example, or with powerful desires or persistent character flaws. In large part, this attitude can be attributed to a lack of disclosure by those facing spiritual difficulties, primarily out of fear of not measuring up to ones ambitions or of being judged by others. Aside from presenting a false and inauthentic view of observant individuals, this lack of revelation denies others experiencing such struggles the opportunity to view them in perspective and to realize that they are a natural part of Torah life.

In fact, this image of Orthodoxy expecting and imagining perfection may be inhibiting the Culturally Observant from associating as much with the Keenly Observant or from making their own deeper commitment to Torah. Acknowledgment of these challenges, whether through print media or Torah websites or in more personal encounters between the Keenly and Culturally Observant, may bridge gaps between the two, and at the same time disabuse the Culturally Observant of their perception that the Keenly Observant lifestyle is overly simplistic and its adherents obedient followers who walk in religious green pastures. These misperceptions not only generate a distorted vision of observance, they prevent Culturally Observant Jews from believing that they could be full devotees of the Orthodox enterprise.

Unfortunately, all current hashkafos tend towards increased and excessive isolationism and elitism. Individuals tend to elevate their own accomplishments and beliefs, while actively or subtly moving away from, and judging, those with other hashkafos, or who seem less accomplished. While this may be perceived as an issue only for the religiously “right wing,” in reality, even the Keenly Observant in the more “modern” community tend to cluster and to distance themselves from the less observant, becomimg especially suspicious when their own children are attracted to a different hashkafa.

Culturally Observant Jews are defined as individuals who identify as Orthodox primarily because they were brought up that way and/or they believe that there is an appropriate traditional fit between themselves and the Orthodox community. They may be a bit looser in their observance in the long term, they may never have mastered Orthodox theology and they are generally more likely to abandon the system in the face of crisis.

These individuals are present within every hashkafic grouping of Orthodoxy; although not clearly visible in all groupings, a below-surface investigation will reveal them. Culturally Observant Jews send their children to day schools and to the full range of Orthodox sleep-away camps and affiliate exclusively with Orthodox synagogues or shtiebels. However, they tend to regard themselves as stuck in the status quo of their religious compliance, no longer gaining emotional fulfillment from their actions. This may be accompanied by a growing suspicion toward rabbinic leadership and a tension with loyalty to their lifestyle. They do not see serious and in-depth Torah learning as an anchor of their lives and they tend at times to regard the detailed demands of Orthodoxy as a burden and as exaggerated manifestations of rabbinic control. Many within this group have never considered the basis of their cynicism or skepticism about engaging in a more experiential and embracing Orthodoxy. Similar to many others in modern society, they are influenced heavily by the secular culture that tends to define and drive them.

I believe, however, that many of these individuals have never properly regarded a more intense religious lifestyle as an option. This may be due in part to a lack of awareness that Judaism embraces struggle and of the role of what the baalei mussar see as gradual steps and not compromise (see Rav Matisyahu Salomon, With Hearts Full of Faith, pages 264-266). In fact, many believe that their laxities in observance have defined them as no more than Orthodox-affiliated. Unfortunately, this at times becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This attitude has been reinforced by the tendency of many among the Keenly Observant, including teachers and parents, to utilize condescending labels such as half-Shabbos Jews.

While never compromising the totality of the halachic system, Hashem still rewards every proper step that we take, especially as part of a higher goal. The writings of many rishonim such as the Rambam (Peirush Hamishnayos to Makkos 3:17), the Meiri (Beis Habechira, Berachos 30b), and the Mabit (Beis Elokim, Chapter 12 Teshuva Chelkis), as well as acharonim, such as the Chazon Ish (Maaseh Ish, page 84) and the Mishna Berura (siman 1, s.k. 12), and baalei machshava such as the Chovos Halevovos (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh 5) contain citations that place value on sincere even if non-perfect levels of observance as a practical step in the right direction. These sources cover various areas of ritual including prayer, repentance and Torah study. Without legitimizing non-observance, this approach acknowledges that, especially in an environment in which compliance is difficult, all legitimate efforts are rewarded and should be celebrated. Many so-called “adults at risk” are unfamiliar with such an approach and many of the more observant view this attitude as succumbing to mediocrity or as legitimizing nonfeasance.

Secular culture and its multiple attractions have become easy targets to blame for the spiritual crisis in our communities. Although living in a modern society has obvious challenges, I believe that, by regarding technology and other attractions as the enemy, we avoid the importance of being more inwardly focused. This spiritual crisis is ongoing, but many victories may be attained by self-examination and self-confidence. I believe that both the Keenly and Culturally Observant have huge burdens and great opportunities. They must imagine and embrace a vision in which religious experience is more complex than how we relate to the outside world; it includes delving more deeply into our inner tendencies, viewing them objectively and learning to grow through our struggle with them. This approach should be combined with a more embracing and sensitive vision of the religious condition and of the spiritual accomplishments of our fellow Jews.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Rabbi Shalom Baum is rabbi at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck and the current president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

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