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Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

An Observation and Some Modest Proposals

“FOR EVERY COMPLEX PROBLEM,” quipped a 20th-century British author, “there is a solution that is simple, direct, and wrong.” We want to ensure that we do not confuse things that may or may not accompany connectedness with connectedness itself. I will explain.

Radio host Dennis Prager likes to chide his audiences, whatever their beliefs. He has told Reform crowds, “I’ve been in many Jewish homes. I’ve noticed that Reform Jews often adorn their homes with much Judaica. I’ve seen many a painting of dancing Chassidic Jews on their walls. I’ve also been to the homes of many Orthodox Jews. I have never seen paintings on their wall of dancing Reform Jews.”

His point is well taken. Passion is important, if not crucial, in a satisfying relationship. We should not, however, make the mistake of believing that the difference between a dull, listless relationship with HKBH and a satisfying one hangs on energetic song and dance alone. They can be important, and more and more people are clamoring for more spirited davening. The passionate display, however, should mirror an inner passion, or at least help generate it over time. It cannot substitute for it. More importantly, that excitement may already be there for many people who never, ever sing and dance.

The leitzani hador, bless them, tell of two old Briskers on Simchas Torah, trying their best. One says to the other, “Nu, have we been yotzai a shiur of simchah yet?” (have we satisfied the required measure of joy?) It may be funny, but it is not quite accurate. In my yeshiva years, I desperately sought refuge from the often-emotionally-neutral Shabbosos I was accustomed to by serving as an advisor in NCSY. I thrived on the energy of a few hundred people singing zemiros together. I learned to look down upon people who seemed to inject no affect in their mitzvos.

I was dead wrong. You can’t measure passion and connection to G-d in decibel levels and in quickness of dance steps.

One Simchas Torah, I met the two Briskers of the anecdote in the flesh. They may not have been Briskers, but they were alte Litvaks, and the crowd, which recognized both as talmidei chachamim of note, pulled them into the middle of the dancing circle. The two shuffled slowly to the tune of “Tzavei, tzavei, tzvaei yeshu’os Yaakov” – not a niggun known for its musical pyrotechnics. Those close enough could here them singing, although their tonal range was approximately two notes. Their eyes were half closed. Their faces were absolutely radiant. They were as connected as anyone of us would want to be. Real connection has to come from a deep place, and theirs was carved out through decades of learning.

It may very well be that one of our priorities should be generating more simcha shel mitzvah. But we have to recognize that there is no one way to achieve it or evidence it. For some people – many people – the path of the Sefer ha-Chinuch (Mitzvah 16) will be important: he-adam nif’al kefi pe’ulosov, the outward behavior will shape the inner man. Outwardly performing mitzvos more energetically may produce more inner enthusiasm. For others, the inner being needs to be accessed differently, and the external display may be unnecessary and even distracting.

This is not a screed by a disgruntled Litvak. I will admit to being closer to the former of the two groups described above than the latter. However, I have learned to respect and admire other models of connection.

In my younger years, I loathed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s examination of the mind-set of the perfect Jew (or so I wrongly assumed he was doing) in Halakhic Man, especially the following selection:[1]

When halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he already possesses a fixed a priori relationship with this phenomenon: …it purifies with flowing water; it does not require a fixed quantity of forty se’ahs… Halakhic man is not overly curious, and he is not particularly concerned with cognizing the spring as it is in itself.

Excuse me? Where did the esthetic go? Why would I not want to listen to the poetry of the bubbling stream? I was moving away from some of the yekkishness of my upbringing (I never succeeded in moving too far), and was not particularly attracted to what I read. It got worse:

When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the first light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he know that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments… When halakhic man chances upon mighty mountains, he utilizes the measurements which determine a private domain… When he sees trees, plants, and animals, he classifies them according to their species and genera… He gazes at colors and determines their quality: distinguishes between green and yellow, blue and white, etc., etc., “between blood and blood, between affection and affection.”

Was this to be my lot in life? I should ignore the majestic grandeur of a mountain range, and think only of the halachah of tel ha-mislaket (when a slope qualifies as a wall)? Mesmerized by a tapestry of color and texture of a tropical island vista, I should process it all in terms of mishnayos in Nega’im? I ran from there!

Rabbi Soloveitchik didn’t mean what I thought he did, but it took me years to realize it. Many more years would pass before I would be able to see the beauty of what he was saying – that the ba’al halachah could find instant connection with HKBH wherever he turned, even in regular events in the natural world. His gaze would see nothing but Elokus (G-dliness) – at least in its expectation of human response. Connection was everywhere to be found; nothing could be peeled away from Him to stand on its own.

I cannot say that I have come close to this madregah (level), but I can at least understand it and admire it. I can appreciate the converse as well: that for some the display of simchah shel mitzvah is an exercise of mawkish sentimentality – something resisted vigorously in the writings of both Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The point is that different paths will work for different people. There is no one way to connectedness. Not everyone can or should become the Halakhic Man. Neither, however, should we all aspire to becoming Na-Nachs. Especially when we compare what we have to the millions of sincere people who desperately seek a way to connect with Divinity, we should realize how fortunate we are in not having to search for Hashem without an address to turn to, but having a way to discover Him wherever we turn. This realization alone might leave us feeling more privileged and connected.

Are there practical suggestions that will work, at least for many? I can think of a few.

We are not the first generation in crisis. We’ve been there before, and we’ve pulled through simply because HKBH’s covenant with us guarantees that His chesed will bail us out. That guarantee, however, never stopped us from doing what we could to check erosion of commitment. Key seforim played a role in that process. Works by Rav Saadia Gaon, the Ran, Rambam, Rav Yehuda ha-Levi, the Ramchal and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch addressed doubts and captured imaginations in their respective times. No two were alike; the works of each of them, however, positively contributed to the inner experience of Yiddishkeit of their different and diverse readers.

In my yeshiva days, there was one sefer of relatively recent vintage that spoke to young people, both men and women: Michtav me-Eliyahu by Rav Eliyahu Dessler. Readers gobbled it up, finding new insights that were not provided in conventional classrooms and batei medrash. It seemed at the time that it grabbed hold of more people than any other sefer available.

Arguably, it is still an important sefer. But I believe that another, more recent work has become the sefer for our generation, if there is such a thing. Nesivos Shalom, by the Slonimer Rebbe zt”l, is the only modern work I know of that is popular bechol tefutzos Yisrael (in all corners). From shtreimlach to kippot serugot, rabbanim and ba’alei batim, you can find chaburos of Yidden devoted to Nesivos Shalom.

Why? Because he addresses head-on the issues that plague us. He speaks often and speaks practically about the quality of connection with HKBH, because that is what it is all about. He talks about ups and downs, about years of failure, of capitulation to weakness, to ta’avah (desires), to doubt. He writes about those who try so hard, and still cannot feel the sweetness of His presence. He speaks about Hashem’s soothing love throughout, about how giving up is the greatest kefirah (heresy). He teases out the different strands of our avodah (service) – always with practical advice, always with encouragement. He speaks from a position of strength, having heard the tales of success and the tales of failure for many decades.

We should not underestimate the boost that we can get from this set of seforim.[2]

About fifteen years ago, a member of the senior class at the Modern Orthodox school at which I taught Hilchos Shabbos responded to a back-page opinion column in the local Jewish paper. The author, far from being a halachically observant Jew, had made some silly statement about the small-mindedness and isolation that he presumed ran through the Orthodox world. The student challenged him in a letter to the editor, based on her own background. He replied; she kept at it. At one point, he announced that the debate was over, because it could only be continued through face-to-face confrontation, and he was certain that an Orthodox school would never let him in.

He was wrong. We took a calculated risk, and invited him to come. He had no choice but to accept. The class – not a particularly frum or “connected” one, at least so it seemed till then – ate him alive. They tore him apart on every assumption, every argument he presented. In his next column, he admitted that the hour he spent in that classroom had been his most difficult defense of his life and his beliefs.

From where did the girls get their passion and enthusiasm? It surprised them to hear themselves! They hadn’t realized how much they had absorbed in their tender years, how committed they were even as they saw themselves as skeptics. When attacked by an outsider, they went into attack mode themselves, and discovered more in their arsenal than they consciously were aware of.

We can broaden the model. When people have to defend a program or system to others, they often can reach inside and find hidden resources. Often, they are forced to answer questions they had subconsciously struggled with and suppressed, but now had to be addressed in order to convince others. Even when argument and defense are not called for, simply acting as a vigorous proponent of a cause connects one with that cause. I am suggesting that connection to Hashem can be revved up by shouldering more responsibility for His mission and work.

Again, we have nothing but anecdotal evidence to work with. But a good friend of mine who is a Chabad shaliach reports that in close to thirty families of shluchim in his locale, there are less than a handful of off-the-derech kids. Of all the shluchim in California a few years ago, 67% had kids who were becoming shluchim themselves. Working for a goal and purpose that goes beyond what is required can bond a person with HKBH, can establish a deep sense of connection.

We should, I believe, at least think of reverting to the practices we followed a few decades ago, in which young people were encouraged (or at least allowed) to spend some limited amount of time in activities outside of the key curriculum. Bitulo zu hi kiyumo (spending time away from Torah sometimes establishes it more firmly). I suspect that we will see good, life-long results from kids who put serious time into kiruv activities like serving as NCSY advisors, or difficult chesed tasks like being counselors at Kids of Courage.[3] To be sure, limitations and restrictions must be put into place by responsible Torah figures. It did work in the past; it can work again.

Without trying (or trying very little), we have really come full circle. The somewhat academic observation that consumed most of the space in this paper is not so academic. There is a reason why the paths to connection may be so different. What may really be important is their common denominator – the personal struggle.

We recite it with ease: “Who is rich? One who finds happiness in his portion” (Avos 4:1). The explanation rolls off our tongues as smoothly as a hockey puck on a freshly iced surface. Only a person who truly enjoys what he or she has – whether much or little – can be said to be happy.

This cannot be the pshat (explanation), writes R Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zt”l.[4] The proof-text in the mishnah reads as follows: “When you eat of the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and all is well with you” (Tehilim 128:2). The pasuk does not talk about happiness with what one has, but of what one has produced with his own hands.

You can’t really enjoy, explains R. Goldvicht, what you did not make yours through the expenditure of effort – through passing some test, or weathering some storm. Briefly put, you need to make a kinyan on it (acquire it) in order to appreciate it. A key to finding a satisfying sense of connectedness with HKBH may be personalizing the struggle to find it.

We have worked as a community for the last decade to streamline everything about observance: chinuch, dress, popular culture and literature. Making it easy was not a bad idea, but we perhaps made it too easy, removing any and all areas of personal struggle. We have therefore often produced people of a new generation who are outwardly loyal, but inwardly cruising on autopilot. They have not had to strive, and that means they have not had to invest themselves. Without a kinyan, they cannot be happy with their connection.

Serving as an ambassador for Hashem and His mitzvos allows people to make a kinyan on their own chelek of avodah (portion in G-d’s service). Setting goals in learning and having them monitored by others is another way to personalize the journey. Not so long ago, some yeshivos insisted on monitoring progress of chavrusos, and of subjecting talmidim to regular examinations. Perhaps it is time to take another look at the present system, in which those who learn are responsible only to HKBH, but not to the scrutiny of human beings. Perhaps we ought to actively encourage those in yeshivos to find areas of Torah – including halachah, Tanach, and machshavah – in which they can flower and develop in their own, individual way, thereby making a more personal kinyan on Torah.

None of these proposals will win us places on the walls of Reform Jews. But that, in the end, is really not what it is about.

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

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a professor of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and a Contributing Editor for Jewish Action Magazine.


BACK TO POST[1] Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik,Halakhic Man, translated by Lawrence Kaplan, JPS (Phila. 1983), pgs. 20-21

BACK TO POST[2] For some sample selections adapted from the pages of Nesivos Shalom, see the archive at the website: Archives. Full disclosure: I am the author of those selections. If I had to recommend one place to start, it would be the piece on Naso: Parshas Naso.

BACK TO POST[3] Full disclosure once again: my son Ari is one of its co-founders.

BACK TO POST[4] Asufas Ma’arochos, Purim, pg. 44

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