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Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

In Praise of Diversity

Them: How many frum Jews does it take to change a light bulb?

Us: What’s change?

“It’s hard to make predictions – especially about the future.” Had Yogi Berra, who formulated that verbal gem, known more about Jewish history, he would have had no trouble predicting that Torah Jews will meet the challenges of today and beyond. They always have. Jews distinguished themselves for their resilience and resourcefulness. We survived whenever galus rocked and shook us. We sometimes thrived and flourished; sometimes we simply held on, refusing to loosen our grip on life and Yiddishkeit. HKBH thrust us into galus; He also equipped us with the wherewithal to deal with it. We have no reason to believe that the formula has been recently altered.

Why, then, are we so clueless about the present and petrified about the future? Perhaps because we have abandoned the most important gift Hashem gave us – the power of individual creative thinking, sometimes called the yiddishe kop. We have no creative solutions because we have too frequently deep-sixed creativity, stifled initiative, suppressed thinking out of the box. We have eviscerated our classic survival tools in favor of uniformity and discipline. We have stifled debate and the exchange of ideas through which solutions could come.

I have no grand solution to any one of the problems posed by this colloquium or the ones I added myself. I firmly believe, however, that we could be doing much better if the debate – the exchange of ideas which naturally occur in other communities – could take place more often in ours. New ideas eventually are proposed, germinate, are tried, fail, are tweaked, and eventually succeed. Some environments encourage the process; ours often discourages it. The problem that I contribute to our already impressive list is this: our resistance to change is too great a burden to bear. By now, this resistance is intertwined with the root of the problem, which is excessive pressure to conform.

Our first step has to be one of attitude. We need to make “change” at least a possibility, not a dirty word. Specifically, we need to turn the volume down on conformity, raise it on diversity, and alter the structure of community institutions to work with these changes.

Conformity has been both the boon and the bane of the growth of Orthodoxy in America. Upgrading the quality and quantity of exposure to unadulterated Torah certainly was the engine that pulled the train of Torah growth. But social pressure in areas of chinuch yeladim, dress, and kevias itim had great positive impact on the achshera dara to which we proudly point.

By now, however, we are aware of the price that it exacts. We saw that it worked, and we disregarded the ma’amar Chazaltofasta merubah lo tofasta.” We kept our foot on its accelerator until we lost control of the machine. Making demands in more areas, making them more onerous, more restrictive and more limiting, has driven too many young people out of our fold. I am not suggesting that we sacrifice the positive power of social pressure. We just need to moderate it a bit.

The narrowness of our present system of pressures has also had the effect of stultifying thought. We encourage only a small group of interests and activities [1]. Even within Torah, we don’t encourage the free-ranging curiosity and inquiry that we used to. (If a young talmid chacham today had half the talent of the Netziv, would he think of writing a perush to the She’eltos? Would he have heard of the She’eltos? A relative of mine mentioned Moreh Nevuchim in a seminary class. The gifted morah, related to the Chazon Ish, assured her that no one learns Moreh Nevuchim today. Sadly, outside of YU and academic circles, she is probably correct. At a time that more and more people are asking critical questions, is it healthy that those they look up to are familiar with fewer answers?) We claim that we are a weaker generation, and that there is no time for Nach, or machshavah, or halachah. We only have time for shas, and we need people to devote themselves to it to the exclusion of all other things. Gedolim of the past read newspapers; they are banned in so many of our high schools and yeshivos – even the ones that don’t contain prurient material.

Our children grow up without the life experiences they used to have a generation ago that developed self-sufficiency and individuality. There is no time for them. Their teachers by now suffer the same limitations, and therefore cannot provide deep, thoughtful answers to good questions. So questions either go unanswered, or we fool ourselves into thinking that memorizing a kiruv FAQ substitutes for real thought. As we grow less capable of providing answers, we need more restrictions and more conformity to keep people in line. More people are driven away – especially as more of the ethos of freedom and entitlement seeps in from the surrounding culture, despite efforts to apply more restrictions. And the beat goes on.

One of the unintended consequences of the narrowing of choices is that thinking of the tzibbur as a whole is not on the radar of many people. We certainly promote chesed, but our experience with it is in myriad end-point applications – a worthwhile project here, a necessary intervention there. We don’t talk about responsibility for the tzibbur as a whole, except in terms of advancing limud Torah. Few people think in terms of steering the ship of Torah state, of bigger policy issues, or responding to major changes in the world around, or planning for the future. We have far more young people than a generation ago, yet Agudah and OU membership have not followed suit. Thinking about the fine work these organizations have always done is just not so high on the list of priorities of young people. Thinking about the bigger picture has to be taught, by instruction and by example. We are doing neither. Our young people aren’t reading about the issues of the moment, nor about how they were addressed in the past, save in the most simplistic terms. They are not rubbing shoulders with people who do, either. These items are not on the ever-narrowing list of things to do.

Conformity anathematizes diversity, and idolizes certainty. Both of these consequences are wreaking havoc upon us.

Certainty is wonderful – about things one should be certain of, like our ikarei emunah. Sounding certain about issues that are inherently unknowable – either because we don’t have the tools or because there is a legitimate difference of opinion that should not be ignored – makes us look foolish. It leads to cynicism, indifference or even rejection from people who are not so certain, and wonder whether the people writing the articles in the approved venues really have all the answers. The best way to deal with doubt and uncertainty is to validate it, and show that you can live with it. The worst way to deal with it is to create artificial certainty.

Certainty makes conformity easier. Speaking with certainty, one has an easier time of assuring masses of people that that they should listen up and obey.

Some people take this a step further. In order to lead others, they turn possibility into certainty, and certainty into exclusivity. Consciously or otherwise, they believe that if you cannot completely dismiss all other views, you cannot effectively advocate your position. How can you possibly influence other people, unless you show them that yours is not only the way, but the only way? So conformity produces – perhaps as an unintended by-product – a plethora of people who are sometimes apodictic, unyielding and doctrinaire – and proud of it! This takes a terrible toll on the peace of the community, creating discord, animosity and resentment between people and groups [2].

We have to demonstrate that you can advocate for a particular Torah position without deprecating others, and even without being certain. Our audience can accept that there may be different, legitimate points of view about important issues – all of them well within the limits of Torah acceptability. This does not lead to the conclusion that all opinions are valid, if arrived at by honest inquiry. We can still define the limits of Orthodox thinking to exclude what is completely foreign to the collective mesorah. Within those limits, there can be much room for difference, and no one need be certain about a given position in order to champion it. People can be passionate advocates of positions that resonate well within, and about which they have particular clarity. They can accept that Hashgachah itself arranged for their owning of individual perspectives, and expects them to be forceful spokespeople for them. The retzon Ha-Borei is that people speak with conviction and determination about emes as they see it. Those who need their message will find themselves within listening range; those who need a different perspective will find it by gravitating to others. They do not have to feel the need to shout down all competitors.

Conformity, however, does not take kindly to allowing for multiple voices. Too often, people are afraid to speak their minds, or even to ask questions, lest they be seen as different, or off, or strange. The prospects for shidduchim for their children will shrink. If they say something really novel, they may find themselves besieged by sanctimonious email and phone calls from well-intentioned but self-appointed protectors of public spiritual safety. Worse yet, they may not even get those messages, because people will prefer to speak about them behind their backs.

In the short run, all the problems that face us are exacerbated, because options that already exist are not utilized. Parents who recognize that their child may need a slightly different chinuch don’t buck the trend until it is too late, even though the modified educational experience already exists. Parents concerned about their children’s parnasah prospects don’t explore programs that might help them, for fear of not looking frum enough; the good shidduch possibility goes unexplored because something about the young man or young lady seems a tad….different. And we all know that different is bad.

In the long run, our infatuation with conformity drains the life-force out of our ability to respond to the dizzying assortment of new challenges coming our way. Moreover, conformity and its restrictions places us on a collision course with the cultural tsunami of change brought about by the Internet. We can pretend that what “they” do doesn’t affect us, but we would be lying to ourselves. Almost everyone we know is wired.

When Egyptians clamored to Paroh for food, he told them to go to Yosef, and abide by whatever he instructed them. According to Chazal, he demanded that they submit to bris milah. Why? Was he interested in converting them? Hardly, explained Rav Dessler. Yosef knew that his family and their progeny would have to survive as a minority in an alien culture. He understood that some cultural pressures are extremely difficult to resist. He wanted the Bnei Yisrael to hold on to the practice of milah, but recognized how difficult it would be if they were the only ones in all of Egypt to be marked in this manner. If non-Jewish Egyptians practiced circumcision, Jews would have a much easier time of it.

The Internet has yielded memes that will be bequeathed for generations to come, just as the Enlightenment did. One of them is resistance to top-down authority. The Internet has somewhat leveled the playing field, giving everyone a voice. If you have something to say that catches the fancy of enough people, you can become a person of influence. This democratization of power affects everyone with intoxicating freedom, even those who don’t have much to say. Old assumptions about who should speak and who should be silent are crumbling. Many of our institutions have operated until now as old-boys clubs or plutocracies. They will not last that way. For better or worse, the Internet and the new technologies are leaving people more connected, more knowledgeable, and more demanding of personal gratification. (Think of how easy it is to electronically manufacture your own world today, shutting out what you don’t want, and getting what you want – instantly.) Torah institutions will have to deal with these changing realities, in some form or other. Those that cannot be more transparent, more responsive and more participatory may have trouble surviving.

Nothing will be spared examination by this new spirit, not even such an essential institution as looking to our gedolim for leadership. All of us realize that we must see to it that their leadership survives and flourishes. Making this happen might require some small changes. The institution of daas Torah, BE”H, will stay strong; the style may shift a bit:

• In an increasingly complex world and a growing Torah community, the einei ha-eidah require an ever-increasing number of surrogate eyes. Changing the current system of gatekeepers and filters can allow input from a greater number of people, from different perspectives. This will be a win-win proposition for all around

• A mere few decades ago, everyone recognized that Israel was not America and America was not Israel. The gedolim in Israel refused to pronounce policy upon America, knowing that they could not evaluate local conditions thousands of miles away. This was consistent with what we find in the teshuvos of past centuries, where each region relied primarily on local luminaries for policy and halachic matters. For various reasons, after the petirah of Rav Moshe, zt”l, and Rav Yaakov, zt”l, people in America kept pushing reluctant gedolim in Israel until they relented. More and more questions went to gedolim in Israel; fewer decisions were made here. While so much of our life style and chinuch is different in the West, people insist on asking all questions, large and small, of gedolim in Israel. If we are to address the problems already upon us, and those we detect around the corner, we need to have the courage to untether America from complete dependence upon Israel, and seek hanhagah from gedolim closer to where we live.


Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

(The Charge of the Light Brigade)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote those lines with mixed feelings of high regard for their loyalty and discipline on the one hand, and anger at their needless sacrifice on the other. We find ourselves in an analogous situation. Many people can no longer claim to follow all that the community prescribes without questioning why; those who can may be riding with their families into a valley of spiritual miasma for which they will pay too high a price. We need to lighten up a bit.

Conformity should not be wholly abandoned. Positive social pressure has done much good, and can continue to do so. It has to be tempered, however, with a respect for diversity of opinion that was a commonplace in the past.

Hopefully, more and more people will point to the mekoros in our mesorah for appreciating differences of opinion, not uniformity. (A good place to start would be Maharal’s Be’er Ha-Golah, 1st be’er, s.v. ve-amar ba’alei asufos.) They will begin sharing them once more with talmidim. In time, we might once again be able to write honest biographies and accurate history. Readers will learn of genuine chilukei de’os among gedolim of the past regarding important hashkafic issues.

Change will come about when the tzibbur starts acting on the premise that not everyone need look the same and act the same. BE”H, this publication, by bringing together different and sometimes clashing voices will hopefully make a contribution to the acceptability of diversity, which in turn will set free the creative spirit HKBH gave us to find solutions to many of our problems.


[1] I recognize that almost all of the assumptions I make in this paper as declarative statements can be (and perhaps should be) challenged. This is an opinion piece, not a dissertation. I wish I could present hard data to support my contentions, or that others could present evidence to discredit them. I suppose that this is my response to the second of the three questions posed to all of us respondents. I cannot fully relate to the question. I can’t think of any question worth asking that would not benefit immensely from empirical research.

[1] See Netziv, Ha’amek Davar, Bamidbar 35:34 (in the Harchev Davar): “The first Bais HaMikdosh was destroyed because of illicit murder, just like the idolatry and gilui arayos [that were equally illicit.] The second Bais HaMikdosh was destroyed by licensed murder. They thought it was a mitzvah to kill their fellow, that he was a Sadducee or the like.”

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.

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