Are We Viewing the Past through Rose-Colored Glasses?
I was genuinely surprised by a number of the responses in the first issue of Klal Perspectives, a new on-line journal. The symposium questions asked contributors to identify the major challenges facing the Orthodox community. I expected that they would focus on practical challenges – e.g., the overwhelming financial burdens on Orthodox parents, the shortage of affordable housing, the shidduch crisis, the over-concentration of Torah learning in Lakewood, disaffected youth.
Yet Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice-president of Agudath Israel of America, and the closest thing to a "policy wonk" in the Orthodox community, dwelt eloquently instead on "the increasing numbers from across the Orthodox spectrum . . . who feel no meaningful connection to Hashem, His Torah, or even His people." He made no attempt to suggest that the problem is limited to any particular segment of the Orthodox community, or that it is confined to youth. Indeed he explicitly rejected both suggestions.
And Reb Gedaliah Weinberger, the chairman of the board of Agudath Israel, and the moving force behind a number of public policy initiatives – e.g. wedding takanos and professional training for avreichim in Lakewood – made a similar point. He identified the central challenge of contemporary Orthodoxy as creating a community whose thoughts, feelings, and actions are fully shaped by the Torah, and detailed the many forces working against achieving that goal.
I am sympathetic to both essays. The true measure of any Torah community is the degree to which the members of that community derive sustenance from the Torah and are shaped by it. If that connection is strong, all other challenges can be dealt with, and if it is not, then solutions to the other problems are beside the point.
What set me thinking, however, was the underlying sense that there is a genuine crisis of faith in the Orthodox world today. I wonder – and I'm only asking because I don't pretend to know the answer – whether that feeling of crisis is, in part, caused by an idealized view of the past. Sometimes we speak about the past as if once every Jew in the past possessed the intellectual clarity in all manners of emunah of the Chovos Halevavos and davened like the Yesod v'Shoresh HaAvodah.
Is it possible that many of our ancestors were born into a traditional society, and lived out their lives within the standards of that community, but without particular emotional fervor or great clarity in manners of emunah? Perhaps what has changed most over the last several hundred years is not so much the quality of emunah of individual Jews, as the external environment in which we live. Those who spent their lives almost exclusively within the confines of Jewish society were inevitably more shaped by Jewish values than those who live in a much more open and permeable society, whose messages cannot be kept out. Until the Emancipation, gentile society was closed to Jews. Another difference is that once faith in a Creator and some basic moral code was widespread in the surrounding non-Jewish society. Today kefirah is the default mode of the outside society, and it is impossible to insulate oneself hermetically against it messages.
Again, I don't know to what extent the faith of Jews in the past was so much more rock solid than our own. Rabbi Yehoshua Geldzhaler once told me that in the Antwerp of his youth, during the Three Weeks one could see a palpable change on the faces of older Jews. (He added, however, that the intensity of the older generation was too much for most of his contemporaries, and they left observance.) On the other hand, I heard once from a talmid chacham that his grandmother told him that the decline of observance in Eastern Europe between the two world wars was so precipitous that she would have been more surprised if calamity had not struck.
The rapid spread of Chassidism among Eastern European Jews in the late 18th century suggests a widespread feeling that mitzvah observance had grown arid and formalistic. And Mussar movement less than a century later, shows that even in the greatest bastions of Torah there was a feeling of something spiritually missing.
Certainly, previous generations were not immune to religious doubts, particularly in the wake of calamity. The aftermath of the apostasy of the false messiah Shabbatei Tzvi witnessed a rapid breakdown in faith in many communities. I once interviewed a survivor about life in the DP camps, after the Holocaust, and he told me that there were few survivors who did not wrestle at some point with whether to continue as frum Jews.
(I do not mean to suggest for a moment that those today who have never wrestled with that question possess a firmer emunah than those who did, just as I would not suggest that the fact that we are shomer Shabbos today proves our connection to HaKadosh Baruch Hu is more intense than Jews who once went to work on Shabbos with tears in their eyes because they feared their families would starve.)
The fact that so many Jews, from all strata of society, both learned and unlearned, over the centuries went to their deaths rather than betray their G-d is not, by itself, a proof of the greater quality of faith in earlier generations. I suspect that many Jews today whom we would not view as the greatest ba'alei emunah would nevertheless make the same ultimate sacrifice if put to the test.
Two other excellent contributions to the Klal Perspectives symposium raised the same question about idealization of the past in a different context. Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark of Montreal and Rabbi Yisroel Miller of Calgary both lamented the decline of community-wide institutions and the absence of a shtot rav. Again, I am sympathetic to much of their analysis. Many of our challenges – kids and teenagers who cannot find a place in school, the lack of batei din with community-wide authority and trust – require a greater degree of communal unity to be addressed.
But we should not imagine that Jewish communities of yore all functioned without friction, under the undisputed guidance of gedolim. It is sufficient to recall that as great a gaon as the Shraagas Aryeh was unceremoniously dismissed from his post as a dayan in Minsky on Erev Shabbos by communal leaders unhappy over a psak he issued in a particular case or to study the failure of communal institutions to deal equitably with the cantonist decrees to know that the historical picture is more complex.
Sometimes over-idealization of the past can distort our evaluation of the present and cause us to despair too greatly.
When a Tzaddik Leaves the City
I have a deeper appreciation of the second Rashi in this week's parashah today than I did a year ago. Rashi asks, "Why does the first verse mention [Yaakov's] departure from Beersheva [and not just his intended destination]?" And he answers: "To teach us that the departure of a tzaddik from a place makes an impression."
Recently a neighbor and the rav of a shul in which I often daven accepted a multi-year appointment at a major institution in the United States. The personal loss goes far beyond that of the rav with whom I discussed most of my shaylos.
We all need an image constantly in front of us of a Jew (or Jews) whose entire being is shaped by Torah. Whenever I discussed an issue with my neighbor – and I don't mean those questions that arise just because we are too lazy to open up Mishna Berurah – it always seemed to me that he had already thought about it. He invariably brought to the discussion a wealth of Torah sources from a wide-range of perspectives, as well as his own sechel hayashar. I felt that I was speaking to someone for whom the only question is – What does Hashem want from us in this particular situation? – and for whom it was self-evident that the answer lies only in Torah itself and not in just looking around to see what others do.
I will confess that being around a person who exemplifies what it really means to be a Torah Jew can make one nervous. Though I suspect it was only my imagination or guilty conscience, I had the feeling every time I walked into shul late, that the rav looked up from his seat facing the congregation and noted my tardiness. When that happened I felt ashamed of myself for being late for an appointment with the Creator and King of the Universe, Who had granted me a personal audience, because I knew that's how the rav viewed it. It's good for a Torah Jew to have around at least one such ish d'mistafina minai -- someone who makes us nervous.
Stories of gedolim can inspire us. I'm confident that hundreds of thousands of battles with the yetzer have been won in recent weeks by Jews reminding themselves of how Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt'l, drove himself beyond what seemed humanly possible. But it is too easy too push off such stories as not fully related to us or our world.
That is why it is so crucial to live in an environment with friends and neighbors who exemplify a Torah life in all its mundane, day-to-day details. When we lose such daily contact, it makes a deep impression and leaves us feeling that we have lost something very precious.
Can You Find the Chiluk?
Joe Paterno, who earlier this season became the winningest major college football coach in history, was unceremoniously fired a few weeks later, just two games short of retirement. The cause of his firing was the failure to report to the police that he a graduate assistant told him that he had witnessed one of the assistant coaches behaving in an inappropriate manner with a young boy. He did report the incident to his superiors.
Until his firing, Paterno, 85, was not only a highly successful coach, whose teams had five times gone undefeated and won two national championships, but an icon to traditional values. Almost alone among major college football programs, that of Penn State, during Paterno's more than forty-year tenure, was never touched by the hint of scandal or cheating. His players graduated at a higher rate than in other comparable programs, and he was as famous for mentoring the young men who played under him as for his winning teams.
Yet the vast majority of the comment after Paterno's firing was withering in its contempt. The abuse scandal would be Paterno's legacy, they proclaimed. The rest of his life counts for nought.
Now, let's compare. When Teddy Kennedy died two years ago, he was lionized by President Obama and the media as a noble fighter for liberal causes and a great legislator. (Joe Nocero recently admitted in the New York Times that Kennedy's savage misrepresentation of Robert Bork's views in the latter's confirmation hearings introduced the rancor into American political discourse that is still with us.)
If Chappaquidick was mentioned at all in the eulogies, it was en passant, as a sad footnote to an otherwise exemplary life (which characterization was a considerable stretch given Kennedy's well-known affinity for booze and other earthy delights.) No one wrote or described Chappaquiddick as his defining legacy. Yet, after plunging the car he was driving into a pond around midnight, Kennedy left his female passenger to drown after extricating himself. It was not until 11:00 a.m., the next morning, after his submerged car had already been discovered, that Kennedy informed the police through a written statement delivered by a factotum of the accident. Any air bubble that might have saved Mary Jo Kopechne's life had long since been used up. In the interim, Kennedy had the presence of mind to make numerous phone calls to family friends and attorneys. Had it not been Massachusetts and his name not Kennedy, he would have been charged with manslaughter at the least.
Can some sharp-minded reader provide a chiluk (between) between the two cases that explains the vastly different ways in which the media chose to define the legacies of the coach and the senator?
The third item was never published and is no longer timely. So it will not likely see the light of day. I did think of one possible distinction: Paterno is still alive. Perhaps his eulogies will be more balanced than the tenor of the current news cycle.