Gathered around my Shabbos table recently were an early 1980s Yale graduate with a successful business career, a woman who three months ago was a booker for the "Larry King" show, and a young man who after graduating from Harvard Law School clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court. Each is learning in an Israeli yeshiva or seminary.
Over the years, I have listened to the stories of hundreds of such Jews. No two are alike. Given the prejudice against religious belief with which they grew up and were educated, each Jew who becomes religious is a miracle. And miracles cannot be replicated. Each journey involves a unique combination of emotional and intellectual elements.
Yet, common themes recur. In most cases, the road to Orthodoxy begins with meeting an Orthodox Jew who seems qualitatively different from anyone previously encountered. That Orthodox Jew, usually a teacher of some kind, offers a vision of life lived as a whole, one unified by the awareness that all oneís actions are in the presence of G-d.
Experiencing a Shabbat or another Jewish holiday with a large Orthodox family is another standard part of the journey. Many are amazed to be exposed for the first time to a world in which each child is considered an incomparable blessing, incapable of being subjected to any cost-benefit analysis.
Having been raised with an emphasis on the generation gap, young secular Jews are attracted by a world in which traditions are passed down from one generation to the next and bind those generations together. In a world in which the anomie of individual existence has replaced traditional communities, the emphasis on communal life, and the many ways that is expressed among Orthodox Jews, draws those from the outside.
On the intellectual level, many of those who become Orthodox have lived for years with a profound sense that there must be some moral order to the universe. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, they have no wish to live in a world in which they set all the rules.
"Without G-d, everything is permitted," says Ivan in "The Brother's Karamazov." Unable to deny Dostoyevsky but unwilling to accept that everything is permitted, some of the brightest and most sensitive young Jews search for G-d.
Once they accept that a moral order can only be founded on G-d, it follows for many that G-d must have revealed His will, for how else could finite man know the will of an infinite G-d?
Some of the most talented and accomplished of these spiritual seekers have lived for years with an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a feeling that their natural gifts obligate them to cure all the world's ills. For them knowledge that G-d, not they, runs the world comes as a relief. But that knowledge leads neither to quiescence nor an end of striving.
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Rabbi Tarfon summed up their newfound attitude: "The task is not yours to complete; neither are you free to leave it off." No Jewish idea is so powerful as the belief that everything we do or think has consequence. Every moment provides us with an opportunity to either imbue the world with holiness or the opposite. There is nothing neutral, no standing still; at any given moment we are either raising ourselves spiritually, and the world along with us, or we are lowering ourselves. We are either conduits of G-d's blessings to the world or plugs stopping up channels. A Torah life is a demanding one. It insists that we can change ourselves in fundamental ways.
True, each of us is born with a basic nature, a combination of good and bad qualities, but our innate nature does not define us. We have the power to overcome the bad qualities and to emphasize the good. In short, we are what we make of ourselves.
Thus the final attraction of a Torah life for many of our best and brightest is that it not only provides the discipline necessary to make oneself a better person but also the incentive to do so.