Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Path From Pain to Joy- Hillel Zeitlin's gift to me

It is tempting to intellectualize what I want to say here. It would be much easier, indeed much safer, than what I wish to do. I do not want to share an idea. Rather I want to reveal a small part of my soul, but if I do so, and put what I write out there, I leave myself open to getting hurt from those who see it and respond. Still, at least in this case, my desire to reveal a side of who I am, is deeper than my fear of getting hurt.

There are few individuals whose words, ideas, and feelings have moved me as deeply as those of Hillel Zeitlin ztvk”l. I am hardly an expert in what he has written, as I am still at the beginning of exploring his works. Still, he is one of the very few rabbis of whom I could imagine being a chosid, sitting eagerly at his feet, drinking in his every word. In his writing, both poetry and prose (which itself often borders on the poetic) he is so open, so full of depth and introspection, so clear about his desire to serve HaShem. Imitating the Kivyachol, he pours out his soul onto the page.

He was a ba’al teshuva in the deepest sense of the term. Born into a chassidic family in Homel he lost his faith after encountering biblical criticism, and philosophy. Yet he came back. Changed, I’m sure, but with the deepest of faith, faith that flows out of every word he writes. Even in the writings which were written before his return that I have read, there is depth through which one can almost feel his inner turbulence. I have not yet had the chance to read his words where he explains how he was able to return, as, sadly, in what is often the deepest (unintended) compliment, his sefarim have not been reprinted, and are not so easy to come by.

What can I take from his words? Dare I think that I can aspire to be like him in even the smallest way? What can I incorporate into my Avodas HaShem from this tzaddik who went to his death from the Warsaw Ghetto, wrapped in his tallis and tefillin, and clutching his beloved Zohar, like a modern-day member of the Aseres Harugei Malchus?

I have not struggled as he did, but it does seem to me that when one experiences a feeling of great distance from HaShem, that the gap is seldom bridged by returning to what one was. The struggle, the search, the panic, fear, and sadness, all combine to generate a new path. It is a path that can not be found in any other way. In his joyous service of the Ribbono Shel Olam, I see in him a confirmation of my hunch that this path, once reached, leads to something that makes all the struggle and doubt transform into worship and service and joy.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Passionless Judaism- On the differences between the Charedi and MO OTD experience

What more can be said about the OTD phenomenon? So much has been written about it from every perspective, from memoirs to sociological studies to essays examining why Orthodox jews leave the fold. Is there anything left to be said?

I have been thinking about the differences between the many charedim I know who left the fold, versus those from the Modern Orthodox world who left religious observance. Although there are many differences, there is one particular difference I keep seeing. Many, if not most of the charedim I know have a strong emotional feeling about the community they have left, and about religion in general. Quite a few, continue to struggle with, or against, the world they left. Some turn their feelings into organizational work, trying to help others who have left the fold, or those who are still observant. Organizations like Footsteps and Yaffed are just a few examples of this phenomena. Others write about their reasons for leaving, and the mixed emotional feelings they have about the way they grew up. It is not unusual to have OTD Shabbos meals, where zemiros are sung, and traditional foods are on the menu.

By contrast, in the Modern Orthodox world, those who leave seem to leave more quietly, almost as if they have left nothing behind. They rarely continue to be involved in any Jewish organizations, and show little, if any, signs of resentment. To be sure, there are some obvious reasons for these different reactions. While charedim have often been raised in communities where they were not offered the educational, social, and professional skills to make it in the secular world, Modern orthodox jews grow up in a milieu which makes transitioning far easier. Many have gone to the same colleges as their non-religious and non-Jewish peers, and have received an education that makes the switch that much easier. While there might be some degree of resentment about aspects of how they were brought up, for the most part, the people I know from the MO world have left easily, and without much of an emotional struggle. However, there is, I believe, something more behind the different reactions, something that to my mind speaks poorly about the MO educational experience.

I recently read a book that dealt with the philosophical development of some of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement. These leaders had either grown up in religious families, or were one, or at most two generations away from religious ancestors. As each of them struggled to figure out what it meant to be Jewish when one is no longer religious, they struggled mightily with the mixed emotions they felt for the religious world that they knew. They had feelings of pity, nostalgia, and anger. They channeled these emotions into the creativity which led them to be leaders in creating the Zionist movement in terms of political thought, culture, and religion. As I finished reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder again about the MO people I know who have left without experiencing these same feelings.

For good and for bad, the charedi educational system gets their version of Judaism into their students bones. There is a thick, almost viscous religious, cultural, and emotional sense of what it means to be a frum Jew. When you watch charedi kids daven in school, there is an energy that is generally lacking in MO schools. In charedi yeshivahs, Torah learning is seen as an ideal, and any boy who succeeds in it, is seen as a star. I’ve noticed that even those who are not successful learners, often internalize the message to the degree that, later in life, they financially support yeshivos and kollels. In the MO world, we are not succeeding in giving over this sense of connection. Too often, the davening is not inspiring, and the Torahlearning is seen as, at best, another academic discipline to master. For those who want out, the religiosity they have experienced is easily shed.

Rabbi Lamm once said, talking about Modern Orthodoxy, that our goal should not be “to be moderately passionate, but rather to be passionately moderate”. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we are not only failing at what he suggests our goal should be, but even at instilling a moderate amount of passion. It is beyond time that we figure out how to do better.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

A Tale of Two Teams- Have we learned all the lessons of the Holocaust?

It feels strange to write about soccer on Yom Hashoah, and yet that is part of what has been on my mind since this morning, when I attended an excellent Yom Hashoah program. Sandy Rubenstein addressed our students, and spoke powerfully and passionately about her father, Joseph Horn ob”m, who was a survivor, and the memoir that he wrote about his experiences before, during, and after the Holocaust, Mark It With a Stone.

As part of her presentation, Ms. Rubenstein read a story from the memoir about a soccer game her father, then a young boy, attended in pre-war Poland. A Jewish team, Hapoel, was playing a against a local  Polish team. From the moment Hapoel took the field, the opposing fans booed them mercilessly, in a manner that showed that their opposition was about a lot more than just soccer. At the half, with Hapoel up 2-0, Joseph excitedly  went over to give some treats to the team, which included two of his cousins. One cousin told him to go home, as Hapoel was going to lose. At first, Joseph did not understand. When his cousin again told him to go home Joseph realized that Hapoel was going to let the other team win, in order to avert a massacre, and his cousin didn’t want him to see them lose.

As I  heard this story, I thought of another soccer team, Beitar Yerushalayim. They are known to have fans who strongly and vocally oppose having Muslim players play for their team. These fans have also been known to show extreme hostility to Muslim players, Arab and non-Arab alike, including a particularly awful way they treated two Muslim players who briefly played for Beitar.

As the thought of these teams and their fans came to mind, I couldn’t help but think about how far we have to go in learning some of the lessons of the Holocaust. We are rightfully offended when we see antisemitism, and I have no doubt that Beitar fans, and other Israeli soccer fans who have also mistreated Muslim players, share in that opposition. Still, these Jewish fans demonstrate hateful behavior in a way that is not dissimilar to the way the Hapoel players were treated approximately 80 years ago.The lesson of the Holocaust cannot be limited to opposing antisemitism. If we do not stand up in  opposition to all forms of hatred, we fail to live up to our responsibility to teach the lessons of the Shoah.