(What I learned at Harvard part 1)
Lesson 2 – The National; How Close and How Far We Drift
As I was rushing to beet the 6pm parking “price hike”, I walked by a small farmers market that was set up in Charles Square. I decided to stop for a short minute or two to enjoy the site of the various stands, merchants and shoppers. Before I had a chance to approach, though, I was surprised by someone running directly at me from 10 feet away. In order to understand the scene and the story it is necessary to have a visual picture of her. She had a young and pretty face, was wearing blue jean pants, a red tank-top, had a long (very) blond ponytail and a string of beads around her head, “hippy style”. As I began moving out of the way she gave a final leap ending up no more than 3 feet in front of me, she looked right at me and said “I saw you were Orthodox so I need to ask you – ‘do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem‘”?
I was in complete shock. She might have been one of the last people in that square I would guess was Jewish, let alone use the phrase ‘Chilul Hashem’ (desecration of God’s name)!
As I was trying to figure out what was going on and what to say, she said “I’m Jewish too. Do you think the way I’m dressed is a Chilul Hashem?”
I responded: “It is not for me to judge and decide. That is between you and Hashem” to which she responded “that’s a great answer. Thank you”.
She carried on to share the following information:
Her name was Yael; she was 16 and grew up in a Modern Orthodox family. She attended a Modern Orthodox day school but has been in the public school system since 8th grade “because we couldn’t afford it; the school was very nice and tried to help but it didn’t work out”. Upon her parents divorce and her father’s remarriage she drifted away from an observant lifestyle. Her step mother “forces me to eat McDonald’s” and “I go to Shul on Shabbat sometimes, but usually I’m too lazy”.
The entire scene felt surreal; here I was, in a farmers market in Cambridge listening to a 16 year old Jewish teen I had just met share with me her life story and religious crisis.
I inquired about any support systems she could lean on – friends from her old school, a community rabbi, or other family. She wasn’t responsive to my questions and carried on with more, similar, details.
I tried to get her full name (so I could follow up through the community or the Jewish schools in her area, where I had solid contacts) but all she gave me was her middle name – Chana.
It was clear that this was my only chance with her. What was I supposed to say? what could I say? what did she need me to say?
I pointed out that, as evident by the conversation we were having, she cared deeply about being Jewish and religious. I encouraged her about those things that she did observe saying that they were invaluable and stood independent from all the things she was not observing. I told her to focus on those things and see the rest as goals to work towards when she felt she could. I encouraged her to hang out with her old friends from day school. I said a few other things as well.
She thanked me again, turned around and walked away.
Did I say the right things? Will they help her in any way? Could I have steered her better towards help? Could I have said more? Will she find her way back to herself and to Judaism? I don’t know and doubt I ever will. It continues to nag at me several weeks later and I think it will continue to nag at me for many years to come.
Lesson 3 – The Personal; Me and My Chicken Soup (Coming Soon)
Last week I was in NY with my grade 12s as part of their grad trip. The first morning we davenned and had a Shiur at YU and the following morning – the same at YCT.
The Shiurim and students’ responses were, in my eyes, representative of the growing differences between the two institutions and their influence on North American Jewry.
At YU – a Shiur about Tfila. It’s categorization, meaning and effectiveness. The Shiur had all the expected key word: A חילוק of Reb Chaim, The Holocaust, a reference to Rav Soloveichik and mention of The State of Israel. Though wrapped in ethos and pathos and the lack of source sheets, the message was very traditional – our dependency on Hahsem in our private and communal lives and the role Tfila plays in that dependency.
At YCT – a Shiur about animal rights in Halacha. The Shiur had all the expected key words: Values, ethics, “Halacha Vs.” and “letter of the law”. Though it was all based on analyzing traditional texts the message was revolutionary – the possible inconsistency between Halacha and Torah values.
None of the students were familiar with the differences between the institutions. Most of them had never even heard of YCT and I didn’t discuss it with them. Their responses were fascinating.
All the students thoroughly enjoyed one of the Shiurim and thoroughly did not enjoy the other. It was about a 50-50 split, though, between which they did and did not enjoy. Interesting.
Personally, I both objected and enjoyed both of them…
Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism are not the same thing. There is a lot of overlap but they are not the same.
Modern Orthodoxy, as I understand it (and possibly even practice it), answers the question: “How can I be an Orthodox Jew and also be a Modern person?”, or, in it’s more sophisticated version “How does Modernity and the changes it brings with it impact Orthodoxy?”.
Being a Modern Orthodox person means understanding that developments of Modernity can and should impact us as Orthodox people as they too are part of how Hashem “speaks to us”. That means that the shift in the role of women in society should impact Jewish thought and practice. It means that the role academia plays in modern life should impact the way we view general studies. It also means that the development of Zionism and The State of Israel – also products of Modernity – should impact our religious outlook and observance.
Modernity and Orthodoxy are separate, dialectical entities, which need to be reconciled and many a time this split manifests itself in a schizophrenic religious identity. This also accounts for Modern Orthodoxy’s continuous decline
in the US; it is too indecisive, too contradictory, too unsure of itself as all to often by trying to be “also this and also this” it ends up being not enough of either.
The question Religious Zionism is answering, on the other hand, is “How does Modernity serve as a vehicle for the realization of Judaism?”
Religious Zionism, is not at its core, dialectical. I can best describe it in the first person.
I don’t know myself as a Jew without Zionism and I don’t know myself as a Zionist without Judaism. I don’t know myself as a Jew without Zionism, as the return of Am Yisrael to history and the rebirth of the State of Israel serve as one of the foundations of my belief in Hashem and Jewish commitment.
I don’t know myself as a Zionist without Judaism, as Torah and 2000 years of Jewish prayer and observance serve as the justification for our return to the land, for what has been – and still needs to be – achieved.
The two are so intertwined that they are one in the same and – for me – indistinguishable.
The yearning and motivation to return to the Land of our Forefathers, to be sovereign and have a national identity there, are not a product of Modernity, just expedited and executed by it.
The relationship between “Religious” and “Zionism”, therefore, is not dialectical rather that of synthesis. They inform, enhance and empower each other as they are one in the same.
The Modern Orthodox Jew finds himself torn between two worlds while the Religious Zionist Jew lives in a (philosophical) state of unity.
Based on all this, a Modern Orthodox Jew, by definition, would be a Zionist but a Religious Zionist would not necessarily be of a Modern orientation.
As stated at the beginning of this post, there is a lot of overlap between the two philosophies. People can comfortably prescribe to both and many do, as they are by no means contradictory.
That have been said, understanding the differences between them can explain many of the tensions and issues being debated in the public sphere of these communities both in Israel and North America. I hope to expound on them in a future post.
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