29 Av 5776                                                                                                      B’SD

The Dichotomous Jew

I am always fascinated to read the biblical narrative which promises that the numbers of our people will equal the stars in the sky.  I am oblivious of the asterisk that directs me to the editor’s note.  Needless to say, it is too small to read and yet indicates an entirely different story.   Our numbers are miniscule in comparison to Christianity and Islam. For every one Jew there are one hundred Christians and an equal number of Muslims.  The genuine Jew by choice is a rarity while many from our ranks choose to abandon their faith and religious identity. In the United States, the assimilation rate among Jews is in excess of 50% and in many parts of the world it is almost 90%.

It is naive to imagine that the orthodox community is immune and only the other denominations need be concerned. The Orthodox assimilation rate may be far lower than the other streams of Judaism, but the numbers continue to escalate. So where does the problem lie and how can it be fixed? Birthright’s trips to Israel may be a positive start, but is a ten-day crash course in being Jewish sufficient? Synagogues, Jewish Day Schools, and Jewish summer camps are doing their utmost to stem the tide, but sadly the numbers continue to deteriorate. Aliyah and Zionism may inject a dose of Jewish pride, but even in Israel too many Jewish girls fall in love with Arab Muslims and are forced to raise their children as Muslim and relinquish their Jewishness.  

This phenomenon reaches across religious and cultural groupings and one solution is incapable of adequately addressing this issue. Thus, I will convey my personal perspective, realizing that my thoughts will be limited at best. Being raised in an Orthodox enclave and attending an Orthodox Yeshiva (day school) you quickly learn to conform to the ideology of ‘mir tor nisht freggen.’ Although corporal punishment was strictly frowned upon (and against the law), a student who had the audacity to question God, often realized that there was a heavy price to be paid for the insolence of being inquisitive. The whir of leather or the swoosh of the ruler are memories that left an indelible mark on my psyche. Unfortunately, this attitude is still pervasive in certain Chassidic movements where they use the element of fear of retribution to control and stifle their adherents. Sadly, those who buck the trend and dare to question are often castigated as heretics and banished from their families in the community. Until those leaders refrain from abusing their powers, the breaks in the dyke will continue unabated and the waters of assimilation will begin to flood unprotected communities.

Yet even in less stringent environments the lures and temptations are ever present. Rabbis’ answers to questioning youth are often simplistic or unintelligent, or clichés that respond by stating: that is the way we always did it or some things are too difficult for us to understand. Their words often don’t resonate or sound credible to modern day youth, who can find the answers to their question in places we don’t want them to look and from people whose philosophies are diametrically opposed to Judaism. Unfortunately, our adversaries are not shy in explaining their thinking and often give impressionable youth the only plausible means of addressing their concerns.

Often, when rereading something for the umpteenth time you get an epiphany and issues that have been difficult become so much clearer. It happened to me this week when I reread the opening words in this week’s Torah portion. It states: Re’eh anochi noten lifneichem hayom brachah u’klalah – See (singular), I place before you (plural) today a blessing and a curse. Although many commentaries answer why the verse opens in singular and continues in plural, I would like to offer a novel interpretation. The Torah is speaking to us as individuals by addressing a concern that relates to everyone. We all may have the same concerns or questions, but each of us must have our questions answered in a manner designed uniquely for us.  In other words, the Torah says: Look and see and you will find a plethora of issues. Each can be understood as a blessing or a curse; every challenge we face has multiple facets and can be a positive or negative experience. We should not force our thoughts upon another, rather we should give the tools needed to allow others to articulate their own thoughts. Fear of what they may find is offset by the integrity of the teacher and the love of the parent.

Interestingly, the Torah portion continues by juxtaposing two ideas that seem to have little correlation. In one verse it states that one should not add to or subtract from the Torah’s commandments. And the following verse states that one should not listen to a false prophet. The truth is that the average person would never have the chutzpah to alter the Torah but often do so by emulating their perception of their leaders’ actions. Perhaps the Torah is trying to convey the results of rabbis constantly changing the integrity of Torah. It matters little if they add stringencies or if they find leniencies; the net result is that people become confused. The average person who seeks only to follow the Torah is constantly challenged by their leaders to the point where any and all comprehension becomes overwhelming. Once this happens then their willingness to accept the word of a prophet even if it goes against the essence of the Torah and everything he had known to be true becomes a distinct possibility.      

It may not be fair to blame the leaders for the generation’s downward spiral or to blame God for the suffering of humanity. Is it not mankind personal responsibility to take ownership of their failures and successes? Yes and no. I will not blame leaders who lead and fail, but I will hold accountable leaders that obfuscate Judaism in a way that complicates and obscures the truth. I will not fault God for His creations that ultimately had the choice to do good or bad. In last week’s Haftorah, Isaiah states: mehorsayich U’machrivayich memaich Yatzeu – those who destroy Judaism come from within the ranks of the Jewish people. The Metzudat David commentary on Isaiah explains this to mean that God is saying don’t blame me for the acts of people. I created them to seek a blessing and they chose the curse. That is their issue and not mine as I, God, have nothing to do with their evil intentions.  (In respect to the three thousand Americans who were killed on 9/11, I will not blame the builders and architects of the world trade center, I blame only radical extremists and the Imams who guided their disciples’ flawed ideology.) I will never blame those who are blameless but I think it is our duty to chastise and criticize those deserving of it.

Please open your eyes and behold the collective problems our society faces. Many children go astray and the parents, teachers, and rabbis are faultless. Yet many children’s relationship with Judaism are severed as a direct consequence of their parents, teachers and rabbis. There is little we could do for those whose families have already decided that Judaism holds no value for them. But I believe it is our obligation to intervene against those within our communities who are directly responsible for our children going astray. It is time we speak about issues that negatively impact our future generation’s willingness to remain committed Jews. Sadly, drug abuse, sexual abuse, pedophilia and mental and physical abuse permeate our orthodox communities and will only get worse unless we address these concerns openly and honesty.  

Ultimately this dichotomy can have a positive outcome. It may be time to realize that blessings and curses are not diametrically opposed choices but two equal parts in dealing with life. Interestingly, the Torah states: U’bachartah B’chayim – and you should choose life. We can’t only choose blessings and ignore the curses, as the beauty of life encompasses both. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel   


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