Just a Thought: Confessions of a modern-Orthodox rabbi

We need broad introspection both as individuals and as a nation.

By AHARON E. WEXLER
March 3, 2016 11:57
Painting by Yoram Raanan

We need broad introspection both as individuals and as a nation. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

 
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I don’t like going to minyan. I love praying, I just don’t like the minyan. On the one hand it goes too fast, giving you just enough time to fly through the words without the ability to reflect on what you are saying. On the other hand, who really has time to actually meditate upon each and every one of the prayers, giving it the time and space in your head that it really deserves? (Plus, I hate leaving the house.) I think we let the liturgy get out of hand. Two thousand years of traditions and customs have turned prayer into an antiquated ceremony of rites and rituals and robbed it of its essential component of communing with God.

We congratulate ourselves that we even pray, and have turned attendance at minyan into a yardstick of religiousness, but the paradigm is wrong.

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Our Reform and Conservative brothers and sisters have picked up on these points, but their solution is worse than the problem. They have rewritten and deleted prayers, but they barely have a minyan to say them. Their changes did not bring people into the synagogue.

So no, I have no solution.

I usually pray at home, with no rush, concentrating on the parts that are especially meaningful to me, and then rush through the rest literally paying lip service.

On Shabbat I go to shul to be with my people and face God as a congregation, but heaven forbid I forget to bring my book from home.

(On the occasions that I do forget, I usually pick up a book of rabbinic responsa from the shelf and read through them.) WHY ISN’T Torah more of a “thing” in our lives? Yes, I get it. We keep kosher homes, pray three times a day and keep Shabbat. So we think we are in the clear.



But we really aren’t. We have failed to make Torah the passion of “our lives and the length of our days.” We are more excited by the Super Bowl than by a Torah class and anticipate the coming new season of TV more than a new book for Torah study.

It’s both sad and human. I have always taught my students that we are human even before we are Jewish, and that it is through the prism of the Torah that we understand our humanity. But Torah is supposed to raise us up from being merely human. It should make us a “little less than divine,” but it rarely does, because we don’t allow it to. We fail to appreciate how much of a privilege it is to be in covenant with God.

If you look at the words of the blessings over the Torah, you find the phrase “Who has chosen us from all the nations.” The Second Temple times were a golden age of Torah. It was the age of Hillel and Shammai. But the Jews failed to comprehend how special Torah was and failed to allow it to raise them from being merely human to the realization of their destiny. Torah study is not meant to be informational, but transformational. It is supposed to make us better people.

There are no more gedolei hador (great sages in a generation) left. Sure, there are a number of great rabbis, and perhaps some of them will one day evolve into a gadol hador, but as of now, they are mostly populist rabbis who fail to garner any more than their sectorial support.

I remember when Rabbi Moshe Feinstein died and when Rabbi Joseph B.

Soloveitchik died. I attended the funerals of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. These men were “walking Torah scrolls.” They had the weight of Am Yisrael on their shoulders. We felt the vacuum of their loss. It was tangible. I cannot think of even one rabbi today who would leave such a hole in our lives, if he were to die tomorrow.

I DOUBT the future of Israel as a Jewish state. While I have lived here in Israel for over 20 years, having made aliya alone as a teenager, served in the army, finished university degrees here, married, bought a house and brought children into this world, I don’t think Israel will be here in the future for them.

Herzl said: “If you will it, it is no dream!” But today, not enough Jews are willing it.

Nefesh B’Nefesh has quite literally put aliya on a silver platter and American Jewry isn’t coming. I can scarcely think of a way for this organization to make aliya any easier, and yet American Jewry is just not interested.

And for those already here, we have forgotten why we are here. We have taken the existence of Israel and Jerusalem for granted. We have let a messianic certitude invade our thinking.

We have too much confidence that this is the beginning of the redemption and that the Messiah is on his way. Well, let me confess, that while I hope that this is indeed the beginning of the Final Redemption, we have no guarantees. The promise that there will not be a third exile is a myth.

AND THEN there’s the problem with the Palestinians.

How much longer can we continue to rule over a people who do not identify with us and even despise us? And if you’re thinking, Why not give them their state already? the Palestinians are not willing to accept a state that lives in peace alongside Israel, nor recognize it as a Jewish state. They are not willing to compromise. They rejected the partition of Palestine in 1947, rejected peace in 1948, rejected even talking to us after 1967, and rejected a state offering 99 percent of Judea and Samaria in 2000.

For them, it is all or nothing. They are playing the long game, looking at Israel as a blip on the screen. History has taught us that popular uprisings almost always succeed. Barring a brutal population transfer of the Palestinians to Jordan, or a mass aliya from America, I see no end in sight.

This is not a defeatist attitude. I am staying here. I have tied my lot with Zion and her inhabitants. I teach my children that the greatest privilege they have was to have been born in a sovereign Jewish state. I believe Israel and the Jewish people have never had it so good. And I have faith in God’s covenant with us and that somehow it will all work out.

But for that to happen, we need broad introspection both as individuals and as a nation. 

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.

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