Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur, popularly known as the “Chidushei Harim” used to go out of his way to pass by the docks of his city where he was greeted daily by a group of rough-looking longshoremen. They would line up in a row, hat in hand and say “Good Morning Reb Itche Meir” to which he would respond “Good morning my fellow Jews”. They would continue to stand in respectful silence, until he passed from view.
An inquiring chassid, aware of how much the Rebbe valued his time, suggested that perhaps they make use of a shorter route in the future. The Rebbe’s reply was priceless. “These unlearned and unobservant Jews, besides for expressing their respect for a Torah scholar when I pass, are also observing one of the basic tenets of the Torah: the mitzvah of U’Bacharta Bachaim, You shall choose life. Not all are capable of doing what is required of them, due to circumstance or whatnot. However, by choosing to admire and respect those who do, they are demonstrating the purity of their hearts. The choice at least, is still within their means to make, and I will not deprive them of that”. And so he continued day in and day out walking past these “people of the street” and allowing them to pledge allegiance (as it were) to the crown of Jewish existence in this world: the Torah and it’s scholars.
After decades of decline, the Jewish population of New York City is growing again, increasing to nearly 1.1 million, fueled by the “explosive” growth of the Hasidic and other Orthodox communities, a new study has found. It is a trend that is challenging long-held notions about the group’s cultural identity and revealing widening gaps on politics, education, wealth and religious observance…
“There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are more unengaged Jews,” said Jacob B. Ukeles, a social policy analyst and one of the principal authors of the study, which was sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York. “These two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality of our community.”
This is just the latest in a series of studies confirming a noticeable trend in the Jewish community. The center is hemorrhaging believers to the wings as people abandon “moderate” ideologies for the more rigid “right” and “left” extremities. It would be accurate to point out that this phenomenon is hardly restricted to Jews. Moderates across America bemoan the increasingly partisan divide which they claim has made reaching consensus more difficult then ever before. Too much time has passed to dismiss this mass migration as an aberration, a passing fad. It therefore behooves us to examine what is causing this universal flight from what would appear to be a reasonable and sensible, middle-of-the-road, approach to life for the often demanding diktats of a less accommodating path.
Moderates would like you to believe that a number of societal ills are responsible for what they see as the “fragmentation of society”. Explanations range from the lack of proper education to the general immaturity of the younger generations. What moderates refuse to do is take a long hard look in the mirror. One can hardly blame them though; chances are they wouldn’t see much of substance staring back.
Centrism has no form of it’s own, it is a hybrid. However, unlike the Prius, it’s components do not complement each other. The disparate matter that centrism wrestles to fuse into one are inherently programmed to work at cross-purposes, not allowing for any meaningful and lasting synthesis. Oil and water don’t mix, fire and water are mortal enemies, so too the Word of G-d and the Idol of Man or (lehavdil) the Milton Friedman School of Economics and the Keynesian Bureau of Government Works will always be at loggerheads with one another. Reality intrudes, whether it is invited or not.
Back to the Jewish scene. On the right are the Traditional Orthodox (i.e. Haredim) who pledge unwavering fidelity to the One True G-d and His Torah. Over to the left are those who, in the tradition of the ancient Arabs, worship the dust of their feet i.e. the Almighty Self (secularists). Along comes Modern Orthodoxy with the suggestion that we worship them both. However, man cannot have two G-d’s as our father Avraham taught us and as was later confirmed at Mount Sinai. One can either give a full measure of devotion to G-d or one can ignore Him (c”v), half measures won’t cut it. G-d, (either the real one or the idol (self)) is either everything or He is nothing. Modern Orthodoxy is vaguely aware of the Catch-22 they’re in, hence the constant “struggle”, the never ending navel-gazing and existential angst that so permeates the movement.
What has changed? Much. What may have worked for the elders is no longer working for the youth and hasn’t been for some time. While the elders have hammered out a practical, workable way of life, drawing lines and boundaries that would confuse Pac-Man, the youth are adrift. They look to the right, then to the left and back over to where they are and want no part of this marriage of convenience. The couple is totally incompatible and they want out. They want a divorce.
They ask themselves “If the Torah is G-d’s word, shouldn’t we embrace it with all our heart and soul, without compromise and apology”? “If however, it is secular humanism that is progress, secular ideals that represent the best in mankind, then where are those ideals? Where are the women rabbis? Where are the gay marriages?” To them, the half-baked excuses that are offered in lieu of a consistent weltanschauung are seen for what they are: nisht aheen un nisht aher, nisht tzu gott un nisht tzu lait (neither here nor there).
As Centrism appears to wither on the vine, one looks back and wonders “where did this come from, what were the conditions that brought forth this unique flower from the garden of history, one that burst on the scene with so much promise only to fade away shortly thereafter”? A cynic would posit that with the dawn of the Enlightenment, the rigors of observance were too much to handle. However, not wanting to totally jettison thousands of years of tradition and wary of unforeseen consequences, enough was held onto to allow for a quick retreat to the embrace of yesteryear should the need arise. In other words, let’s see what we can get away with and still be called “Orthodox Jews”.
However, there is a more charitable view that may pass muster as well. As beautiful, meaningful and rich that Judaism is, it can also be one more thing: difficult. The demands placed on a Jew often appear to be overwhelming and out of reach. It is therefore quite reasonable to want to cut it down to size, to bring G-d down to us if we feel we cannot ascend to him. But as the Talmud tells us (Sukkah 5a), G-d has never descended to this world, if we want to reach him we must go to him. His Torah however, is not in heaven, although it may sometimes seem to be there.
Traditional Jews try to do our best, and but most importantly, we never lose sight of where we ought to go. We strive to always choose life, even if that choice remains in the world of intent rather than deed. We never lose sight of where our standards OUGHT to be, and joyfully honor those who get closest to it. This is the lesson of Ubacharta Bachaim, a timeless idea that is demanding while comforting, showing the Jew the heights he can reach while applauding whatever progress he has made. That’s all G-d wants from us. Just remember, do not lower Him to where you are, do your best and let Him do the rest.