A Plea For Consistency

You had to rub your eyes in disbelief when you read the words. There, on the cover of Mishpacha, a banner used a phrase straight from the Nancy Pelosi playbook. “Caught at the Border: Crackdown on American Citizenship Tears Families Apart.” Was Mishpacha pushing for liberalizing immigration law in response to the impact they have on families?

The article linked to the banner did not, however, contain even a hint of such consideration. The families inconvenienced by the crackdown were all frum families: Canadian citizens trying to come for a sheva berachos, or bochrim for a new zman. There were stories of mechanchim who were barred from entering the US to find work, and teens in trouble with the authorities because they were born while their parents were in the country on an expired visa. It did urge change – not in the law, but in the attitudes of some frum Jews. It firmly laid waste to the impression that “draying” is the way to deal with government regulations. Such may be the only way to navigate the Levantine style of Israeli bureaucracy, but it won’t work here, the article argued.

Emma Lazarus gets her chance to speak in the penultimate paragraph. “The words, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ may take on new meaning for someone who’s spent all day in a stuffy consular office, waiting for number DX971 to be called up to a service desk.”

Mishpacha is true to its mandate of providing the stories of interest to frum readers that they cannot get elsewhere. One has to wonder, though, how many readers then struggled with the question of how other groups are impacted by the same procedures and regulations. It should be apparent that not all complaints about strict enforcement of INS regulations are lodged in Yiddish. The hated regulations affect far more teens whose parents came a generation ago from Guadalajara than from Bnei Brak.

Now immigration reform is a hot-button topic throughout this country – even outside Latino population centers and Arizona. Yet even though there is a groundswell of support for making our borders less porous and more impenetrable (Emma Lazarus to the contrary), polls show that most Americans support some sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants who have planted deep roots in this country. This is why Harry Reid has bipartisan support for the Dream Act, and believes that it can pass during the lame duck Congressional session before the new Congress is seated.

When we complain about the regulations, do we at least pause to consider that others might have good reason as well? There may or may not be differences between them, but ought we not at least ponder that what is good for the Jewish goose must be good for the gentile gander? Are there good reasons not to be consistent, other than, “Don’t bother me. That’s their problem, not mine?” Just when should we care about what happens outside the boundaries of our own neighborhoods? These are real questions, not rhetorical ones.

This may be the right parshah in which to raise them.

In 1964, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l wrote an essay called “Confrontation,” that set the course of dialogue between Jews and non-Jews for decades to come. It is still the lodestar that guides Orthodox Jews who are interested in these matters. Volumes have been written about it; symposia continue to re-evalute it. (The title turns out to be a bit of a double entendre. The article was only relevant to Orthodox Jews who saw themselves confronting general society. Yidden to the right had no need for such an article – not back then, and not now. They did not see themselves as confronted, so much as trying to run from the confrontation. They could reduce the issue of interacting with other communities to a single word: assur.)

Rav Soloveitchik spoke of the confrontation between Yaakov and his older brother. He told his advance men, the ones bearing a tribute to Esav, that he might ask three questions of them. To whom do you belong? Where are you going? All that you have with you – to whom does it all belong?

Rav Soloveitchik observes that the answer Yaakov supplies them with really only addresses the third question: It is a gift sent to brother Esav. He explains that the questions are put to Jews constantly when they confront non-Jews who want to genuinely understand them. They want to know to Whom we belong – just what is our relationship with HKBH. They wish to understand where we are going – what are the goals, dreams and aspirations of the Jewish community?

Rav Soloveitchik claims that we cannot answer these questions to the satisfaction of those who wish us to tear down the walls between us. We don’t even try.

Pertaining to the first two questions – whose art thou and whither goest thou – Jacob commanded his representatives to reply in the negative, clearly and precisely, boldly and courageously. He commanded them to tell Esau that their soul, their personality, their metaphysical destiny, their spiritual future and sacred commitments, belong exclusively to God and His servant Jacob. “They are thy servant Jacob’s,” and no human power can succeed in severing the eternal bond between them and God.

We can, however, answer the third question.

This third inquiry is focused on temporal aspects of life. As regards’ the third question, Jacob told his agents to answer in the positive. “It is a present unto my lord, even unto Esau.” Yes, we are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.

Most of the discussion about this seminal essay focuses on his assertion that we cannot respond to the first two questions. It might be more important for many of us to consider the affirmative response to the third.

Both because it is simply wrong, and because we cannot hope to survive bederech hatevah otherwise, frum Jews cannot live their lives as if no one else matters. Those of us who have not yet been zocheh to make Israel our home find ourselves in the most hospitable country to Jews in all the years of our long, bitter galus. Some people believe that this privilege comes with no strings attached, with no expectations other than obeying the laws of the land. While they may have a legal argument for living this way, they are being short-sighted. Attitudes – and even laws – can change. We live well in America because we are tolerated by our neighbors, the majority of whom are decent, good-spirited people.

They do, however, have some expectations of their neighbors, at least those they can respect. They expect that the folks around them be concerned for the welfare and good of all. They don’t want to accept neighbors who see themselves as a people entirely apart, aloof, thinking only of themselves, and with no interests that intersect with the main body of the population.

For decades, it was possible to live without others taking notice of what we were doing or thinking. This has all changed. This is partially attributable to our higher profile as we grow and thrive; partially due to attention focused on high profile malfeasors; partially we have been outed by the internet and the instant availability of information that it brought. There are no more secrets. Everyone knows exactly what we are thinking, what we aspire to, and how we regard them. Those who show no interest in devoting energies to the common good will be rejected contemptuously – and perhaps understandably.

Some readers (none of them my friends) will immediately dismiss the essay as belonging to a different set of outsiders – the Modern Orthodox. But Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation is not so new. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch said pretty much the same thing the better part of a century earlier. At the beginning of Parshas Vayera, he considers an accusation that non-Jews have hurled at us for centuries: that bris milah creates an unbridgeable distance between Jew and non-Jew. Rav Hirsch considers Avraham’s actions immediately after the first bris.

He remained in his behavior to the non-Abrahamitic world entirely unaltered…Abraham hurries away from before G-d to practice on them the duty of brotherly love…to wait on the first guests who present themselves to him as the first nimol…The Abrahamites flourishing in the circumcision-isolation are to be the most humane mortals…If his sons, the defamed Jews, have inherited anything from him, this spirit of general benevolence and universal charity they certainly have had as their heritage from him…Where open hearts, open houses, open hands are sought for, where readiness for sacrifice of time, energy and money for general humane purposes is required…even today, even the disparagers of Judaism turn in the first place to Jews.

Understandably, we fear that without safeguards and barriers, contact with non-Jewish notions and ideas dilutes our Jewishness. We remember Bilam’s prophetic description of us as “a nation that dwells alone.” (The UN is very machmir about this pasuk.) Dwelling alone, though, need not require attitudinal isolation. The concept of eivah – particularly the Rambam’s formulation – calls for more than avoiding enmity. Do we need to see everyone else as a distant “other?” Perhaps more of us ought to at least consider whether the dictates of halacha alone remind us constantly of our special mission and special needs. Mitzvos like kashrus and requirements of dress offer us enough protection and security that we can afford to take notice of our neighbors and of general society without fear of watering down our Torah values.

If we don’t, if we insist on acting as the perpetual outsiders, we may become them – in ways we do not want.

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14 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    Some readers (none of them my friends) will immediately dismiss the essay as belonging to a different set of outsiders – the Modern Orthodox. But Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation is not so new
    You could’ve trumped them with – it must be emet lamito (the truth) it’s summarized in the Artscroll chumash! see Stone chumash breishit 32:18

  2. Joe Hill says:

    There were stories of… teens in trouble with the authorities because they were born while their parents were in the country on an expired visa.

    Just a technical note. It cannot be teens who born in this country while the parents were here illegally. This is because the children born in the U.S. are full-fledged U.S. citizens with all incumbent rights including entering the U.S. and staying at will.

  3. lacosta says:

    i think one of the tensions in the O community vis a vis the US and its society range from those on the left who are both politically and , unfortunately religiously , so open-minded to the point of letting their brain fall out; to the other extreme , those who would mirror JFK– ie mirror image ask only what can this country do for me, a la social welfare [ think eidot who vote based on the $ package the kow-towing politicians with mortuary yamakas promise them ], liberal jury trials etc…

    and of course in Israel the dichotomy is even worse— at least here , Medinat America is not assur behechlet [ though my children, b’h for their haredi education , will probably never hear the Anthem , the Pledge, any patriotic song etc ]; in Israel the Meina is treif, its institutions are traif , its trappings are trayf and the welfare payments aren’t extensive enough…..

  4. Ori says:

    Joe Hill: This is because the children born in the U.S. are full-fledged U.S. citizens with all incumbent rights including entering the U.S. and staying at will.

    Ori: Not exactly. They might assume that, because they were born in the US, they won’t have any problems and can do anything they wish. However, to really not have problems, before they travel they should go to the US consulate with their US birth certificate and evidence that they’re the person named in the birth certificate and get a US passport. If they don’t go through the proper channels and procedures, just coming with an foreign passport and a birth certificate can get “interesting”.

  5. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    As a mechanech, I have to respectfully question a basic attitude of material assimilation (not in the common parlance, but as the opposite of isolation). At the very least, I feel that I must provide some counterbalance.

    I’ll be following the Netziv’s approach to Yaakov Avinu – and his acceptance of the premise of many Rishonim that Yaakov’s behavior is the paradigm for his children in Galus.

    Let’s start from the penultimate sentence:

    Mitzvos like kashrus and requirements of dress offer us enough protection and security that we can afford to take notice of our neighbors and of general society without fear of watering down our Torah values.

    I cannot help but be struck by the Passuk of ותצא דינה בת לאה אשר ילדה ליעקב לראות בבנות הארץ

    One would expect that a daughter of one of the Avos and Imahos would have a level of protection and security similar to that which kashrus and requirements of dress provide. Yet, she was wrong. As the Netziv writes:
    יצאה מחין ערכה וכבודה שנכנסה לראות במחול ובשמחת בנות הארץ
    An innocent dance – can we agree that she did not go out to view a decadent orgy – and the results are tragic.

    Too much of a curiosity as to what is going on by the non-Jewish neighbors in not a good thing. Yaakov dwelled on the outskirts of Shchem, and sent them some gifts, but ultimately he wished to be left alone.

    אסור לדור עם הנכרי, שמא ילמוד ממעשיו – kashrus and dress are clearly insufficient.

    וישכון ישראל בדד עין יעקב – The Netziv explains this to mean that Yaakov’s most fervent wish was the Israel should dwell alone. Yaakov resists Esav sending some of his men along, and Esav correctly understood that
    התחברות יעקב עמו באהבה לא היה אלא לצורך השעה ולא נוח לפניו להתרועע עמו ואת אנשיו ברגילות, וכאשר כן באמת עין יעקב היא לשבת בטח בדד
    Esav was insulted, but Yaakov felt that he had no alternative.

    How do we reconcile Avraham’s proactiveness with Yaakov’s reticence? Again, the Netziv provides the key. Yaakov did not live in Chevron because of the presence and friendship with the upright Mamre’s progeny. He chose to dwell in Emek Chevron – close to the city where his father and grandfather lived:
    היא העיר שנתקדשה בתורה ועבודה מימות אבותיו. אבל לא היה לו שום התרועעות עם זרע ממרא האמורי וכמדת יעקב להיות בדד

    ולא שהיה יעקב מחולק בדעות ח”ו עם אבותיו אברהם ויצחק, אלא שהמה לא היו מטופלים בבנים לכן ראו טוב לפני ד’ להתרועע עמהם וללמדם מעט דרך ד’, משא”כ יעקב שהיה מטופל בבנים ראה טוב להיפך דילפי ממקלקלתא יותר ממתקנתא

    Chinuch concerns trump interaction. Experience bears this out.

    [YA – There are some good points here, albeit no more and no less valuable than the points made by Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.

    They are also irrelevant to my article, which urged a change in attitude towards others, not a dropping of safeguards. The kind of cooperation and consideration that I advocate will exist in mind and speech for 90% of us. For the remaining 10%, more active cooperation and assistance can be offered from within the safety and security of frum bastions.

    “Too much of a curiosity as to what is going on by the non-Jewish neighbors in not a good thing.” Perhaps, but too little is also not a good thing. It leads to smug feelings of superiority and entitlement that are wrong in their own right. It is responsible to a large extent for the spate of economic crimes that bring shame upon the Torah. And if it would not be wrong in its own right, it would be problematic because in a world in which all are attitudes have become transparent, it is a recipe for resentment, eivah and worse.

    I see no evidence that Esav was insulted, and that Yaakov would have taken the same tack had he know that Esav would be miffed. Our neighbors today are miffed.

    The Netziv certainly does not say that Yaakov had a rejectionist attitude towards his neighbors. Reread his hakdamah to Bereishis, and his description of reciprocating the love that comes from Esav when the latter is moved to love us. Rather, he says that Yaakov in principle shared the same attitude as his father and grandfather. Because, however, he was blessed with a large family, he had to weigh more carefully any negative effects upon his children that could result from more active mixing with those of very different beliefs and life styles. There is no hint of the bitul that is the rule in parts of our community.

    “Chinuch concerns trump interaction. Experience bears this out.” Experience also bears out the consequences of trying to erect walls too high and too thick.]

  6. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Just magnificent. Your essay was d’var Torah/table discussion at two Shabbat meals in our house.

    The only thing I would add is that, contrary to your implication, this frame of mind is as important, if not more so, here in Israel as well.

  7. Dr. E says:

    It is unfortunate that Mishpacha has chosen to exploit the current immigration debate in the U.S. country to draw attention to these cases. Without having read the article, the scenarios which have come up seem to be largely discretionary situations such as Simchos and Yeshiva study. This is contradistinction to the more serious cases of personal safety and other truly hardship situations which might call for an exception.

    But in reality, this is really a microcosm of a broader phenomenon where frum Jews take the Medina shel Chessed for granted and want more and more. The result is that from Jews come across as selfish and self-centered. (The current economic situation and the fact that many choose not to work for a living only exacerbates the need and entitlement.) The message is that because we are frum, we have it coming to us and and can basically do anything we want. After all, we are moral and are acting with the ratzon of Hashem. Hashem has given us the Medinah shel Chessed for us to use as an implement in our Avodas Hashem, and we will avail ourselves to that generosity (and define that generosity as we see it without big picture or equity considerations).

    We have seen this recently when frum people break the law, often through improprieties emanating from entitlement and playing fast-and-loose with Dina D’Malchusa. When they get caught red-handed,the Halachic axiom of “Pidyon Shevuyim” is quickly and conveniently pulled out. As we know that concept (and its prioritiy within communal funds) has always been reserved for societies in which anarchist or anti-Semetic and oppressive regimes single out Jews and place them in captivity without due process of the law. The us-vs.-them connotation of “Pidyon Shevuyim” is then mobilized into an emergency fundraising campaign (thank you to Kuppat Hair for providing the print advertising templates). This knee-jerk reaction to request help these criminals in our midst a bizayon of Halacha and a slap in the face to all of our bretheren who have been wrongly persecuted throughout history. Furthermore, it communicates a posture of whining and entitlement that results in a huge Chillul Hashem beyond our ranks as well as within. This ultimately diminishes our credibility for immigration and legal cases where there is legitimate merit which warrants consideration.

  8. cvmay says:

    As we isolate ourselves in RELIGIOUS enclaves, build stronger and firmer walls to keep the outside, OUT; we are throwing in the towel and ignoring the needs of ‘the other’. I honestly believe this is one of the main reasons that ANTI-Jewish, ANTI-Semitic attitudes are soaring.

    “we cannot hope to survive bederech hatevah otherwise, frum Jews cannot live their lives as if no one else matters”.
    Shall we share this hashkafa with the FRUM POLITICAL PARTIES in Israel who concerns themselves with personal, private, inclusive Charedei needs solely? Can we perhaps expect the media, audio and printed in Israel to blast hatred of Torah communities because ‘we lives our lives as if no one else matters’. IMHO, very sad.

  9. L. Oberstein says:

    I was in Lamport Auditorium in 1964 when Rav Soloveitchik gave that speech before the entire student body of YU including the high school, of which I was a student.My recollection is that his main theme was to avoid inter-faith dialogue. His negation of ecuminical dialgue was validated shortly afterwards when our non Jewish friends abandoned us prior to the Six Day War. It is an amazing change, in previous generations every Bar Mitzvah,myself included, pledged to be a good Jew and a good American. That there is a mentality today among some Jews to look upon the United States as just another golus country and open for illegal shtik is the opposite of my father’s generation. Answer please one question, when the head of a Bais Yaakov is sitting in prison for extortion, how will that school teach Jewish values. Is it possible that there was cognative disonance for years and that everything is ok as long as one is supporting Torah.

  10. Sima says:

    Thank you so much for publishing this excellent essay. I hope many will read it and gain a better understanding of these issues.

  11. Adam says:

    The poor Charedim just can’t catch a break.

    Nobody explains to them that they need to learn, and pay attention to, immigration laws. In their world, doing everything the way your father did is their way of life.

    However, both the laws themselves and the stringency of their enforcement have changed. We cringe when a black hatter doesn’t comprehend an airport security check, or is pulled out of line at passport control. Nebuch. He just doesn’t get it.

    So here comes Mishpacha magazine, one of the few print media sources that isn’t “treif” in their world, and there appears an article which educates the Charedi public on immigration laws! Wonderful! Throw in some true stories of bad experiences, explain what they need to do in order to get through the process, and there will be fewer of us cringing at the site of Charedim fumbling badly in the airport.

    So then, why would we want to denigrate the author, the magazine, or the article itself? We all seem to agree that such education is needed; shouldn’t we be happy that at attempt at such education was made?

  12. Charlie Hall says:

    “This is because the children born in the U.S. are full-fledged U.S. citizens with all incumbent rights including entering the U.S. and staying at will.”

    Yes and no. Yes, they can come to the US as they are US citizens. But no, they generally can’t stay unless they have an adult guardian who is legally in the US, until they are 18 — and the non-citizen parents don’t qualify. And if the parents were involuntarily deported, they may never be able to return. The child can’t petition for the parents to immigrate until the child is an adult.

    I personally am stunned by the level of immigrant bashing in frum circles, especially in internet forums. Similar nativist sentiments led directly to the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which slammed the door shut on immigration from Eastern Europe — and directly contributed to the death of six million who had nowhere to go. We blame Franklin Roosevelt, but he had absolutely no authority to admit even a single Jewish refugee before the war and probably would have been impeached and removed from office had he broken the law. The Obama administration is enforcing immigration laws as has not been done in decades. I recently served on a federal grand jury and 80% of the indictments we brought down were for illegal entry into the United States. There should be no suprise that Jews get caught up in this crackdown. We should all lobby for a more sensible immigration policy, which would include much higher levels of legal immigration.

  13. Another Adam says:

    lacosta: I can’t work out if you re being ironic in your last paragraph…..

  14. dr. bill says:

    “[YA – There are some good points here, albeit no more and no less valuable than the points made by Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.]”

    Great compliment to Binyamin Eckstein! But I agree with Rabbi Alderstein.
    These issues are hardly black and white. All non-chareidi (centrist if you like) orthodox leaders have strongly advocated some level of interaction with broader society, with varying levels of assumed intrinsic value. However, all have also erected walls, often very different walls. Taking them all down or imposing all of them simultaneously is not advisable. The differing walls all are based on their different judgments about where broad interactions need to be circumscribed.

    Interestingly, the Rav was more conservative than Hirsch, Hoffman, Weinberg, etc. Hirsch placed greater value on culture; Hoffman and Weinberg advocated greater exposure to Wissencshaft des Judentums. All of those gedolim, including Hildesheimer and Kook, were different in how they approached the practical modes of interaction.

    The Rav’s writings are often misleading given his broad use of many diverse areas of Chokhmah. As well his (private) advice to individuals was often more nuanced than his public positions. (Wissencshaft and English literature, areas pursued by family members and a number of his students, were not what he advocated generally.)

    What I find less useful is the attempt to derive concrete lessons from midrashic interpretations where the context is largely unknown or assumed. No doubt they are the source of great derashot. The Rav’s formulation of the disagreement of Yitzchak (chareidi) and Rivkah (DL) is my personal favorite. However, they are rarely anything but insightful support for an already established position.

    There is a rather wide and legitimate field in which we should all operate. What must be avoided are the extremes; sadly we all expend too much energy on criticizing the extremes.

    Jews have lived in open societies but never as open and never for as long as we now enjoy in both Israel and the Diaspora. Given our long history, we are all still trying to find various paths around the shevilai hazahav.

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