Isms of a Modern Age

I was honestly humbled by the participation of the speakers who preceded me at the Sunday morning session of Agudath Israel of America’s most recent national convention.

They were: the venerable Malcolm Hoenlein (whose name, I noted, seems hinted at in the verse “Bnai Tziyon yagilu b’Malcolm”), and the likewise rightly celebrated Professor Aaron Twerski. The topic was “The Lamb Among Seventy Wolves”—the precarious position of the Jewish people among the nations.

Mr. Hoenlein provided a comprehensive overview of contemporary anti-Semitism and geopolitics; Professor Twerski focused on the dismaying import for Jews of the world economic situation.

My assignment was to address spiritual threats to our people.

I suggested that the distinction between spiritual and physical menaces may be illusionary, that the former in fact underlie the latter.

Fighting anti-Semitism, and its illegitimate offspring anti-Israel-ism, must be a priority. At the same time, though, a mesora-attuned mindset must always know that Jews’ wellbeing is ultimately not a function of articles, activism or armaments. Those are tools. What empowers them is where we stand, as a community and as individuals, in matters of the spirit.

It should be obvious. Jews comprise 2/10ths of 1 percent of the world’s population, a large chunk of which doesn’t much like us. How does this sheep even stay alive among a world of wolves? The only answer is Divine protection. And it comes as the result of our merits.

So while evil people engage in physical and verbal attacks against Jews, spiritual forces are fueling the evil. Keeping those spiritual wolves at bay is the key to our safety.

Among the spiritual threats facing us are things like the coarsening of the surrounding culture, which is practically unavoidable, and its new invasion-vehicle called the Internet.

Other challenges pound at the door to our souls, too, like the astonishing sea-change in how society has come to view the idea of a marital relationship, capitulating in mere years to a movement that proudly and loudly rejects one of the fundamental merits of human society. This mindset, which has spread even to some ostensibly Orthodox Jews must be countered by each of us individually, as well as communally.

Then there’s what calls itself the “Animal Rights” movement, whose true danger isn’t limited to the threat it poses to legal shechita, but lies in its very credo, the idea that animals have rights. We have obligations toward animals, to be sure. But assigning them “rights” leads to obscenities like a book, “Eternal Treblinka,” that compares factory farming to Nazi concentration camps.

The perverse overvaluing of animal lives swings in tandem with the devaluing of human life, both at its beginning and at its end. Standing firm on the issue of the value of every moment of human life is imperative.

There are other issues, too, I noted, that Torah-conscious Jews must confront, like the subtle redefinition of kashrus being attempted by the Conservative movement, cheered on by mendacious media; and the promotion of atheism under the banner of science.

These are not so much mere issues as they are full-fledged “ism”s, of a sort with those idolatries Rav Elchonon Wasserman fingered decades ago: Communism, Secular Zionism, and Nationalism. Today we add Scientism, AnimalRights-ism, a Woman’sRighttoChoose-ism, QualityofLife-ism.

Not to mention isms that have already infected the Orthodox world, like rampant Materialism, Feminism, and anti-Gedolim-ism.

And a final, uncomfortable one: Politicism—the pledge of fealty to an American, or Israeli, political party or movement.

Until the arrival of Moshiach, we Jews are charged with accepting the implications of Golus, which requires, as per Yaakov’s meeting with Esav, our employment of a delicate combination of intimidation, reason, and submission. Ironically, it has always been Torah-rejecting Jews—Bundists, Communists, secular Zionists—who stood bold and unconcerned with the wider world’s concerns, secure in their might and their right. In a strange contemporary reversal, haredim have become the hardliners, with secular Jews more concerned about “the nations.”

There may be good reasons for backing the current Israeli administration and its policies. But truly thoughtful Jews, I suggested in conclusion, do well to employ caution here too, since Likudism can be an ism too.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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