Truth Means More Than Numbers

Despite the great efforts of great rabbinical leaders and explicators of Jewish thought and belief, every generation has seen Orthodoxy lose the fealty of numbers of young people during their lives, meaningful demographic losses. The approach of one Rav may have been different from that of another, but the historic result was the same: young people abandoned Orthodoxy for reform and other secular passions — even as other young people, in Reform and secular associations, abandoned those sectors, some in one direction to become Orthodox and others to disappear from Judaism completely. In the spirit of the times, with the allures of the secular West, serious numbers and percentages of young Jews abandoned. And yet today we regard as heroes of our history all the Torah Sages and role models who tried their best — Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim, Rav Yehudah Halevi in Sefer HaKuzari, through modern efforts ranging from those of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch to Rav Ezriel Hildesheimer to the Sridei Eish. We do not cast aspersions and “blame” them, saying that it was their “fault” that so many abandoned, or even that they contributed to lost souls. Rather, we revere them deeply, are indebted to them and honor their memories profoundly for having held the fort, toed the line, and tried their best to make authentic Torah Judaism comprehensible to those willing to comprehend. They preserved our Torah and our Mesorah in some of the darkest hours of spiritual abandon.

We lost young people up-and-down Sefer M’lakhim, both Aleph and Bet. We lost young people in Bavel, where intermarriage was rife soon after our expulsion. We lost young people in Eretz Yisrael to the Hellenists and the Sadducees, among others. We lost young people to Shabtai Tzvi and, just-plain, to history. As a minority overwhelmed by the lures of the predominant societies and majority cultures into which we were merged, we always have lost people. Neither Rambam nor the Kuzari nor Rav Hirsch nor Rav Hildesheimer nor the Sridei Eish could stop it, and we do not blame any of them an iota. They each tried their best to protect the fortress and foundation of Torah. They did what they could. It was “not enough” to stem the tides, but they preserved the foundations for generations to come. And we sadly have come to understand that some losses are the price of Exile.

Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik arrived in Boston in the early 1930s. Today’s Modern Orthodox Jews, like me, do well to remember that we continued losing enormous numbers of young impressionable American Orthodox Jews during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s. American Orthodoxy’s losses became so precipitous that Marshall Sklare, that era’s preeminent sociologist of American Jewry, literally predicted in writing, during the late 1950s, the impending virtual disappearance of all Orthodoxy from the face of America by the mid- or late 1960s. Yet none of us “blames” Rav Soloveitchik as a “failure” for not having “found the formula” for those thirty-plus years — and that is a pretty long time — to accommodate the sociological urban trends of Levittown and the pulls of America. None blames him for “obstinacy” or “lack of nuance” and “bringing about failure” by virtue of his refusing to find permission for mixed seating during prayer. Rav Soloveitchik stood unequivocally on the subject of mechitzah. None blames him for his “failing” to find a way to permit driving to shul on Shabbat once people started moving out to the suburbs of Levittown, for his “failing” to find ways to “accommodate” so that young Orthodox Jews would remain in the fold and not run to conservative temples. Rather, he held the line at Mesorah, even knowing that such a stand would result in some abandoning Orthodoxy for non-Orthodox temples.

He was not about being “cool” and “fitting in” with the times, dancing with foreign clerics and penning op-eds in secular journals that would tear down institutions of normative Orthodoxy. He was about teaching that a shaliach tzibur should say “Hashem s’fatai tiftach u-fi yagid t’hilatekha. . . ” out loud during chazarat ha-Shat”z because the Gemara in Brakhot teaches that there is no interruption between Geulah and Tefilah, and that sentence inferentially is part of Tefilah — so it should be part of the formal out-loud repetition. He was about where the comma is in the Shaliach Tzibur’s recitation of Birkhat Kohanim — after m’shuleshet. He was about being careful to hold the etrog separately in one hand, while holding the lulav bundle separately in the other, even when walking around the shul during “Hoshanot.” He was not concerned that young people might respond painfully and cynically to devoted attention on halakhic minutiae:

“What difference does it make! How can you be so focused on such picayune matters as a comma at a time when we are in Vietnam? At a time of a burgeoning women’s movement? With Sally Priesand ordained as the first reform woman rabbi in 1972 and Amy Eilberg as the first woman conservative rabbi in 1985, and change taking place all around, who careswhether we repeat a word here-or-there when singing the davening? Who cares whether theShat”z should wait, when he gets to Modim, for the tzibur first to recite their Modim d’Rabbanan? What difference does it make? Is that what it means to be Orthodox? THAT’s what consumes thought and discussion amid the upheavals of the Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy assassinations of 1968? A comma? Repeating ‘shomrei-shomrei-shomrei’ in a paragraph melody? Where in the world are the priorities as a generation turns on, tunes in, and drops out? When will we ordain women the way they do Sally Priesand and Amy Eilberg? We are losing half our population, half the leadership, half the wisdom, half the skills.” 

Indeed, in the face of arguments that “we can’t go back to the Middle Ages. It is 1985 already! How can you write off half the Jewish population?” Rav Soloveitchik even ruledagainst women serving as congregational Presidents.

We grasp that Bob Dylan may have been taking a great many young people with him on his journey from Robert Allen Zimmerman, and maybe Rav Soloveitchik was not saving them when he instead held a regular weekly mass Torah shiur for the lay public, but we also grasp that they were leaving anyway — and he was laying the foundation for our future generations to have richer Torah institutions in America. He drew clear lines. Those who abandoned Orthodoxy for non-Orthodox expressions did so. And so it was.

Rav Soloveitchik was greater than the moment. Others among the great Gedolei HaDor of the past century, those who built Torah Vodaas and Lakewood and Ner Yisroel and Mir and Telz and so many others, all understood that Torah greatness is measured not by how many young people one “fails” to “keep in the fold” by bending the halakha and mesorah to accommodate the times, but by the heroic willingness to stand firm on the basics.

Our way is not the short-sighted limited vision of crumbling in the face of the moment,haplessly seeking to rein in people who are leaving anyway. Rather, ours is the way of affirmation, affirmation of what we believe and know to be true, and affirmation of ourmesorah.

It takes courage to inform and educate, to be a rav and a leader. That was Shaul HaMelekh’s tragic flaw, telling Shmuel HaNavi that he just had to give in to the demands of the masses, to save the best sheep and cattle taken from the Amalekites “because I feared the people and so I hearkened to their voices.” (15:24) Shmuel responded to him: “Though you be small in your own eyes, you are the leader of the tribes of Israel.” (15:17) 

That’s who we are. That’s what we are. That’s where we stand.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an Adjunct Professor of Law and a consultant on secular legal affairs, is a six-year member of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Executive Committee and is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Irvine,California. His writings can be found at .

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13 Responses

  1. Y. Ben-David says:

    The problem with this piece is that it seems to relate to (Orthodox) Judaism just another “religion”….i.e. a way to seek salvation for one’s soul and if one wants to take chances and reject the theology and salvation this “religion” is offering, then they are preparted to face the consequences in the “next world”. At one time, that was a powerful consideration for most people. Today, most people, even many of those who do profess one religion or another, don’t seem to be concerned one way or another about “olam haba”.
    In reality , the Torah views that Jewish people as a NATION and the Torah is that nation’s CONSTITUTION. That means that every member of that nation is bound by the rules of its Torah/Constitution, even if they are ignorant of them or even they consciously reject them, and, on the other hand, all Jews are bound up with all other Jews who are part of that nation, even with those who do not observe the laws of that Torah/ Constitution. Therefore to say that we are going to set a high bar for what we consider to be proper observance of the laws of the Torah, which often may go far beyond the basic requires of that Law and then reject all those who don’t measure up to our particular standards and say they are not longer part of our people, is in contradiction to what the Torah itself says.The nevi’im/prophets never gave up on trying to bring the Northern Kingdom of Israel back to the Torah no matter how far sunk into idol worship and corruption they may have been. The TANACH tells us even that kings who were not really worthy were given great victories because of G-d’s mercy for him people/nation.
    Today, there are many, many Jews, particularly in Israel but also in the Galut who identify as Jews, are proud to be Jews but don’t have a complete understanding of what the Torah Law our Constitution demands of us. They may observe some of the mitzvot but not others. So to say that if they don’t measure up to our standards and so we don’t want to have anything to do with them negates the the basic principles of the Torah itself. “My way or the highway” is not the Jewish way. We need constantly to listen to Jews like this and to be able to show them, where they are now, how the Torah in its fullness is actually relevant to them.

    • Dee Emes Iz says:

      And yet some, or rather many, forget that Judaism is a nation defined by religion. kicking aside the religion aspect is kicking aside what defines is truly as a separate nation.

      • Mycroft says:

        Amech ami precedes elokiach Elokai. One must first be part of am Israel before doing mitzvot. We are as the Rav used to say both a community of fate and a community of faith. We have both Brit a ot and Brit Sinai.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Mycroft-if we have both a Bris Avos and a Bris Sinai, how can you say that identifying with Bris Avos ( part of Am Yisrael) precedes Bris Avos-any Ger must accept both, not one before the other.

      • mycroft says:

        The formula of gerus follows Ruth. First Amech and then elokai. Both are required to complete gerus. One has to first accept am Israel and then mitzvot.

  2. dr. bill says:

    I find your post very relevant particularly in how at least the five figures with which I have familiarity created boundaries between while also adapting to the societies in which they lived. The two contemporaries, Rav Hildesheimer and Rav Hirsch ztl, did that in very different ways. Nonetheless, as far as I know, the only one whose books were burnt and declared off limits was Rambam. While he had practical halakhic skirmishes, particularly with the rabbinic leaders of Babylonia, they were hardly the basis for strident opposition to his works. It was hashkafah, not halakha, which was the source of the issue. Declaring that certain stories were only allegorical, or opposition to belief in evil ethereal beings, or a refined definition of divine providence, or a redefinition of the resurrection of the dead, or the use of a decidedly Greek formulation of the principles of Jewish faith, or the need for various forms of study, etc., etc. drew condemnation in many circles. And yet, 800 years later, it is Rambam’s formulation of the principles of Jewish faith that is treated as sacrosanct by the vast majority of traditional Jews. There is much practical advice that Rambam gave and lessons about his treatment, that contemporaries, on both sides of various issues, might take to heart.

  3. Of course I agree, Y. Ben-David. For example, my entire rabbinical career of more than three decades has been devoted to kiruv work: NCSY, the San Fernando Valley, Orange County. No one ever gets “written off.” No Jew left behind. My Shabbat table every week is filled with people who are not frum, some intermarried, a mix of all kinds of Jews. I could go on. I teach them Torah. They teach me Settlers of Catan.

    Nevertheless,, Y. Ben-David, the message always is one of honest Torah values. And the non-observant and the intermarrieds and the frum all keep coming back, mostly because my wife is a super cook, and partly because they want to hear the Truth about Real Judaism. As one person said to me, “Rav, I am not ‘there’ yet, but I want to know where ‘there’ really is. I don’t like diluted orange drink; I like my orange juice concentrated. If I want to add water to it, that is my decision. I also like my Judaism concentrated. I don’t want you to dilute Judaism for me. I want to know where I must aspire.”

    Y. Ben-David, you are spot-on when you describe how the nevi’im never gave up on the Jews of the Northern Kingdom. But how indeed did Eliyahu pursue the dream? Not by playing the lyre with original compositions that mock Torah and Torah authorities while promoting himself as a “Queer activist” — the motif of the JOFA/ “Maharat”/ “Open Orthodox” world. Not by pressing for the treatment of non-halakhic conversions as equal to halakhic giyur, an “Open Orthodox” favorite. Not by imitating the ordination of women in the style of the Asheirah religion supported by Queen Izevel. Instead, he invited the entire Nation of Israel for a barbecue at Har Carmel. V’hamayvin yavin.

  4. Shmilda says:

    Rabbi Fischer: you are of course correct that the proper answer to attrition isn’t wanton change away from our Torah and our mesorah. Nonetheless, you don’t amply emphasize the fact the heroes you mention all tried to adapt to the times in an attempt to stem attrition from our ranks. In contrast, we don’t consider heroic the many Hungarian (especially chassidish) rabbis of the 19th and early 20th centuries who closed their eyes to attrition, considering it heretical to teach Torah in any language other than Yiddish, or at all to women. Many Lithuanian roshei yeshiva took similar attitudes, basically holding that if you weren’t in their yeshivas on their terms, you were a lost cause. Imagine how many more frum Jews there may have been in pre war Hungary, Lithuania, etc., and by extension Israel and the U.S., had they taken a more Hirschian (or Hildeshiemer, if you prefer) approach?

    My point is, that although the extreme bending to the times that some of your colleagues are engaging in is clearly wrong, the extreme opposite of total rejectionism is not helpful either. In a previous comment, you make it clear that you do reach out, but that is not at all clear from your essay.

    • Shmilda, I endorse your premise and insight. I believe that we must recognize our times and be sensitive to our times. We must meet and speak with the non-observant, cognizant of the times that have impacted them. We must know the lingo and the players of our times. I am a graduate of Columbia University circa 1970s, and I cannot believe how tragically the religious mood on campus has changed and regressed (not that it was so great then either). Thus, when we meet people coming out of that world, it helps to understand the environment that distorted them from frumkeit. That understanding empowers us to reach out to those who will accept the outreach.

      We must explain Torah in terms that are consonant with our times. The entire contemporary kiruv movement, ranging from NJOP to AJOP to Aish, and so many others, reflect that concept. Not only should we embrace the language, but we should discern the proper use of the language, its grammar, its lexicon. We should know the slang that is not profane. (We also need to be careful how language has changed: we can’t just hook up for coffee after class anymore.)

      We simply must not allow the times to change our core. There remain things that the Torah permits and things that the Torah does not permit. Things that the Torah celebrates and things that the Torah does not celebrate. We must always strive to remember that we are not god. Those who would create god in their images, and then call that Judaism, do all a disservice.

      There are those who, in their rush to be part of the new times, somehow have developed a new denomination marked by halakhic vertigo. They have lost their balance, lost their step, have stumbled into a place where they now are utterly lost, and cannot find their way back. Like the Geico commercial that spoofs horror films, they just go farther and farther away from the safe space, drawn to the garage where the guy-with-the-chainsaw lurks, blind to the obvious road back to safety.

      It is sad stuff.

    • Mycroft says:

      Reaching out is important and glamorous but per minute expended time should be spent on those who one sees naturally as part of ones job. My unsolicited advice to Rabbis respond to phone calls, e mails even if a five word Thanks, do not push away with my way or the highway approach-one can be firm with what one believes wo attacking the motives of others.

  5. Mycroft says:

    For the Rav a supreme compliment about a Talmid was to say X knows about what issues to fight about and what issues not to fight about.
    A living still active Rabbi near the beginning of his career had a Sheila that he asked the Rav about that women in his schul wanted a women’s minyan in schul The Rav told him to no surprise of anyone reading Cross-Currents that for schul the answer was no. Much more nuanced is what followed without the question being asked the Rav told the Rabbi if they wish to have the prayer service outside of schul you don’t have to get involved one way or the other.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    R Fischer deserves a huge Yasher Koach for reminding us that Ames Yes lo Raglayim and Sheker Ain lo Raglayim-and that we should always seek the Midas HaEmes.

  7. Mycroft says:

    A fair description of Rav Soloveitchik would be very difficult. He was a complex person. He could send a letter to a president of a Conservative Synagogue which just built a new edifice in a new part of Boston that he helped bring Judaism to a new part of Boston. The Rav did not dress the part of a classical RY-just look at his wardrobe that he wore compared to classical RY. The Rav was opposed to copying from the church to the synagogue. He was firmly opposed to having stain glass windows in schuls. How much of that clear cut MESORAH has been carried forward by his Talmudic in instructions to their simcha students.
    The Rav did not agree with RMFs heter of no get required in case of marriage ivy non Orthodox clergy.
    The Rav was clearly in charge of Maimonides school-they had multiple classes per grade which were all mixed rather than separate different classes by sex. He controlled the school. Committee-the two first chairmen were his wife and then daughter.
    The Rav was clearly in favor of teaching Talmud to girls the same way as for boys. Disagree with him-but that is an equal part of mesorah.
    The Rav was active in helping keep the RCA within the SCA. Here again complex-his students could be top officers of the SCA but not join the NY Board of Rabbis.
    The Rav would be very adamant that language even in polemics against Conservative Judaism be very temperate in comments. One of his MO students once told me that the only criticism of his writings that he ever re dived from the Rav was for the tough tone that he once wrote against Conservative Judaism. I read the article it was mild compared to what one reads on even CC.

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