This past Shabbat at the Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rabbi Naftali Citrin spoke of how the Jewish people cannot subsist on Jewish food or humor alone – tradition and religion are required for Judaism to survive. He then asked the congregation in today’s Facebook-dominated culture, how is it possible for one to be a “good Jew.” He asked: “Is it necessary to live in Mea Shearim, or Borough Park?” Of course (at least at Carlebach) the answer was no.
Citrin urged everyone to make the most of every opportunity to see the positive in everything. Today’s generation has the potential to produce the greatest Torah scholars ever. Information which previously difficult to obtain can now be found easily via a few Google searches. And that information can be used for a whole lot of good.
For me, living in the heart of Manhattan and owning a PR agency — I face many challenges every day. Choices abound — my kids attend a modern orthodox day school, yet I remind them daily that wearing a yarmulke and tziztis doesn’t make one a religious or a good Jew (witness Rabbi Weberman on trial in NYC). And of course it’s foolish to believe that the Internet is bad – yet I teach them that there are dangers in everything. And perhaps knowing good from bad is the essence of Judaism and part of being good and religious.
There are clearly many layers to being religious and being a good Jew, and certainly no easy answers. I believe that being a good person is the best place to start. Maybe it’s all as easy, as my mom always told me, to “just be a mensch.”
I recently read a story of a great Hassidic rabbi who received a secular, beardless visitor. They had a long, private discussion and when the man left, the rabbi kissed him goodbye and bid him farewell very warmly. A Hassidic follower of this rabbi approached and asked how he could treat a heretic so warmly. The rabbi is said to have answered: “When this beardless man will come before G-d after 120 years, the Lord will ask him ‘Jew where is your beard?’ When you face the Lord,” he told the Hasid, “who will ask your beard where is your Jew?”
Honesty, truthfulness, tradition, mitzvahs – there are so many levels and so many choices. It is something that I, and I am sure many others, struggle with regularly.