Earlier this week, I came across two videos in my social media feeds of rabbis giving lectures. Both rabbis are Israeli-born and currently live in New York, and they both speak heavily accented English. But that’s where their similarities end.
One of them is clean shaven, wearing a stylish suit and colorful tie. The other has a long beard and peyos, and was wearing a shtreimel. The first, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, is a well-known YouTube sensation; the second one, Rabbi Nachman Twersky, is a teacher at a Chabad yeshiva high school. (He is a descendant of many great Chassidic rebbes, and when joining Chabad in the mid-70s, he was encouraged by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to continue wearing a shtreimel and grow long peyos, to honor his ancestors.)
And while you would think that the modern looking rabbi would have a more contemporary message, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The video of Rabbi Mizrachi is of him speaking extremely harshly about non-religious Jews, especially those that—he says—believe that by doing a few mitzvahs here and there they can get away with their otherwise sinful behavior. He also reprimanded certain orthodox groups who convince these ‘sinners’ that this is an acceptable lifestyle. That’s pretty old-school orthodoxy.
Rabbi Twersky’s message was the exact opposite. He highlighted the beauty of performing even a single mitzvah despite not living a completely religious life. He spoke of how every Jew is loved by G-d regardless of how he or she behaves, and how ultimately we all have challenges, so who are we to judge others. To quote, “G-d loves every Jew, and that’s why He wants us to do mitzvahs. Not that He loves us because of the mitzvahs that we do.”
He went on to encourage yeshivas to give the same attention to ‘weak’ students as they do to the scholars. A refreshing outlook indeed; and quite the contemporary one.
To me this was a typical case of not judging a book by its cover, or a rabbi by his clothing.
Rabbi Mizrachi might be the more modern looking of the two, but he does not seem concerned with the negative impact his talks can have on his listeners, particularly those taking baby steps in their religious growth. True, he claims that his words are often taken out of context, for example the recent uproar over his degrading comments about millions of holocaust victims. But apparently he can still use a reminder of the teaching in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of Our Fathers: “Scholars, be careful with your words.”
On the other hand, just because Rabbi Twersky’s appearance is that of an old-fashioned Chassid, it is no indication of his modern approach to teaching. His only agenda is that his fellow Jews become aware of how precious they are to G-d.
Our external looks say nothing about who we are inside. The shtreimel wearing rabbi and the tattooed and pierced hipster—and everyone in between—are really all the same. We share a collective Jewish soul, along with the potential to do so much good.