Is our shul shifting to the left or to the right?

I would like to take this opportunity to share the vision of our shul because of the following two stories.  First, at a shul town hall meeting, I impressed upon our community how critical tefillah b’tzibbur is to an orthodox community and that each one of us needs to make an extra effort to help strengthen the culture of tefillah b’tzibbur in our community.  Afterwards, a few people suggested that our community is good where we are and that we shouldn’t have to move to the right religiously.  We have daily minyanim for anyone who wishes to attend so why am I focusing too much on this issue.

Secondly, earlier this month we had a zoom conversation about race and racism with a black orthodox Jew.  The program was very well attended and there was a desire among some in our community to have a follow-up conversation for a “deeper dive” into this topic.  We wanted to recommend a book to be read on systemic racism followed by a discussion about the topic from the lens of a Torah perspective.  However, some people were concerned about our hyper-focus on this topic.  We had one speaker to discuss this topic and that’s enough.  Even though some orthodox shuls do get involved in these issues and these discussions on a deeper level, those shuls are typically more left-wing orthodox shuls and I was asked if that was the direction that I saw as the future of our shul.  I find it fascinating that in the span of fewer than two weeks, some people in the shul were concerned that I was moving the shul too much to the right and some were concerned that I was moving the shul too much to the left.  As such, I think a reflection on my vision for our shul is in order.

I find it unfortunate that a shul is viewed as moving to the right if emphasis is placed on each member’s personal responsibility to participate in tefillah b’tzibbur beyond Shabbat minyan attendance.  Why do I focus so much on tefillah b’tzibbur?  The answer, I think, is that every shul must be excellent in every core aspect of life for a Torah Jew.  There must be a culture of Torah study in every community for members of all different educational backgrounds.  There must be a culture of chesed, warmth and achdut in the community, as well.  There must be a culture where everyone is working to refine their midot.  There must be a culture of shemirat hamitzvot, with each person trying to grow according to his or her own level.  It is certainly understandable that the level of mitzvah observance is different for different people in a community because everyone comes from a different background, but the culture should be one of a desire to grow and constantly try to improve ourselves.  And there must be a culture of tefillah b’tzibbur in the community.

I understand that tefilla b’tzibbur is a challenge for many people for a number of reasons.  First, many people may have not grown up in homes where their parents went to minyan on a daily basis.  As a point of contrast, I once heard a story of a very exclusive cheder that would test young children to enroll in their school.  As part of the entrance test for the child, the cheder administrator would take out a pair of tefillin and would ask the child if he recognized what the tefillin were.  If the child recognized the tefillin, then the child would not be accepted into the cheder.  Why? Because that means that the child saw the parent put on tefillin at home and the cheder only accepted children whose parents attended minyan on a daily basis.

I don’t think most of our Yeshiva day schools operate like that.  And that’s certainly fine.  There are many family dynamics that make daily attendance at minyan challenging.  Additionally, there’s the “meaningfulness” issue that many people don’t find tefillah b’tzibbur that inspiring because they don’t understand the meaning of the words and the davening goes so quickly.  At the same time, I would hope that an attempt to create excellence in tefillah b’tzibbur on a personal level by challenging every member of the community to attempt to increase that member’s tefillah b’tzibbur attendance is not a shift to the right; rather, it should reflect the values of every orthodox community.

Just as I find it unfortunate if a shul is perceived as moving to the right if emphasis is placed on personal responsibility for minyan attendance, I find it unfortunate if a shul is perceived as moving to the left if emphasis is placed on thoughtful analysis and perhaps action relating to some of the broader issues facing our society at large.  A modern orthodox shul subscribes to the ideology of Torah U’Madda and that banner can have at least two different definitions which are instructive for our discussion.  One definition of Torah U’Madda is that we embrace the broader world through the prism of Torah.  That means that we believe in the value of secular knowledge, whether it’s philosophy, history, psychology or literature, and that knowledge can assist us in our own personal avodat Hashem.  This approach is a more insular approach of Torah U’Madda and I think that this approach is one that is generally acceptable in most modern orthodox shuls.  Those who subscribe to this approach are not perceived as moving their shul “to the left.”

However, in my view, there is a broader, more ambitious version of a modern orthodox shul.  That is being an “or lagoyim,” a light to the nations.   It is, indeed, a more open hashkafa that carries greater risks and rewards.  This broader approach asks us to look at the world around us and try to shape the world with our Torah values.  We do so by first trying to understand the issues facing our society as best as we can.  We then evaluate these issues through a Torah lens.  Finally, when applicable, we try to effectuate change consistent with our Torah values to the extent that we can.  Even within this more ambitious approach of trying to change society, our priority is to our family, our community, and the Jewish people, and then to the broader society.   What that means is that the bulk of our shul programming focuses inward — Talmud Torah, minyan, chesed within our orthodox community, etc., and there is also some programming to help shape the broader community in a real, meaningful way.  I would hope that engaging in this form of tikkun olam adds to the spiritual richness of an orthodox community and does not simply label a shul as a “left-wing” shul.

Why would this type of engagement be perceived as a shift to the left by some?  First of all, for better or for worse, engaging in social action or tikkun olam is perceived as a “left-wing” activity.  I do not agree that that should be the reality.  Caring about the broader community and broader society should be the mandate of every Jew and, I would argue, every human being.  How we go about engaging in social action could be different depending on our political philosophy.  I think a false assumption is made that whenever we discuss “tikkun olam” projects then we are discussing them from a liberal or progressive perspective.  I believe that the current culture of identity politics has a lot to do with that; however, as Torah Jews who live in the modern world, we must not shirk from our responsibility to be an “or lagoyim” and evaluate every movement from a Torah lens and then try to shape the world to the best of our ability. Discussing certain controversial topics from a Torah perspective should not necessarily mean that we advocate for the “liberal” perspective on the topic; however, it does mean that we should engage the topic.  Naturally, it is very difficult to talk about sensitive topics in today’s toxic climate, but I would hope that modern orthodoxy would be up for the challenge.  Our hashkafa embraces tension, difficult conversations and balancing different values, and I would hope that in addressing sensitive topics we could perhaps find common ground on some aspects of the topic and say that as Torah Jews we can all agree on “X,” but as to “Y” there is political debate and reasonable perspectives from both sides.  From personal experience, I have been criticized when I commented on certain sensitive political topics from, what I thought was, a Torah perspective.  It’s no fun to be criticized, but I think that it is still appropriate to try to be an “or lagoyim,” and to try to shape the societal conversation from a Torah perspective.

What does this look like in practice with respect to the issue at hand?  As an example, if we feel that racism and race relations are major issues in the broader society, a modern orthodox shul that wants to be an “or lagoyim” would delve into the topic by trying to understand the issue and read literature relating to the topic, then discuss the topic from a Torah perspective and then hopefully take necessary action that is consistent with Torah values.  It might mean that we engage in dialogue with members from a black community just to tell them that we care for them and we empathize with them and we believe wholeheartedly that everyone, Jew and non-Jew, black and white, was created in the image of God.  It does not mean that we may necessarily agree on whether there should be reparations to the black community or whether we should defund the police, but standing with the black community to say we care about you is something that I think left-wing, right-wing, democratic and republican Jews could all agree is a good idea and is necessary in today’s societal climate.  In the world of identity politics, will this be interpreted as promoting a left-wing agenda?  Maybe.  But if that’s the case, I think we have a responsibility to change that perception and share Torah values of tikkun olam that are unrelated to political positions.

I am aware that people, in general, are nervous about change.  Many people have grown up in modern orthodox communities where no emphasis was placed on each member’s personal responsibility to participate in tefillah b’tzibbur beyond Shabbat minyan attendance.  Many people have grown up in modern orthodox communities that did not live by a broader “or lagoyim” outreach philosophy of sharing Torah values with the broader society.  But I can assure you that both of these values are fully consistent with modern orthodox values and I invite you all to reflect and reconsider what a modern orthodox community should mean to each one of us.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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