David S. Zinberg
David S. Zinberg

Look for the union label

In a grassroots effort to promote financial transparency in yeshiva day school education, an unofficial listing of tuition and fees has been circulated online. Aside from the numbers, which have become nearly all-important to many parents who send their children to yeshiva, the shared spreadsheet also includes a column for “Religious Self-Identification.” Anyone can enter a day school’s official or perceived religious affiliation.

As expected, most yeshivot are tagged with the familiar labels: Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Yeshivish (non-Hasidic Haredi), Pluralistic. But a number of unusual subclasses make an appearance — especially among yeshivot in large Orthodox communities — including “Classic Yeshivish,” “Modern Yeshivish,” “Liberal Yeshivish,” “Chabad-ish,” “Modern Orthodox-ish,” and “Bais Yaakov (lite).”

Such an elaborate taxonomy might seem comical and was likely crafted with more than a little whimsy (we are unlikely to find “Liberal Yeshivish,” for example, on the “About Us” webpage of any school). But as fanciful as these particular labels may be, they accurately represent the wide range of choices in the field. And for some members of the Orthodox community, the variations are clearly not trivial. Subtle degrees of classification may reflect real differences in religious and social norms.

On one level, an abundance of choice in the day school marketplace is good news. It is a sign of population growth, diversity, and financial success. With increasing numbers comes a variety of hues and shades, and parents will naturally seek out a school with a coloring that matches their own. All this sounds like a success story. What’s not to like?

Too much institutional choice has a potential downside — it may be a symptom, and a cause, of religious elitism. The more choice that is available, and the more we emphasize the unrivaled superiority of one particular choice, the more alien the rejected options become. We have grown so accustomed to variety and, at the same time, so enamored with our own particular brand, we may demand nothing less than a perfect match for our choice of shul, yeshiva, and social circle. And after settling on that choice, we will deny entry to those we consider less than a perfect fit. Ironically, choice can undermine our tolerance for diversity.

One way to accommodate the diversity that has accompanied the growth of the Orthodox community is to broaden the religious boundaries of our existing communal structures. Instead, we often find that each subgroup draws a tight circle around itself, such that it becomes necessary to add new circles, and circles within circles, based on variations in dress, culture, religious practice, or ideology. A circle of likeminded individuals provides necessary fellowship and comfort, but a circle can easily turn into a wall, sometimes without windows, entryways, or even exit doors.

The themes underlying the Tishrei holidays can help check our obsession with creating ever narrower labels for our communities, our institutions, and ourselves.

The Rosh Hashanah prayers combine universalism and particularism. In the Amida, we try to transcend human divisions when we imagine a unified society: “May all your creations become a single fellowship to do your will with a perfect heart.” This precedes the prayer for the dignity of the Jewish people — “Grant honor to your people and praise to those who revere you.” Similarly, Alenu, which was originally composed for the Rosh Hashanah musaf service, begins with an affirmation of Jewish exceptionalism but ends with a vision of all nations united under God. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote that Jewish chosenness is linked with an aspiration for humanity’s redemption. Particularism and universalism are inseparable). If there are any labels here, they are simply “Human” and “Jew.”

The ancient Rabbis believed that the major festivals were significant events on the global calendar. On Rosh Hashanah, in the words of the Mishna and repeated in the Unetaneh Tokef hymn, “all the world’s inhabitants pass before God [in judgment] like a line of sheep.” And according to the same mishna, the entire world — not only the Jewish people — is judged for rainfall on Sukkot. The Rabbis also said that the sacrifice of seventy bulls in the Temple over the course of Sukkot was offered on behalf of the “seventy nations” of the world, as if to say that we are all in this together.

The Yom Kippur vidui (confession) comes in two versions — public and private. The congregation sings the public confession out loud, joyfully. But during the silent, private vidui, we stand before God alone, as individuals, honestly confronting our personal shortcomings. At this stark moment, there is no subgroup or sub-label behind which to hide. If we consider both our common humanity and our uncommon individuality, we can resist the tendency to create compound social layers that break us apart.

It seems as though there was never a time in history when all of humanity feared a single God or when Jewish society lacked tribes, competing kingdoms, sects, or denominations. That vision may be out of reach for the foreseeable future. But well before the lion lies down with the lamb, and until all men become brothers, we can still make great strides towards the Messianic Age. Rethinking our proliferating divisions during the early fall holidays may be a step in the right direction.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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