Tearing Down Walls and Building Fences

“One must begin the Passover story from a point of disgrace and end at a point of praise: What is disgrace? Rav said one should begin ‘our ancestors worshiped idols’ and Shmuel said, ‘we were slaves in Egypt.’” Talmud Pesachim 116a

“Rabbi Akiva used to say … Beloved is Man who was created in the Image of God … Beloved are Israel who are called the children of God” Ethics of the Fathers 3:18

The story is told that when Napoleon invaded Russia, the Hassidic masters disputed who should win the war. Rabbi Yisrael of Koznitz, a follower of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, advocated for the French. The Maggid of Koznitz thought the French would emancipate the Jews and end the horrible, physical burden the Jews suffered under the cruel Russian boot.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the famed author of the Tanya and first Rebbe of Lubavitch, demurred and had his followers support the Russians. The “Alter HaZaken” as he is known today, preferred life under the evil Czar. The Rebbe of Lubavitch feared for the spiritual health of the Jews and believed that the Jewish people would lose their souls and their religion if accepted by the gentile world.

What should we fear? Freedom or slavery?

Today, Jews live in countries of unbounded freedom, friendship, and respect. According to a relatively recent poll, Judaism is the most respected religion in America. At the same time, Jews have been defecting from their religious affiliation at an alarming rate. Indeed, freedom has brought tremendous physical benefits. Yet, the author of the Tanya wasn’t wrong; removing oppression from the Jewish people also jeopardizes traditional Jewish religion. Is it better to gain freedom from slavery at the risk of our traditions or better to be spiritually free while physically oppressed? The Hassidic arguments of old are not without merit today even if in general the debate is now moot.

The Torah, Judaism, and Jews have always walked a tightrope between the universal on one one side and the particular on another. Even our calender reflects this dialectic. In the fall we celebrate the beginning of the new year with all its universal promise followed by Yom Kippur, a time of global atonement, “On Rosh Hashanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like“Bnei Maron.” (Talmud RH 18a). This season culminates with the Sukkot celebrations and the 70 bull sacrifices representing the nations of the world. How often to we sing the words of Isaiah, “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations” during this season?

The Passover holiday is different. This is our time of redemption. We turn the focus inwards and relate to God saving the Jewish people from both physical and spiritual bondage. This route crosses Mt. Sinai where the Jews were crowned a “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” The celebration is limited, “the uncircumcised may not eat of [the Passover sacrifice.]” (Exodus 12:48)

The focusing on embracing the universal often comes, as we have seen in the polls, at the expense of the particular.

As an educator, I am heartbroken by my students who chose to leave parts or all of Judaism behind as they embrace the world. Yet, my upbringing and my soul cling to the universal. I often question the best path — how to stay on the tight rope without falling off to one side or the other?

My educational institution, as many similar Modern Orthodox school do, advocates a philosophy of openness. But I often wonder, when I look at my students who have embraced that openness, if our tearing down walls and barriers comes at too high a price to the Jewish soul?

Should we tell our students to run and hide? Is that ideal and does that even accomplish our goal or does it backfire? Should we advocate that our students attend the great academic institutions of America or should we move them to choosing a less open environment?

My yeshiva has always taken the more open approach while some others have pressed the latter. Yet, neither offers an oasis for the Jewish college student wanting to balance on this tight rope. As one former student expressed this conundrum in a private message:

Just as there is a fatigue a student can develop from defending Israel from BDS and from skipping class on holidays, there is a corresponding fatigue that a student can develop from living in a modern-day shtetl for four years, during a time when he feels he should be growing into an adult with a brain of his own. There are students who, from an orthodox point of view, shouldn’t go to secular colleges. There are also students who should not be encouraged to go to Yeshiva University. I’m tired of waking up and wondering if it’s my major that is sucking the joy out of my life, or the religious-communal iron cage i see around me. I want to be religious. I want to accept, practice, and love my heritage. But not because I’ve been in a cocoon for my entire formative life, but because I was afforded the experience of choosing it.

I live and raise my children in Israel. Not any Israel, but in a small, beautiful, monolithic and often, I think, monochromatic settlement. Here we have built both literal and metaphorical walls. Perhaps not as high as in other places, but solid just the same. Despite the firmness of these walls, some of our children choose a very different path. But the national and international political reality in Israel presents a very different picture than the one where the host culture is not Jewish and the world around is more representative of the world around!

The tension between embracing the universal or the particular is complex. Beginning in a month, Jews around the world, and especially in the Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist groups, will celebrate holidays which are tightly bound to our particular narrative: Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Log BaOmer, Israel Memorial day and Israel Independence day, and Shavuot when we received the Torah. In recounting the Passover story, we hope to pass down our founding narrative to the next generation and on Shavuot we hope to pass on the Torah. Will our children and students embrace the heritage we have so dutifully kept alive for them and cherished ourselves? Will they be able to hold fast to the Torah while also engaging with all peoples to build a better world for all of us?

I pray that they do.

Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi recently held a panel discussion in New York on the topic of the future of Modern Orthodoxy. Due to time constraints, we, unfortunately, had to cut the program short. Those interested can view the video:

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.