About 30 years ago, when I was deciding which Yeshiva in Israel to attend, the joke that went around was: What’s the difference between Gush, Shaalvim and KBY? When there is a solidarity rally in support of Jews or the state of Israel, the Shaalvim guys will go and cheer during the rally, the KBY guys won’t go because it’s bittul Torah, and the Gush guys will debate endlessly whether or not they should go and they will end up going and having a lousy time.
This past week, I found myself thinking about the challenge of the committed, passionate Jew who engages with the outside world. I wonder if we could draw a venn diagram. In one circle we would include those who attended the Siyum Ha’Shas celebration at MetLife Stadium, at Barclays Center or at some other location. In the other circle we would include those who marched in the No Hate No Fear Solidarity March Against Antisemitism. I wonder how many people would find themselves inside both circles.
There are many people who participated in a Siyum HaShas celebration and would not participate in a mixed gender march and/or a march that was organized by non-religious Jews who may not share the same religious worldview as them. At the same time, there are many people who participated in the solidarity march against antisemitism that have no connection to the study of Talmud and would not have felt at home participating in the Siyum Ha’Shas celebration organized by Agudath Israel. Our modern orthodox community is uniquely ideologically positioned to both celebrate Torah and to march in solidarity with all of our Jewish brethren in support of a value that we all share.
The complex, fullness of our ideology also presents us with tremendous challenge. How many in our community participated in the Siyum Ha’Shas compared to those in the Charedi community? Truth be told, I can understand why many women in our community who value learning Gemara themselves may not have wished to attend the Agudath Israel Siyum Ha’Shas, because the message at the Siyum was that the men should learn Gemara and the women should not learn Gemara but should support their husband’s studies. At the same time, I wonder how many from our community would have showed up if our community would have run our own Siyum Ha’Shas with our own speakers and our own messages which, in some instances, are different than the messages that we heard at the Agudath Israel Siyum Ha’Shas? Are we as passionate about consistent Torah study as much as those in the Charedi community?
In one of Rav Lichtenstein’s essays, entitled, “Centrist Orthodoxy: A Spiritual Accounting,” he asserts that “vibrant centrism should issue from the dialectical tension between diverse and, at times, even divergent values. It can succeed when we can honestly state, by analogy with Byron’s statement (in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”), “I love not man the less, but nature more,” that, in comparison to others, we love not Torah less, but derekh eretz – in the full, rich sense of that term – more…. How much of our Centrism indeed derives from dialectical tension, and how much from tepid indifference? Is our commitment to Talmud Torah truly as deep as that of the Right, but only modified in practice by the need to pursue other values? Do our students devote as much time and effort to Talmud Torah, minus only that needed to acquire culture or build a [Jewish] state?”
Rav Lichtenstein challenges us not to be moderately passionate. He challenges us to be passionately moderate. He writes, “Kana’ut (zealotry), is, among us, a dirty word. But I believe we should learn to distinguish between two senses of kana’ut. I mentioned R. Aharon Kotler zt”l before. In terms of the objective positions he maintained, he was far more liberal than his contemporary disciples. But he maintained his positions with a dynamism, a fire, an energy, a passion which is almost incredible… There was within him a kana’ut not for extreme positions, but for his positions.”
Rav Lichtenstein writes of the advantages of the centrist orthodox approach. He writes of a story when he was in a Charedi Jerusalem neighborhood, “and found a merchant stuck there with his car… There were some youngsters there from the neighborhood, who judging by their looks were probably ten or eleven years old. They saw this merchant was not wearing a kippa. So they began a whole pilpul, based on the gemara in Pesachim (113b) about whether they should help him or not. They said, “If he walks around bareheaded, presumably he doesn’t separate terumot u-ma’asrot, so he is suspect of eating and selling untithed produce…”… I told [R. Soloveitchik] of the incident. I ended with the comment, “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara, but they would have helped him.” My feeling then was: Why, Ribbono shel Olam, must this be our choice? Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara, but help him.”
Rav Lichtenstein challenges us to live a life of complexity, but to do so with passion for our holy texts and our holy mesorah. He would challenge us to find ourselves inside both circles of the Siyum Ha’Shas-solidarity march venn diagram. He would challenge us to attend the solidarity march and connect with our brothers and sisters who are in pain under the threat of increasing antisemitism while making sure that we are learning Torah on the train or bus ride both to and from the rally.