The State of Orthodox Judaism: It Is the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.”  Recently, I’ve read conflicting articles on social media.  In some articles, the authors think that we are living in times of flourishing Orthodox Jewish communities, marked by an explosion of Torah and passionate Jewish living. In other articles, the authors think that we are living in times where our Orthodox Jewish communities are fragmented, plagued by disenfranchisement, corruption, and abuse. Indeed, I, too, can point to many aspects of our community that make me so proud to be a member, but also others that, frankly, leave me feeling dismayed.  Of course, for every strength that we have (and thank God we have many!) there are areas that need serious improvement. Our work is never done and we must constantly grow and work to fix that which needs fixing in our communities. But on a personal and practical level, the question that I’ve been thinking about lately is how should I feel as an Orthodox Jew as I walk down the streets? Should I walk around with my head held high or should I walk around feeling miserable? Am I a glass half-full guy or a glass half-empty guy?

Applied more globally, I’m asking what is the cost and what is the benefit of approaching life by focusing on the good or focusing on the bad?  My knee-jerk response is to say that if we focus on the good then we will be more motivated to act, but I’m not sure that is true. Fear is also a very powerful motivator, with the political scene just one example of this phenomenon. It seems to me that if we examine many political elections, the candidates more often than not use scare tactics to sway the voters to go out and vote for them. More often than not, they try to demonstrate how bad things are now and how much worse they will get if you don’t vote for them and defeat their opponent. Although many candidates try to run on a positive platform, more often than not that doesn’t happen because so many have found that fear translates into votes. What this says to me is that fear and pessimism are powerful motivational tools. If I live my life generally being happy with my lot and the direction of the country, of Orthodox Jewry, or society in general, then maybe I will be less motivated to make changes.

At the same time, there is a significant downside to adopting a fearful or pessimistic outlook. If I walk around all day feeling that life is bad, that people are bad, that there are so many problems and that the bad outweighs the good, then I may be more motivated to act, but my actions will be devoid of gratitude. A negative outlook necessarily weakens our ability to recognize the good, and lessens our midda of hakarat hatov, of gratitude. The Rabbis instituted the mitzvah to recite brachot on so many things, from the foods we eat, to the beautiful sights that we see, to new acquisitions and special events. It seems to me that the Rabbis wanted us to develop this character trait of gratitude, to walk around feeling grateful for life and to appreciate that which we have. Looking past our many communal blessings and focusing instead on what we lack is in direct contrast to this imperative.

There are many different time periods throughout the year. Currently, we find ourselves in a time period when we should minimize our happiness and we will soon observe a day when the entirety of our focus should be how bad things are. But the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av is Shabbat Nachamu, when the goal is to comfort ourselves. And, indeed, most of the Jewish holidays are times when we celebrate, when we are grateful, when despite how bad a predicament we may find ourselves in, Jewish law requires us to find a reason to be happy.

We cannot ignore and we must not ignore the problems in our community. Sometimes the only way to motivate us focus on these problems and attempt to fix them is to highlight them and shine a spotlight on the current troubled state of affairs. At the same time, I don’t believe that this attitude should be our general orientation. For every one article that we write about the problems of our community, we should write five articles celebrating our communal successes. Successes like that epitomized by Shoshana Obitz, who survived Auschwitz after witnessing her mother being taken away by Dr. Mengele in front of her eyes, who married a fellow survivor after the war, and who just celebrated her 104th birthday with her entire offspring, hundreds of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathering at the Kotel Ha’Ma’Aravi!   Let us continue to motivate ourselves to engage in introspection and to fix that which needs to be fixed in our communities.  We must continue to shine a spotlight on issues that might otherwise be overlooked, not allowing ourselves to shy away from acknowledging our failings.  But let us remember that Tisha B’Av is one day of sadness, and for all of the sadness that we could reasonably commemorate in our history, our Jewish tradition tells us that our overwhelming focus should be on the good, on the positive, and on the blessings that God has given us.

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