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Why centrist Orthodox living doesn’t make good TV

This year has taught us the importance of taking responsibility for our own vigilance, so that when things go wrong, we ask not, 'where was God,' but, 'where are we?'
A young teen receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Misgav Ladach hospital in Jerusalem on June 6, 2021, as Israel begins its coronavirus vaccination campaign for 12- to 15-year-olds. (Menahem KAHANA/AFP)
A young teen receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Misgav Ladach hospital in Jerusalem on June 6, 2021, as Israel begins its coronavirus vaccination campaign for 12- to 15-year-olds. (Menahem KAHANA/AFP)

We are on the verge of an intense prayer season, one that arouses our sense of unpreparedness as the opening words of the Rosh Hashanah service are first intoned with their haunting, ancient melodies. Suddenly, abashedly, we are here. The Days of Awe are upon us. But we are not ready. Introspection begins in earnest. Reflections on the year past occupy us even as we ponder — and also worry about — the days ahead. Our tefilot on the Days of Awe are filled with urgency and existential anxiety. Our Father, our King, we have sinned before you. We are unsure what the next year will bring. Who will rest and who will wander… Who will be at ease and who will suffer? We are aware of our insignificance, like clay in the hands of a potter. The trembling of the shofar’s cry mirrors our own brokenness. Our lives are like a faded flower, a fleeting shadow, a dream that slips away.

These same existential refrains appear, for traditional Jews, in the recitation of Tahanun that concludes the Selihot service and is recited twice daily. Well, not exactly every day. There are a number of reasons that vitiate Tahanun’s daily recitation. On days that it is not said, you can almost hear an audible sound of relief in the synagogue, particularly on Mondays or Thursdays. This small omission is a reprieve for many, but not because it shaves a few minutes from the service. Simply put, it is hard to be this vulnerable and insignificant in the blur of early morning.

In reciting Tahanun, we follow the example of Daniel, who understood that moments of crisis — and there is always a crisis somewhere — require humility: “I turned my face to the Lord God, devoting myself to prayer and supplication, in fasting, in sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3). Like the ancient sages who added personal petitions and appeals that followed Shemoneh Esrei (Berakhot 16b-17b, 31a), we too beg for God’s mercy. Tahanun opens with the recitation of King David’s plea after sinning, “Let us fall, I pray you, into the hand of the Lord, for His mercies are many…” (II Sam. 24:14). So we fall. Nefilat apayim (lit. falling on the face) offers us the movement of submission based on Moses and Aaron’s response to Korach’s challenge (Num. 16:22). Joshua, too, fell on his face when confronted by the enormity of his failure at Ai (Josh. 7:6). Weaving verses from Psalms (6: 2-11) in the first paragraph, we open the last passage with a verse from the very last biblical book, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are turned on You” (II Chron. 20:12), and close Tahanun with the desire for salvation and forgiveness: “Help us, O God, our deliverer, for the sake of the glory of Your name. Save us and forgive our sin, for the sake of Your name” (Psalm 79:9).

Sandwiched between these paragraphs, we make three statements that cement the values we aim to protect each day. I believe these represent three cornerstones of contemporary, centrist Orthodoxy that have been challenged this past year and must be confirmed anew as we welcome a new year and its new challenges.

During COVID, many of our commitments have been put to the test. We lost important scholars and leaders who articulated a path forward amidst confusion. Orthodoxy, thus, finds itself at a critical inflection point. We turn to Tahanun, of all places, for guidance. After reciting the first paragraph of Tahanun, we lift our heads and sit up. With a newfound confidence, we state that despite the little we know, we do know what to do. We know that we are stewards who must engage in three central roles:

Shomer Yisrael: We are to watch over Israel.

Shomer Am Ekhad: We must protect Jewish peoplehood and our oneness.

Shomer Goy Kadosh: We must preserve our sanctity as a people.

Shomer Yisrael

The political upheaval of the past year, the discomfort so many American Jews feel about their support of Israel and the rise of antisemitism requires us to strengthen our commitment to this first tenant of stewardship: “Shomer Yisrael.” In Tahanun, we raise our heads high at this moment, as if our very bodies recognize the centrality of Israel in our lives. No longer are our heads bowed in exile. As we sit up, and our choreography matches the majesty of the moment. Finally, we have an actual land to protect and a refuge to insulate us from harm’s way. This shmira, protection, requires constant vigilance, an attentiveness that has so often fallen upon the shoulders of religious Zionists, whose commitment to the State of Israel has not wavered with the fashionable political tide. At the same time, we know that this mandates a concern beyond our physical homeland to guarding us against the global blight of those who hate us. We may be tired of being the nation that dwells alone, but we are not giving up the post.

Yet there is another dimension of Shomer Yisrael that is incumbent upon us in this very moment and requires sensitive, honest discussion. Shmira is not only about metaphysical protection but physical protection quite literally. These past 18 months, we witnessed the horrors that ensue when segments of the Orthodox community ignore government mask-wearing and gathering mandates. We watched with tears in our eyes as beautiful young men were trampled to death at Meron because leaders and officials turned a blind eye to safety issues in order to allow people to continue their religious celebrations unhampered. Not long after, another structural failure led to bleachers collapsing and taking with them more precious Hasidic lives. Although the Surfside disaster was not a “Jewish” catastrophe, it, too, created an intolerable, unfathomable loss of life. Images of the tower collapsing in on itself repeat themselves and will do so as we recite this year’s U’Netaneh Tokef. The human negligence of it all is terrifying and maddening. “For your own sake, be most careful” — u’shmartem me’od et nafshotechem [1] We have a biblical mandate to protect our health and to protect the physicality of everyday life by avoiding danger. To be centrist Orthodox is to affirm each and every day a solid, unwavering commitment to science, medicine, engineering, and the rule of law. It means standing up to those who vilify vaccinations or proudly flaunt rules designed to protect life.

How did we allow these human acts of rashlanut, negligence, to take place? Cutting corners for efficiency or expedience can cost lives. This loss reminds us that, too often, we wait until problems become really terrible before doing anything about them. This goes far beyond the structural soundness of buildings. We neglect our physical health, necessary home renovations, problems in a marriage or within organizations until they become menacing and overwhelming. If this year has taught us anything, it is the importance of prevention, detection, and vigilance. For all those who asked where was God, not enough of us asked, where are we? Who are we? We are tasked with being shomrim — guardians — from the very first chapters of creation. We must not only act in the world — l’avdah — we are charged with preserving and maintaining that which we create — l’shamra. Anything less is irresponsible. Tahanun reminds us of this curatorial role which has been a cornerstone of all orthodoxies.

Shomer Goy Ekhad

We are then enjoined in Tahanun to protect the unity of our people, which, at a time of so much denominational and political friction seems almost impossible. We have allowed political partisanship to seep into every corner of our lives and divide us. We make assumptions about those who don’t practice Judaism like we do or vote like we do, and we push them away. On Tisha B’Av, we saw photos of one group of worshipers attacking another, even though space had been accorded to each. For the most part, we may have been troubled, but with few exceptions, we stayed silent. This cannot be our Orthodoxy. Tahanun literally begs us to bring people close, to preserve and grow the threads that join us instead of amplifying the issues that tear us apart. We must be stewards of peoplehood and not remain isolated and cloistered. Current research demonstrates that the centrist Orthodox community has a high rate of life satisfaction, family growth, and material comfort. When we are blessed, we are able to be generous and share our blessings. We can afford to preserve our unity without promoting needless sameness or uttering harmful judgments.

Shomer Goy Kadosh

We conclude the mid-section of Tahanun with the most difficult challenge facing the Orthodox community and one that is in constant danger in our highly secular, highly sexualized, highly polarized world. We are charged with preserving our sanctity. It takes hard work and discipline to create the fabric of sanctity. It is so easy to damage that fabric. We have allowed into our homes and our lives music and TV, video games and social media platforms that are a continual threat to holiness. It is time to have a conversation with ourselves and with our children about what holiness is. More than any other specific practice, ritual, or holiday observance, being Jewish is ultimately about trying to be holy. It asks us to walk differently in the world, to have our feet on the ground, but always see Jacob’s transcendent ladder reaching heavenward. With every blessing we utter — over a piece of fruit, a beautiful smell, or a rainbow — we confirm that sanctity. Tahanun reminds us how easy it is to damage holiness and how hard we must work to preserve it.

To this point, reality TV this past year and a host of other programs and articles depict an Orthodoxy that is narrow and limiting, as if to put its adherents on notice. The complaints of one shallow, narcissistic, mercenary, and made-for-television individual sent the Orthodox community spinning. The uncomfortable outside lens pushed many to think defensively about the beauty of our choices and forced us into articulating what moves and inspires us about our faith commitments and our lifestyle. At least it accomplished that. But the sudden outpouring that lit up social media also highlighted our most profound insecurities. Are there serious issues with which today’s centrist Orthodox must contend? To be sure. Excessive materialism, parochialism, and a lack of gender equity within a halakhic framework are difficult, niggling problems. But they are our problems. If we are not bothering you, please, please leave us alone. We are not objects in your curiosity cabinet.

To those who question their own Orthodoxy as a result, perhaps it is time to put everyone else on the defensive instead. Even with its problems, centrist Orthodoxy remains a compelling wholesome, demanding, and aspirational response to modernity. Traditional communities practice their faith openly and strongly and are thus inspired to serve humanity and redress the world’s great ills — poverty, injustice, loneliness — together. We should honor that and articulate it. We give a tenth of our earnings to tzedakah, charity. We take care of the sick, the widowed, the orphaned. We welcome the stranger. One day a week, Shabbat invites us to rest and disengage from a digital universe that has kidnapped the world as we know it. Our “charmed, naïve” Sabbath observance is unimaginable in most segments of society, but so desperately needed. We invest heavily in education and place our families first. We respect and treasure that which came before us and lovingly hand it down to the next generation. We believe and try to adhere to a high moral bar and make meaningful contributions in the fields of science, humanities, jurisprudence, government and the arts. We believe that learning is a lifetime occupation. We achieve kedushah, holiness, through tefilah, Talmud Torah, z’mirot, and hesed, the loving-kindness that is the cement of our community. These features of Orthodoxy may not make for good television, but they certainly make for good people. We live these values daily. We know what we are doing to make the world better, so should everybody else before putting another community’s values under the microscope.

Turning back to Tahanun, we recognize that when properly expressed, prayer surfaces our deepest, often unconscious desires. The simple act of naming what we most need helps us not only identify our yearnings and aspirations. It also helps us skim away the rote, repetitive nature of our requests so that our appeals are truly reparative. Tahanun offers us a three-fold agenda for centrist Orthodoxy. This year, we might think of it as a High Holiday appeal that does not ask for money. It asks for something harder: a pledge to think about what a personal commitment to Orthodoxy should and should not look like as this year full of collective anxiety and mourning comes to an end. It is in this spirit of contrition and soul-searching that we look back on the year past from a prayer lens. We ask that God’s mercy know no bounds and that God’s compassion remain unmasked. As for us, there is much work ahead to do. Let us do the work with joy.

Shomer Yisrael. Shomer Goy Ekhad. Shomer Goy Kadosh.

[1] Deut. 4:15. For further discussion of the need to protect oneself and others from physical dangers, see BT Brakhot 32b and BT Bava Kama 15b and Tosafot on Shavuot 36a.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality. Her newest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren). She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA, and tweeted on one page of Talmud study a day at DrEricaBrown.
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