July 17, 2024
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Are Orthodox Jews Antiquated? A Response to Criticism Hurled at a Shaarei Orah Member

You are antiquated! You live in the past! Such was the criticism hurled at a beloved member of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. Our member was invited by a relative to spend this past Sunday, August 14, at the pool. Our member responded that she could not since she would be honoring the fast and observance of Tisha B’Av. The relative responded in disbelief. Because of events that occurred 2,000 years ago, you sacrifice a day at the pool?! This, expressed the relative, was an expression of an antiquated mindset.

Many of our readers likely had similar experiences. My wife, Malca, relates that she was at the receiving end of the same accusation in a religion class she took at a secular university. My wife had told the professor, who had been a vigorous advocate for appreciating and respecting each of the world’s religions, that she needed to leave class early on Friday due to observance of her religion’s Sabbath. The professor then told my wife that she was antiquated (I suppose her tolerance and appreciation for all cultures did not apply to Orthodox Judaism; for some reason, many otherwise open-minded people become strangely close minded when it comes to matters of Orthodox Jewish belief and practice).

How does one respond to such a (rude) accusation? How do we explain to ourselves that we are not antiquated? An answer may be drawn from the following story.

In Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s version of Elisha ben Avuyah’s life story (the classic Talmudic scholar who lost his faith), Elisha abandons his faith, in great part, due to his conclusion that the Jewish people had no chance of surviving the Roman onslaught in the aftermath of the vicious Roman crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Elisha concluded that the Jewish people had run their course. There was no hope of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash, Jewish national aspirations were obliterated, hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed and thousands more were defecting to Christianity and polytheistic faiths.

Elisha’s conclusion that the Jews were antiquated was entirely rational given the historical context. Rabi Akiva, though, is presented by Steinberg as telling Elisha ben Avuyah, “Do you imagine that any earthly power can crush a people who live to communicate a God-given message of faith, justice and mercy to all men? All the empires of the world united in unholy league have not the might to exterminate us.” Steinberg’s words are even more poignant given that he wrote them in 1939, the year of the publication of “As a Driven Leaf.”

History, of course, proved the accuracy of Rabbi Akiva’s (and Milton Steinberg’s) dreamy positive forecast and the shortcomings of Elisha’s rational approach. In truth, the survival of the Jewish people is nothing short of miraculous. Rav Yaakov Emden, in the introduction to his siddur, writes that the survival of the Jewish people throughout the ages of endless persecution is a miracle far greater than that of the splitting of the Red Sea! Our survival demonstrates both the greatness of Hashem and the greatness of our people.

The only manner in which we can appreciate the greatness of our people is to learn about our past and identify with its great achievements and great calamities. Only when we recognize the depth of our plunges can we appreciate the extraordinary miracle of the contemporary flourishing of our people, especially in the State of Israel.

No, we are not antiquated. Quite the contrary. Those who do not connect with the past have no future. One who does not care about his grandparents’ practices, will find that his grandchildren will not care about his practices. No wonder why, as decisively demonstrated in the 2013 Pew study of American Jews, the Orthodox community is the only Jewish community that is flourishing in this country.

The Gemara teaches that only those who participate in the mourning for Jerusalem will rejoice in its rebuilding. Those who choose not to be bothered to sacrifice one Sunday at the pool to mourn for Jerusalem (reminiscent of Eisav’s preference for a bowl of soup over his birthright) will not rejoice in its rebuilding.

We who, on the other hand, observed Tisha B’Av, plugged into the power of an eternal nation sustained by the eternal God, and are poised for a glorious present and future.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.

 

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