Moshe’s initial attempt to liberate the Jews was ridiculed by Pharoah and ultimately scorned by his own people. As Parshat Vaera commences, Moshe, seeking to galvanize the spirit of the Jews, delivers four redemptive expressions, referred to as the four terms or four “languages” of Redemption. Instead of describing the redemption in abstract, Moshe carefully delineates the various facets of their much-anticipated emancipation. By delivering more vivid details, Moshe seeks to make the redemption more graphic.
Human beings think in words, and our lives and experiences are shaped by the words that “clothe” our ideas. The more robust our vocabulary the more precise and sharp our experiences. Eskimos have seven different names to describe various types of snow. As snow is a central part of their experience, they require verbal precision to discriminate between snow suitable for different functions. As snow is only peripheral to our lives, we can suffice with one general term for all forms of snow.
Just as proper words sharpen our experiences, improper words can also trap us and confine our experiences. These traps are especially restrictive when we employ them to define ourselves and our religious identity. Religious experience is meant to be both comprehensive and personal, but inaccurate labeling curtails our religious experiences.
Here are a few examples of “verbal traps” and their impact upon religious experience:
Unable to translate the term charedi more precisely, modern media has labeled them “ultra-Orthodox.” This term should refer to anyone who strives for premium or superior levels of religious commitment and consciousness. It should portray individuals for whom religion isn’t peripheral but pivotal to their identity. Shouldn’t every Jew describe themselves as “ultra-Orthodox” or at the very least aspire to achieve “ultra-Orthodoxy,” even if their current practice comes up short? By assigning this title to a different religious society, are people merely acquitting themselves from religious challenge and growth?
Every Jew, without exception, has an absolute responsibility to live as “ultra-Orthodox” a lifestyle as possible. Those who pursue a charedi lifestyle certainly view themselves as ultra-Orthodox. People in other communities who view a charedi approach as more “ultra-Orthodox” than their own have an unconditional obligation to adopt a charedi lifestyle. Those who find other forms of Orthodox behavior ideal do themselves a great disservice by accepting any other title that implies that their own approach is “non-ultra-Orthodoxy.” Any other label “traps” people into believing that a “non-ultra-Orthodox” lifestyle is acceptable. This terminology, which has become so common, wreaks great damage to our religious imagination and ambition.
2. Partnership Minyanim
A second term that has become a popular part of our parlance is the term “partnership minyan,” which generally refers to minyanim that allocate ritualistic roles to women. By applying this term to those groups, many who daven in more classically roled minyanim may forfeit the sense that these traditional minyanim are also partnership-based models. Every minyan is intended to be a partnership experience on manifold levels. Firstly, we pray based upon the precedent of our ancestors and maintain a strict and unchanging liturgy adopted over 2,000 years ago by our Sages. As we pray, we engage in a great “partnership of prayer” throughout the ages of Jewish history. Secondly, we pray as a community—banded together by our common houses of worship and integrated into quorums of 10, which allow communal prayer to transcend individual petitioning. Joint prayer is a powerful communal bond and underscores the “partnership” inherent in general Jewish communal identity. Finally, even in the “gender sense,” tefillah is a powerful partnership between men and women—between a man and his wife, or between a brother and sister. Just because women aren’t allocated public ceremonious roles doesn’t mean their tefillah is any less effective nor should it efface the sense of shared or “partnership” prayer. The broader question of women and prayer lies beyond this article, and obviously, as a man, it would be presumptuous to describe the sentiments of women on the other side of the mechitza. I can only say that from my side of the mechitza, my davening is completely different knowing that my wife is davening along with me and I feel a powerful sense of “partnership” in praying for our common requests of our God. I admit that I “quickly” glance up at the gallery to locate my wife, and her presence completely transforms my tefillah. By assigning the term “partnership minyanim” to “other minyanim,” those who daven in traditional minyanim create an additional verbal trap that limits the horizons of tefillah.
3. Modern, Not So Religious
A final word trap to consider is the term “modern” as an antonym for religious. Very often I hear people describe others whom they view as less religious as being more “modern.” Of course, the most odious part of this statement is the assumption that we can easily gauge other people’s religious temperature. Religion stretches across the totality of human experience including private aspects of our lives, as well as our inner intimate relationship with God. These private elements of religion are indiscernible, and simplistic assumptions about people’s orthodoxy is unfair and obnoxious.
However, even assuming for a moment that we could assess the orthodoxy of others, it is obvious to me that “modern” is not the opposite term of religious. Every age we inhabit is, by definition, “modern,” as the new age advances humanity and provides tools and challenges unknown to previous generations. These tools always provide opportunity and risk and each person measures the risk/benefit factor before adopting modern resources. Adaptation or rejection of modernity doesn’t determine or reflect religious seriousness. A person is not less religious because they more readily adopt modern opportunities. By employing the term “modern” as the antonym to “religious” we trap ourselves into viewing the modern world as anti-religious. This polarized view makes it difficult to feel religiously successful when we engage with modernity. This terminology leads to religious schizophrenia: We feel religious when removed from the modern world, but irreligious when interacting with it. Ultimately, the inability to stretch religion into the modern sphere shrinks religion into slices or slivers of our lives rather than allowing it to suffuse the totality of our experience.
What additional “word traps” limit your religious breadth?
Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.