“A king invited his children to a banquet for a certain number of days. When the time arrived for them to take their departure he said, ‘Children, I beg of you, stay one day more with me; it is so hard for me to part with you!’”—Rashi (Vayikra 23:36)
I have two 12th graders. This Shemini Atzeret, they sat around my Yom Tov table. Next year, with Hashem’s help, they will sit around a different table when learning in Israel for the year. Their parting is already hard for me.
I share a worry—that I believe is not just my own. As our children leave our homes, our problem is often not just one of physical distance, but also one of ideological commitment. We cannot control the choices our children will make. This, too, is hard for us. It is with this in mind that I share this letter to my children.
Dear Tehilla, Adir, Atara, Zvi and Freda,
I love you. You make me so proud. I wish I could hold onto this moment—when you are all in our home, together—forever. But, you will go off on your own journeys. This is the way that it should be, that it must be. Before you go, I would like to hold you for one more day—and share with you one more message.
You will be tempted by visions of both life and of Judaism that are neither my musar nor your mother’s Torah. Your mother and I have been sharing our discipline and instruction by the home that we build and the lives that we lead. Anything that I write now will not change that. Treat this letter as a simple reminder of the place from which you come.
People often refer to us as Modern Orthodox Jews. We—and our forebears—never chose the term “modern” and we never chose the term “orthodox.” Nobody ever decided to form “Modern Orthodox Judaism.” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, zt”l famously criticized the term, explaining that it made us a minority of a minority of a minority. He refused to be a minority leader. I do not make an issue of the terminology. Life is not about labels, rather it is about people. Feel free to abandon labels; never abandon your community and your people. You are needed and loved. No matter what you do, care for them.
So what are we? One recent writer described us as “a community that is not ḥaredi and is at the same time committed to halakhic observance outside of Israel.” I disagree with this characterization for many reasons. First, I don’t like defining anything—not to mention myself—by what I am not. Second, when I make aliyah, I plan to remain a Modern Orthodox Jew.
So stated positively and simply: What is Modern Orthodoxy?
Modern Orthodoxy is Judaism.
We never reformed or counter-reformed. Our mission is the same mission of our people through time: to live, learn and love—Torah and mitzvot—and to thereby serve Hashem. We do this with one basic goal—not to revolutionize the world or to bring about messianic fireworks—but to pass on the mesora to a new generation. Another way to say this: If the Rambam were alive, he would daven with us.
Now when you go out there into the world, you will hear yourself characterized as a compromise. People will say, “The Modern Orthodox reconcile traditional Judaism with modernity.” I want you to reflect on your upbringing. Did I ever wake you with the words “Today, we are going to reconcile Torah and Madda?” I woke you with modeh ani, and we set out into a beautiful and complex society to learn Torah, do mitzvot and experience the wonder of Hashem’s world.
The Rambam was not a compromise. You are not a compromise. You are an ideal. What is that ideal?
Simply to be a Jew. This was how David Landes described Rav Amital’s pashuta yid (simple Jew) philosophy:
Emunah, serious talmud torah, compassion, personal authenticity, the recognition of others and other points of view, the importance of reason and practicality, the recognition of one’s own limits, the need to lead and not dictate, and above all, the recognition of the complexity of human life and the service of God, and the consequent need to constantly review and check, and then reverse, one’s own views and opinions.
I am a student of Rav Amital. I aspire to be a pashuta yid. If someone wants to call that Modern Orthodoxy, good for them!
In addition to calling you a compromise, some may say that Modern Orthodoxy is not a movement. To this I say, “Yes—I’m not part of a movement.” Movements come and go. Movements are sometimes useful, but they are often dangerous. They set out to achieve noble goals, but they often become creatures that exist to sustain themselves and forget to advance those goals.
When you see Jews who define themselves by their movements, do not hold hatred toward them and do not cower before them. Our Judaism is strong. See yourselves as the backbone from which many movements emerge. Over the course of Jewish history, many have broken away from us. Movements have a habit of saying not-nice things about the backbone from which they come. Some of these movements have disappeared. Some have lived side by side with us for centuries. Many have returned, enriching us by their efforts. As a backbone, we have no need to disparage anyone.
If you need a movement—and some children need the passion that comes from being a part of a movement—let it be the movement that started almost 4,000 years ago, when Avraham set out on his journey and called out in Hashem’s name. I encourage you to seek the stability of seeing yourself and your Judaism as separate from any modern movement.
When we think of that original movement, let us remember Avraham’s values. Micah 7:20 writes of Avraham’s core attribute: chesed, kindness. The Gemara in Yevamot 79a broadens this idea when it describes how David Hamelech understood our national identity:
Three marks distinguish this nation, the Jewish people. They are merciful, they are humble, and they perform acts of kindness.
Unfortunately, we must emphasize in this generation that mercy, humility and kindness are not just Jewish values—they are definitional Jewish values. Let no one question your Judaism by labeling you a liberal, because you live by Avraham’s ethos.
With Hashem’s help, you will experience a day like this one—when you will impart your perspective on Torah to your children. To prepare you for that moment and the many decisions that you must make to reach it, I share with you the words of my rebbi, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein on chinuch:
Raising children is a lot of work, and it is one of the greatest joys in the world—one of the greatest responsibilities and greatest privileges … Every child is a world unto himself, and should be treated with sensitivity, understanding, warmth, and love … These things are not in textbooks; you will not find instructions about what kind of mixture to have between the assertion of authority, on the one hand, and warmth and love, on the other. People often presume that Halakha has the answer to everything. Press the right key, push the right button, open up to the right page, look it up, and it is there … This attitude is absolutely incorrect! We do not do any favors to God, or to the world of Halakha, by pretending that it has what it does not have, and what—from my point of view—it does not need to have and does not want to have…
Rav Lichtenstein concluded his advice with a humble and faith-filled admission: “To raise children properly, you need two things: good judgment, seikhel, and divine assistance, siyata di-shemaya; and to have seikhel, you also need siyata di-shemaya.” I will adapt this wisdom into a bracha. “May Hashem bless you with seikhel—may Hashem bless you with siyata di-shemaya.”
I love you so much. I am so grateful for every day that we have together.
Chaim Strauchler is the rabbi of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.