Orthodox Lite?

For as long as I can remember, anxious leaders and thinkers in our community have been asking the same question: can our community – the Modern Orthodoxy community of America – survive?  But in recent years, as the broader American population has become increasingly polarized in its political and cultural views, “centrist” orthodoxy seems, more than ever, to have lost its luster.

Numerically, the Modern Orthodox make up only 3% of American Jewry – perhaps 175,000 Jews altogether – a number which has remained static for some time, and which is far smaller than the growing Yeshivish and Chassidic communities.  Some of our children leave Orthodoxy altogether – an all too common, and painful, phenomenon – while others join the Yeshivish community, which also weakens the community they leave behind.  Finally, many of our most dedicated young people make Aliyah, a source of great pride for our community, but one which deprives American Modern Orthodoxy of its most passionate and idealistic future leaders.

But beyond numbers, the more significant question is whether there is a compelling reason to remain a part of this community altogether.  Why, exactly, would one choose to live their life as a Modern Orthodox Jew?

The financial pressures that go hand in hand with Modern Orthodoxy, with yeshiva day school tuition at the top of the list, are enough to make many people think twice before joining the community.  Compared to public school, or even right wing yeshivas, the costs are astronomical.

And in return, what do we get?  Though we enjoy schmoozing with our friends at Shul, the Tefillah experience itself isn’t exactly inspiring, to put it kindly.  Lacking the passion and joy found in many Chassidic communities, many adults join their children in counting down the minutes until Kiddush, the true highlight of Shabbat morning.  And when it comes to Torah study, the most central of all mitzvot, our commitment pales in comparison to many communities to our right, where daily Torah study is their badge of honor.

It’s no wonder that many members of our community view themselves, and Modern Orthodoxy as a whole, as “Orthodox lite” – as living a less intense, but still basically ‘kosher’ version of traditional Judaism.  But this perspective on Modern Orthodoxy is not only damaging, but also fundamentally mistaken.

When our forefather Yaakov neared the end of his life, he blessed each of his sons, the twelve tribes, before he died.  Each blessing was different, for each of the tribes – each community within the people of Israel – would forge its own path in serving God and furthering the mission of the people of Israel.  Each tribe was given unique and complementary energies and talents, and it was their mission, as a tribal community, to actualize their particular strengths for the service of God.

Our modern “tribal community” – American Modern Orthodoxy – is no exception.  Like each of the tribes of Israel, our community is blessed with unique strengths and abilities.  But to fulfill our communal mission, and to develop a strong sense of identity and pride in who we are, it’s critical that we first identify our particular greatness – what sets us apart from the other holy communities of Israel.

Etrog or Lulav? 

The Midrash famously compares the four species, the Arba Minim, to four kinds of Jews: The Etrog, which has both a good taste and a sweet smell, represents the “elite” Jews who excel in both Torah learning and Mitzvot.  On the other hand, the other three species are all flawed in some way.  The Lulav (which only has taste) and Hadassim (which only has smell), represent those Jews who possess only Torah learning or Mitzvot, but not both, while the Aravot represents Jews who are bereft of Torah and Mitzvot altogether.

A simple reading of the Midrash makes clear that there is a “hierarchy of holiness” among the people of Israel, with the Etrog all alone at the top of the pyramid.  But a closer look at the way we fulfill the Mitzvah of the four species throws this hierarchy into question:

Rabba said: The Lulav must be held in the right hand and the Etrog in the left. What is the reason? The Lulav constitutes three commandments and the Etrog only one. (Sukkah 37b)

In Jewish tradition, the right hand is considered superior to the left.  Why, then, is the Etrog, which represents the holiest Jews, held in the inferior left hand, while the Lulav is held in the right hand?  Rabba explains that the lulav is bound together with the hadassim and aravot, and so together, they are three.  The Etrog, despite its holiness, is only one.  Three outweigh one!

Read simply, Rabba’s logic – superiority in numbers – seems almost juvenile.  Since when do Jews, the smallest of nations, assign value based on quantity, and not quality?  Does it really matter that the Lulav, Hadassim and Aravot outnumber the Etrog!?

The Talmud continues:

Jeremiah enquired of R. Zerika: Why in the blessing for the four species do we say only “To take the Lulav” [al netilat lulav]? Because the Lulav [tree] towers above the others… (ibid.)

In the blessing over the four species, we completely ignore the ‘perfect’ Etrog, mentioning only the Lulav.  Why?  Because the Lulav tree is… taller?  Do Jews really judge species, or people for that matter, by height?  The Jewish people are known for a lot of things, but height is certainly not one of them!  Why is the Etrog – representing the holiest Jews – left out of the blessing, simply because it is vertically challenged?

The Etrog Jews

Everyone who owns a set of the four species knows that, 99% of the time, the Etrog is stored all by itself in a separate box.  We wrap the Etrog in soft material to keep it safe, and we only take it out to join together with the other three species when we are ready to fulfill the Mitzva of the Arba Minim.  And as soon as the Mitzvah is over, the Etrog is whisked away, and put right back in the box!

The Chofetz Chaim explains that none of this is accidental.  The Etrog represents the Torah scholar par excellence, the “elite” of the Jewish people.  And so the way in which the Etrog interacts with the other three species serves as a model for how elite Torah scholars should interact with the regular “masses” of the Jewish people – i.e., the Lulav, Hadassim and Aravot Jews.

As a general rule, the Torah scholars, like the Etrog, should remain apart from the rest of the Jewish people.  Like the Etrog which remains in its own separate box, Torah scholars should keep their distance, socially, from their fellow Jews.  Great Torah scholars shouldn’t hang out and watch the Giants game with the guys on Sunday afternoon; doing so would drag them down to a lower spiritual level!

Like the Etrog, the only time that Torah scholars should be “brought out of their box” to join together with the rest of the people is for the performance of a Mitzvah, to engage in acts of holiness like prayer or Torah study.   But once the Mitzvah is completed, the Torah scholars must go their own separate way – just as the Etrog is returned to its box – lest they be influenced by the masses.

Intuitively, we all understand and accept this.  We don’t expect the great Torah scholars of the generation to be our “buddies”; we recognize that their holy way of life must, of necessity, be apart from our own.

But at the same time, our separation from the lofty “Etrog Jews” comes with a cost.  Great Torah scholars lack a certain closeness and intimacy with their fellow Jews.  Like Moshe Rabbenu, these people live outside the regular camp of Israel.  We respect them, as we revered Moshe, but we also feel a distance from them.

Lulav Jews: A Different Kind of Leadership

The Lulav Jew, like the Etrog Jew, is also a leader – but a very different kind of leader.  The Lulav, as the Midrash teaches, represents Jews who are not as ‘whole’ as the Etrog Jews.  But at the same time, the Lulav Jew is strong precisely where the Etrog Jew is weak.  Unlike the Etrog Jew, the Lulav Jew is able to relate to the masses of regular Jews – represented by the Hadassim and Aravot – and bind them together to him!

The word Lulav itself reflects this ability to bring people together.  A “Lul” is a hen house, where hens are gathered together.  And the commentators explain that Lulav is an acronym for “לכם ולנו לבנות בית”, loosely translated as “Let’s all build a house together!”

Lulav Jews are able to relate to other imperfect Jews, and excel at binding them together and bringing them close to one another.  This is their specialty!  But where does the Lulav Jew get this ability from?  What is the root of his success?

The Torah refers to the Lulav as “כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים”, as “branches of palm-trees.” (Vayikra 23:40).  The Rabbis hone in on the word “כַּפֹּת”, which shares the same root as “לכפות”, “to force”:

What is the meaning of “branches of palm trees” [“כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים”]?  These are the Torah scholars who force themselves [“כופין את עצמן”] to learn Torah from one another. (Vayikra Rabba 30:11)

Lulav Jews are unique in that they make great efforts – they force themselves! – to listen to and learn from other Jews, including Jews they disagree with!  By forcing himself to be open to other perspectives, the Lulav Jew earns the love and respect of his fellow Jews.  And so despite their differences, the Lulav Jew succeeds in bringing them close and “binding” them together.

It is this unity, the ability of the lulav to bring the hadassim and aravot together, which elevates these three species over the Etrog.  We pick them up with our right hand, in a show of respect for the love and unity they able to achieve!

The Rabbis capture the inner essence of the Lulav Jew with a beautiful teaching:

Just as the palm tree only has one heart, so too, the people of Israel only have one heart for their Father in Heaven. (Sukkah 45b)

The commentators explain that the Lulav tree, the palm tree, has no branches; it only has a trunk.  And so the Lulav’s sap, it’s life force, is completely invested and united in the trunk, in the heart of the tree.

From an intellectual perspective, Jews are very different from one another. We are divided into many different categories and groups; there are Jews who are more observant and less observant, Jews with holy perspectives and Jews with heretical perspectives.  This is the way the Etrog Jew views the masses of the Jewish people, and it is for precisely this reason that he generally remains apart from the masses.

But the Lulav Jew views his people very differently – from the perspective of the heart.  Viewed from the “heart perspective,” all Jews are really one: “All Jews have one heart for their Father in Heaven”!  This goes to the very core of the Lulav Jew’s being; the root of the word “Lulav” itself derives from “Lev”, for the Lulav Jew is all heart!  (Shem Mishmuel, Shemot, V’Eileh Shemot Bnei Yisrael)

This may explain the deeper meaning of the Lulav’s status as the “tallest” tree.  The Lulav is all trunk and all heart; he doesn’t have branches going in many different and conflicting directions.  From the Lulav Jew’s “heart perspective”, he is able to see the bigger picture – the forest, and not only the trees.  The Lulav sees what unites all the different species, not only what divides them.

This is why the blessing on the four species is “To take the Lulav”, and not “To take the Etrog.”  For the Lulav is spiritually the “tallest” of the four species – the uniter, the Jew who is able to find common ground with all of his fellow Jews, and bring them closer to one another.  Of all the four species, only the Lulav is able to represent them all!

American Modern Orthodoxy: The Lulav Jews

I believe that we, the Modern Orthodox Jews of America, are “Lulav Jews” – that this is our particular greatness.

Though we are small, our community plays a unique role in the bigger picture of American Jewry.  We are Torah Jews, and are, unquestionably, full-fledged members of the broader Torah community.  And proudly so!  But at the same time, we are deeply involved in the broader world of American society, giving us a cultural bridge to the broader Jewish community of America.  We can and do connect with and work together with non-Orthodox Jews in a way that the communities to our right cannot.

Think of the increasingly important role that our tiny community plays in AIPAC; Mort Fridman, a Modern Orthodox Jew, is its president, and our communities send more people per synagogue to the annual policy conference than any other denomination.

And think of the increasingly important role that Modern Orthodox Jews are playing in Federations across the country; years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a member of Suburban Torah becoming the President of our local Federation!

Think of Malcolm Hoenlein, in his incredibly important role leading the Conference of Presidents for so many years.

Think of the way members of our community are able to connect with and inspire Jews from so many different backgrounds.  People like Senator Joe Lieberman, the author Herman Wouk, a”h, and chief Lord Rabbi Sacks.

Think of the institutions in our community that work to connect Jews of all kind together.  The Orthodox Union – where you’ll find Modern Orthodox, Yeshivish and Chasidic Rabbis working together – is run by Modern Orthodox lay people.

And think of holy places like Camp HASC, Camp Simcha, Camp Kaylie and Yachad – which serve the special needs population of every Orthodox Jewish group and more – and which are staffed, almost entirely, by the young people of our community.

And like the Lulav Jews described in the Midrash, we are open to learning from those with whom we disagree.  In the study halls of Yeshiva University, our young people are learning the Torah teachings of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, but also of the Chazon Ish and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  There is an openness to other perspectives, an appreciation for the holiness of other tribes and communities, which enables us to connect with the entire Torah world!

As Lulav Jews standing squarely in the center of American Jewish life, we play a critical role in holding together the many different “species” of American Jewry, refusing to turn our backs on any Jew, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them.  Like the “tall” Lulav tree, we choose to view our fellow Jews from the perspective of the heart, to never forget that no matter how different they may seem, the people of Israel have only one heart for their Father in Heaven.

Like all Jews, we still need to strengthen our commitment to Torah, to meaningful prayer, to purity and holiness.  We aren’t “exempt” from anything because we call ourselves “Modern Orthodox.”  Without a strong foundation in Torah learning and practice, we won’t be able to accomplish our unique mission.

But at the same time, we must believe that we bring something critical and unique to the broader Jewish mission – that we are not “Orthodox lite”, God forbid!  As Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin taught: “Just as one is obligated to believe in God, so too is he obligated to believe in himself.” (Tzidkat HaTzaddik 154)

It’s about time we started believing in ourselves, and our holy mission!