In the summer of 1979, my wife and I came to Jerusalem on our honeymoon. I had completed two years of big-firm legal practice in Chicago and was headed to the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical program in the fall. I soon left the preparatory program for which we had come, and my wife and I spent the rest of the summer splitting our time between ulpan classes and study at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva’s men’s and women’s branches.
At the end of the summer, my wife, who was not even sure she believed in God when we married (but did not see that as problematic for a rabbi’s wife), said to me, “If Judaism is going to be the center of our lives, doesn’t it make sense for us to remain around people for whom it is the center of their lives for at least another year.”
We did, and are still in Israel 34 years later.
None of the tens of thousands of Jews from similar backgrounds to my wife and me (the so-called ba’alei teshuva) who have become members of the Haredi community over the last 40 years would recognize the community we chose to join in Jay Michaelson’s pointillist construct of Haredi society based on stringing together every negative headline he can find.
Let me try to describe the attraction of the community that induced my wife and I to dramatically alter our life trajectories. Though I admired various qualities of my professors at Yale Law School, it never occurred to me that any of them was a model for what a human life could be.
I had not yet been exposed to role models whose lives were of a piece, and not divided by all the familiar dichotomies of modern life — work and play, work and family, public morality and private morality. That quality of living a unified life, which I could not define but found lacking in everyone I knew, most of all myself, has its source in the knowledge that whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, we are before God.
Our first teachers presented a vision of life filled with meaning and purpose, in which each moment presents an opportunity for growth or decline (standing still is impossible), and in which each correct choice opens up pipelines of Divine blessing to the world. It is a world in which “killing time” is tantamount to killing oneself.