Courtesy of Agudath Israel
As I concluded a yearlong course that I have been teaching at a local day school, a student approached me with a concerned look on his face.
“What if I don’t know what my Jewish identity is?” I pushed him to say more. “Well, my parents had the Holocaust, but — I don’t know. I just don’t know what my Jewish identity is.”
Forced to think on my feet, I told him that this is part of the journey. Uncertainly is a prerequisite for growth; through this struggle a clear, focused Jewish identity will emerge. He thanked me and we parted ways.
In the hours since, his question has been replaying in my head. I heard its echo as I listened to the words of Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel. Rabbi Perlow bemoaned a Judaism void of meaning; divorced from its core values. He lamented a disintegrating Yiddishkeit. A new generation, he grieved, was coming — one that does not know its roots. We need, Rabbi Perlow claimed, “a Judaism that has a future.”
These words ring true. We must present a Judaism that sings in the hearts of our Jewish brethren. We need, as I told my beloved student, a Torah that embraces all and that speaks to the masses. We need a loving Torah to overflow in this world.
Rabbi Perlow, however, found a false target for his trepidations. He described “a new danger [that] has appeared on the horizon. [One that] seeks to subvert the sacred meaning of Yiddishkeit.” Indeed, he warned, it is “a sakana (danger) to klal yisroel (the Jewish community).”
He was talking about my yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
And, though his initial concerns spoke to me, by the end of his speech, I had no idea what he was talking about.
Though I can appreciate how an approach of greater openness to the contemporary world is deeply threatening for his Hasidic community, precisely this approach is reaching out to all of the Jewish community. It is providing a cogent response to the challenges that Rabbi Perlow raised. These are the ideals for which YCT stands.
Closing ourselves off and building higher walls will only serve to further alienate scores of Jews. If we want to productively engage with the challenges that Rabbi Perlow raises, we must first put such petty attacks and heresy-hunting behind us, and work cooperatively to celebrate a flourishing Judaism. Working together with our brothers and sisters in Conservative and Reform congregations, we can realize this dream.
The future of Yiddishkeit is not rooted in infighting and condemnation. The future of Yiddishkeit is rooted in living a life of meaning and commitment. Judaism in America will continue to grow and prosper only once we can transcend our disagreements and glorify our common goals. To be certain, there is great value in the persistent, passionate debating of our core values. But this must blossom out of a root of mutual respect and camaraderie.
Judaism is not only relevant; it is immensely compelling. It presents a way of life rooted in a consistent commitment towards growth. This is the Judaism that I will continue to teach, and I hope and pray Rabbi Perlow will join me.