Modern Orthodox educators must reclaim what it means to be a Jew

Ha’aretz 21/12/11

I struggle to remember to last time I read a news item from Israel featuring an orthodox person and felt pride. With the segregated bus saga and the awful incidents of price-tagging, the Judaism that I know and love is being abused. I know for a fact that Israel is filled with thousands of religious role models, yet in public the image that is being projected is that of an intolerant ungovernable fanatic.

I am a proud member of the modern Orthodox community who spent two years living in Yeshiva in Israel. My first year was in a Hesder Yeshiva, my second a more American affair with an Israeli kollel attached. I grew up in Bnei Akiva and see myself as a graduate of that movement. Yet the voices that helped educate me, that fill me with a vision of Judaism and ethical conduct that I treasure and live by, are sadly absent from the public religious discourse going on in Israel today.

The image of what Orthodox Judaism is matters. It matters because we believe that we are commanded to be an “Or Lagoyim”, a light unto the nations. We do not proselytize our virtue or our truth; we live it. How our actions are seen by those outside the community can either glorify or desecrate G-d’s name.

The current news headlines and public pronouncements are dominated by religious ideologues that use textual interpretations to justify or rationalize actions that clearly desecrate G-d’s name rather than glorify it. No one could look on the actions of those who proclaim to be religious and feel inspired by a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

As a modern Orthodox Jew, I do not think that I am “lesser” than the ultra-Orthodox. Holding that my connection to the Land of Israel does not justify all or any actions to control that land does not make me any less frum.

A moderate community often speaks quietly and politely. They educate their students on why those who participate in price-tagging are wrong. They teach their students the texts and rabbinical responses that show why it is perfectly allowed to have mixed sex buses. Yet when they leave the Beit Midrash, they do not feel it appropriate to take up the argument in a public space.

While there are many good reasons why we might not want Rabbis to have ideological disputes in public, I feel that now we need it. There are thousands of amazing modern Orthodox educators who have inspired generations of students who need to speak up and reclaim what it means to be an Orthodox Jew. They need to do this to restore the image of what a frum Jew is both at home and abroad.

This is more than just condemning the actions of those with whom we disagree. As a community we must reestablish the positive contributions that we make both to the Jewish people and to the world. We need to let others into our own internal conversations and demonstrate the diversity of opinion and multifaceted nature of our approach.

If we fail to do this, people will continue to point to the number of kippa-wearing commanders in the IDF as a threat to its integrity, rather than people advancing into command positions who have a deep commitment both the State and to a set of divinely inspired morals and virtues.

The task falls onto our teachers, as each of them has a network of hundreds of students who respect them and look to them for guidance. One of the blessings of the Orthodox community is the amount of educators it produces.

Those educators now have a responsibility to make sure the community’s image is not held hostage by the actions of a few within it. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has fired the starting shot with an excellent public letter to the Hilltop Youth. His voice needs to be joined by the thousands of Rabbi’s who feel the same way as he does. This is about showing what the community is about and it requires all who teach to stand up and be counted.

Jewish education ensured that the Jews survived their exile. If we are to be that kingdom of priests that we are commanded to be, the moderate majority of Rabbis need to speak out and be prophets for the community and the world at large as well.


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