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Acharei Mot 5784   | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

05/06/2024 11:44:22 AM


Its Way of Life

When I was in high school I once picked up the Thanksgiving edition of the Village Voice and saw a humor column titled something like “Fifty things to be thankful for about living in America.” After many years I can only remember three of the items on the list. Reenacting our Civil War is considered a harmless activity. For a country where it is not a national pastime, we are not too bad at chess. And we have the three grades of salsa spiciness to choose from at the supermarket. 

I have thought frequently about the three grades of salsa hotness since moving to Ohev where we recite a Prayer for the United States each week which invokes God’s blessings not just on the people who live here, and our elected leaders, but also about the American “way of life.” What, exactly, is the “American way of life” that distinguishes this country from other wealthy democracies? Week after week, listening to that prayer has inspired me to think about what precisely sets this country apart from peer nations, and is something precious and worthy of Divine protection, and is more significant than three grades of salsa hotness.

Here is what I have had in mind in recent months. America’s superpower is the ability of those who live here, to transcend, at times, the ancient ethnic or national feuds from our ancestral homelands and to live side by side in peace. Amidst the safety and security of America, we can reach beyond our tribal comfort zones to encounter others and understand them and respect them. At its best and most potent, this American super-power can be exported to regions of conflict overseas and show that, for example, if Catholics and Protestants can learn to peacefully live side by side in Boston, they can do so as well in Belfast. 

And this is why I have been so concerned in recent weeks by those elements of the anti-war/ pro-ceasefire Palestinian solidarity protests on campus which have evolved into, or been revealed to be, something much more strident and less focused on the current war. The loudest voices emerging from campus have been expressive of a total and comprehensive rejection of Zionism, Israel, and Jewish national life that has, on occasion, trafficked in antisemitic conspiracies, that rejects moderation and coalition building, and that offers no way forward to meaningful dialogue, mutual understanding, and peace. Instead of exporting our ability to peacefully live side by side, we risk importing the chaos and hatred of a bloody war zone onto our campuses. 

Ahmad Foud Alhatib, a Palestinian American from Gaza, and a young activist worth following, visited the tent encampment at UCLA last week. Dozens of members of his family, uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews, none with any Hamas affiliation, have been killed by Israeli bombs since October, and he is desperately worried about his mother and other surviving relatives who are currently living as internal refugees in Rafah. The visit to the encampment left him demoralized. He wrote:

“Most students are sincere and absolutely have their hearts in the right place. They are, however, misguided and are being led by extreme, radical, and genuinely detrimental organizations, voices, and “revolutionary” types who are the worst possible allies and spokespeople for the Palestinian people…

Here in Shepherd Park, just days ago, the Israeli flag that Ariele Mortkowitz and David Hain had displayed outside their home on 16th Street was torn to pieces on their front steps.  This was the third flag they have displayed in front of their home since October  and the third time they have been stymied in their attempt to exercise a basic First Amendment Right. This too has been part of the American way of life. Neighbors here can live side by side, flying the flags of their ancestral homelands, or of foreign countries whose struggles they support, without importing bitter and violent struggles to our streets. Our streets should be  filled with flags of a hundred countries and show the world that coexistence is possible. 

In recent days I have been thinking a great deal about the years in which Jewish life on campus was my primary focus.  First, as a high school student visiting four universities for Shabbatot and staying in dorms with undergraduates. This is when I first became enamored of “campus Orthodoxy” a form of Judaism that was erudite and open-minded and where nobody felt the need to wear neckties to Shabbat tefilot. 

My own years as an undergraduate overlapped with the collapse of the Camp David negotiations and the bloody start of the Second Intifada. But, despite a few uncomfortable moments, I felt utterly at home on campus.  During the five years that we worked at Princeton, which coincided with the first two Israeli-Hamas wars in Gaza, I never had the sense that our student’s ability to thrive on campus and feel embraced there was ever seriously impeded by campus activism surrounding the Israeli Palestinian conflict. 

Times have changed. And circumstances are changing rapidly. I have experienced much of our community’s discourse about the crisis for Jews on campus to be both alarmist on the one hand, and naively optimistic on the other. Our community’s concerns seem alarmist when they aggregate the most egregious examples of antisemitism from disparate campuses even when many campus protests remain fully peaceful and students on many campuses continue their studies without being forced to notice protests occurring elsewhere at the same university.

But our community’s response seems naively optimistic when it assumes that the hostility to Israel is a campus phenomenon and not a potential generational shift. Today’s campus activists will be congressional staffers in five years and will be making hiring decisions at law firms in fifteen years and will be setting policy at government agencies in twenty. This moment may be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. It may be an earthquake with shockwaves that will reverberate for decades. 

Sometimes being Jewish is counter-cultural. Sometimes there is strong resonance and reinforcement between our way of life and the lifestyles of our neighbors. As the outside world shifts and changes, new aspects of Jewish life and identity become counter-cultural and there are new resonances between our way of life and our neighbors. 

To take one example that we are all experiencing right now: The Roman writer Tacitus said that Jews refrained from working on Shabbat because we were lazy. The Puritans came to New England in search of an opportunity to create a more robust and rigorously tranquil public Sabbath environment, and, in recent years, many Americans have celebrated a “tech Sabbath” in recognition that one day each week without electronic communication technology was a crucial tool in living balanced lives. 

In Parashat Aharei Mot the Torah makes a general statement against copying the practices of the neighbors among whom we live. 

כְּמַעֲשֵׂ֧ה אֶֽרֶץ־מִצְרַ֛יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְשַׁבְתֶּם־בָּ֖הּ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וּכְמַעֲשֵׂ֣ה אֶֽרֶץ־כְּנַ֡עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֲנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אֶתְכֶ֥ם שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ׃ 

You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.

Fundamentally, there are two opinions as to the scope and meaning of this verse. One understanding, that of Rambam, sees a Torah prohibition וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ in the imitation of any Gentile custom that has no inherent purpose just because it is foreign and not ours and we should not imitate anyone else. Others, such as Rashi, have instead focused on the fact that the Egyptians and Canaanites were particularly wicked and therefore the scope of the prohibition וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵֽכוּ is limitted to practices with immoral or idolatrous origins and significance. One of the foundational teshuvot, halakhic treatments of this topic is by Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabbotto, known as Maharik, a 15th century Italian scholar who ruled that it was permissible for Jews to wear academic caps and gowns because they had no immoral or pagan origin and were helpful ways to demonstrate professional competence. 

As Modern Orthodox Jews, we also recognize that elements of Modernity, such as universalism, feminism, psychology, democracy, and other products of human wisdom contain facets of a Divine truth that can be distilled and integrated into a life of Torah and Mitzvot.  As the outside world shifts and changes new aspects of Jewish life and identity become counter-cultural. Sometimes we push back against a world-gone-mad. Sometimes we integrate the facets of Divine truth that are revealed by aspects of modernity into our ever expanding “palace of Torah.”

Recently I encountered another liturgical element at Ohev which is different from what I have seen elsewhere. Here at Ohev, Sefirat ha’Omer is recited  in the evening after Aleinu and not right before. Over Pesach a few of us were able to learn Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation of the competing customs about whether Aleinu or Sefirat ha’Omer comes first. If, Aleinu was added to the end of Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv as a capstone prayer, then when it conflicts with Sefirat Ha’Omer, Aleinu should come first since “tadir v’eino tadir, tadir kodem'' we have a general rule in Halakhah to always prioritize the mitzvah or prayer that is recited most frequently. However, some say that the reason Aleinu was lifted from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf service and added to the end of Shacharit, Mincha, and Maariv is so that it should serve as words of encouragement and reinforcement before we leave shul and reenter a hostile world which will challenge our most core values. If this is the purpose of Aleinu, it has to be the final prayer we recite before leaving shul.

The practice of reciting Sefirat Ha’Omer before Aleinu reflects a siege mentality in which shul is a precious refuge. In this worldview we cannot leave without the words of Aleinu echoing in our heads  as a reminder that the truth of One God will one day triumph over idolatry. I find it heartening that at Ohev we do not insist on Aleinu being the final prayer of the night. We proudly assert God’s unity and have faith that all humanity will recognize that ultimate unity one day. But we do not yet see the outside world as inherently hostile to our identity and way of life. We face real obstacles and real foes. But we also live among true friends who have much to teach us. 

The Jewish people needs a lot of Siyata Dishmaya, a lot of Divine help, right now. We need to act with deftness and subtlety as the ground shifts beneath our feet and places where we once felt comfortable and safe now seem threatening. But we also need Siyata Dishmaya to keep our hearts open. I am dejected that someone tore down three flags from the same home on 16th Street, but I don’t want to look at my neighbors with suspicion. I am very worried about what is happening on too many campuses, but I don’t want the Jewish community to divest from higher education.  We need Siyata Dishmaya to be vigilant and careful about protecting our families and our communities and our students without becoming hardened or cynical about America and its way of life. 

This is the work that lies before us in the coming weeks and months. I suspect this work will define this era of American Judaism no less than the war is defining this era of Jewish life in Israel. I spoke to my cousin just before Shabbat. He said to me, “we don’t know the answers…and we don’t even know the question.” Together, let’s identify the questions that confront us, and let’s think carefully and think well about the answers too.

Shabbat Shalom.


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784