Living between the cracks, as it were, having orthodox smicha and living an halachic lifestyle but working and teaching mainly outside the orthodox world, people often ask me to whom I feel allegiance. Is my loyalty supposed to be to the orthodox world or, perhaps, only to that segment of it which formed and continues to nourish me? Perhaps to the movement who defines the shul I occasionally go to? Should it be, instead, to the denominations who invite me in to teach and share my knowledge, even if they decline much of what I offer? It’s harder than you think, since there is so little unity among the denominations and movements and flavors these days. Rather, they not only compete with each other, but all too often actively battle among themselves. Denominationalism and fracture is the greatest contemporary tragedy of the Jewish people.
I could try to get out of this dilemma by saying that my loyalty is to God, but that’s a cop out. Of course, I feel love, awe, loyalty and so much more towards our Creator, but I also have to acknowledge that God is no more dependent or needful for my loyalty than He is for anything else–He’s already complete in every manner of perfection. Likewise my dedication to and work in, both learning and teaching, Torah, that finite projection of the Infinite in our finite world, doesn’t add to the Torah itself–it’s already complete. Loyalty to my ancestors and to our saintly scholars, while true, alone is only sloppy sentimentalism.
No, my loyalty and the object of my devotion is, simply, to the Jewish people, in all our polarized fragmentation. Seriously, I realize that I’m inadequate as a bridge to everyone, but I’m not willing to write off anyone or any subgroup. That’s why I do what I do, which is to try to bring the “technology” of halacha, our traditional methodology for merging our lonely, individual selves with The Infinite, to all.
Too many in the orthodox world have, as Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo recently wrote, expelled God from halacha (see http://cardozoacademy.org/current-thought-to-ponder-by-rabbi-lopes-cardozo/the-expulsion-of-god-in-halacha-1-ttp-298/) and it’s not a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, the only purpose of halacha is to establish and deepen our relationship with The Creator. Too many in the non-orthodox world have completely abandoned halacha and tradition and even Israel, largely as a reaction against the emptiness they, unfortunately, do too often see. And as much as any other observant Jew, I also often lose sight of this purpose. But this loyalty to the Jewish people that I claim to have mandates me to remind all of us, myself included, what it’s really all about.
The Meor Eynayim by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, in his teachings for Parshat Behaalotcha, reminds us that מצוה, Mitzvah, commandment, is based on the word צוותא, Tzvata, a team or group. In other words, the purpose of a Mitzvah is to join us with God–it’s the path, הלכה, Halacha, to דבקות, Devekut, merging with God. Beyond that, he teaches that the word, מצוה, itself contains encoded within it (by means of את-בש, a deep-level decoding of Torah using certain letter substitutions) the Divine Name, partially revealed in the two final letters, ו and ה, as well as concealed in the first two letters, מצ, which decodes into a י and a ה. This indicates to us that every Mitzvah requires both the revealed element, the action itself, and the concealed element, our inner intentionality, כוונה, Kavanah. Empty actions, no matter how strict or pious-seeming, are dead like a body without a soul.
So, to whatever degree I’m able to, my loyalty to the traditional world is to constantly remind my fellow Mitzvah-observers of why we’re involved in this enterprise, just as my loyalty to the currently non-observant world is to publicize this, to constantly point out that Halacha is much more than mechanical, often neurotic, arbitrary actions which only isolate us from the rest of the world.
One of my teachers, the late Rabbi Avrohom Lapin zt”l, used to say about Shabbat, that if we Jews only knew what it really can achieve in the world, we’d enthusiastically and protectively treasure it and join in. We’d need no coaxing at all. I can still hear his voice saying, “if only we would know”.
All of us, across the entire Jewish spectrum, have in our power the ability unite and elevate the merely physical/empirical/finite with the Infinite. We can simultaneously refine and optimize ourselves as well as fix and optimize our world (the real meaning of תיקון עולם, Tikkun Olam, repairing (i.e. completing the Creation of) the world). My responsibility, again, is to continuously remind all of our people of our potential, excluding none.