Herzl’s Menorah and the Cycles of History

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I’m still gathering my thoughts after a wonderful Shabbos at the annual West Coast Orthodox Union Torah Convention. That’s a lot of words for one title, and it generated experiences and memories commensurate with its fullness.

For my wife and myself, it was an opportunity to spend much time with OU personalities we don’t get to see often. It was no less than thrilling to be around people who are bright, deep, well thought-out, and – how should I say it? – normal about their Yiddishkeit. Between Rabbi and Mrs Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Dr and Mrs David Luchins, and Rabbi Chaim Eisen, we feasted on stories about Modzhitz and Rav Tzaddok, machshava of Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, and attempts to synthesize Maharal with Moreh Nevuchim.

There were some less-than-stellar moments as well, such as a panel discussion on pluralism, which I couldn’t bring myself to attend. It produced the risible prediction by the single leftist on the panel (forcefully rejected by the other panel participants) that it was simply a matter of time before the Orthodox world welcomed female rabbis to its midst. Two weeks earlier, the same rabbi called on Orthodoxy to move beyond “traditional parameters,” and heed the call to join heterodox rabbis on cooperative boards and in joint exploration of the Torah. This challenge was met with a no-nonsense rejection in an official letter signed by the OU’s President and Executive Vice President, and published in the Jewish Journal the very day the Convention began. One has to wonder whether the far left of Orthodoxy will have the courage to constitute itself as its own, separate denomination (it already has its own seminary), rather than continue its craving for the recognition by the Orthodox center that it cannot and should not be given.

The most painful moments, however, were reserved for the folks who had to endure my guest derasha (sermon) Shabbos morning. I spoke about cycles of history, including the Maharal’s approach to the trajectory of the four exiles as challenges to four parts of our being (emotions, body, intelligence, and the sum of the parts), and the Shalah’s understanding of the tension between Yosef and Yehudah. Two parts of my presentation went unpresented – one because I forgot, the second because it was far too long, although it silently animated my remarks.

Forgotten in the shuffle was the story of Herzl’s Menorah. Yup, that ultra-secularist leader not only wrote an article about the menorah, but it was poignant and autobiographical, and spoke of its luring people back to a connection with Jewish peoplehood. All of which says much about Herzl, and even more about how the holiday in which we now find ourselves can penetrate and illuminate the lives of those quite distant from observance.

Standing behind my presentation of the roles of Yosef and Yehudah was a remarkable essay written by Rav Kook on the occasion of Herzl’s death. It wasn’t quite a eulogy, but closer to thoughts offered in honor of the death of Herzl. Like so much of what Rav Kook wrote, it displayed extraordinary wisdom in being respectful without offering too much. (Rav Kook later wrote that he had penned the long piece without ever mentioning Herzl’s name!) I will offer just enough to hopefully bait readers to seek out the original.

Yosef and Yehudah represent two areas of interest that were meant to work cooperatively and synergistically. Yosef proved to be the provider and sustainer of his brethren, a role that should have continued through Ephraim, were it not for the insistence of Yeravam that his kingdom separate itself entirely from that of Yehudah. The Yosef role seeks to develop the material well-being of the nation; Yehudah stamps upon it the all-important recognition of the spiritual message that is its raison d’etre. When the two work together, that combination is unstoppable. The Jewish message to the rest of the world is attractive and persuasive. Live with full consciousness of the majesty of Hashem, and you will be fulfilled both physically and spiritually, developing towards a perfect society.

Separating the two roles was disastrous. Ephaim/Yosef turns its back on its true essence; Yehudah carries on its valiant spriritual struggle, but with its message muted by poverty and want. Somehow, the two must begin to move back towards each other. The death of Mashiach ben Yosef allows Jews to ponder what has been lost, and what could be, and how the two brothers could reclaim each other when the voice of Torah is acknowledged.

This was the backdrop to the most painful moment of all. On the way back home, my wife pointed out how some of our centrist friends had children who were far more involved with and insistent upon a life of full communal involvement and responsibility. To be sure, young men and women in our more right-wing neighborhood were far more likely to prepare for the sacrifices of kollel life for a few years, (and many for a lifetime of deprivation in the field of Jewish education) but the intense need to be immediately involved and active – and to continue that involvement as lay leadership well beyond a few years – was more manifest in the centrist communities we observed.

I wonder whether it has to be that way.

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7 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that the executive VP of the OU was completely on the mark in his comments. There is a huge difference between working
    together with heterodox clergy and organizations on issues that are klapei chutz such as Israel, etc and getting involved in
    what I call useless “I’m Jewish, you are Jewish and the differences are irrelevant” exercises in pluralim that affect klapei pnim,as opposed to genuine kiruv efforts such as NCSY, Aish, NJP, etc.

  2. Lisa says:

    I hadn’t realized that the Edah/Clal movement had its own seminary. They should probably just merge with the Union for Traditional Judaism (the ones who broke away from the Conservative movement over ordaining women), since there really isn’t any difference between them.

    I have a friend who glommed onto Blu Greenberg’s books when she was first becoming frum. It gave her a comfort zone that allowed her to continue along into real Judaism. She’s far past that stage now, and I’ll admit that it was a help to her. But the Conservative Camp Ramah was just as much a help to me and others when we were younger, and definitely played a part in our becoming frum. That doesn’t justify the Conservative movement, and it doesn’t justify Edah/Clal, either.

  3. Joshua says:

    can you please write about some of the machshava of Rav Ahron Soloveitchik he was a true Gadol never afraid to speak up.

  4. mb says:

    Rav A,
    Isn’t there always going to be a left wing that is not acceptable to the right? The further the right moves rightward, the goal posts move. Chop off the far left, pretty soon the centre will be on the left and equally despised. Philosophic food for thought. Nothing more.
    ( And everybody really should read Herzl’s Menorah. It’s a gem)

  5. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    SZN –

    1) You can get lots of detailed reports on the Friday night session. There were lots of people there. I asked a few people, and got detailed reports. All of them different. :-)

    2) G-d forbid. I don’t want them out of the OU, and I don’t think they will go back to Beth Am anyway. The OU has had a long standing policy of grandfathering – of not drumming out shuls with unsatisfactory mechitzos, at least if they have a significant cohort of younger people who can still be reached. I do have a small list of different expectations. I would like people to understand that Orthodoxy is not forever plastic. There are lines that cannot be crossed. (The shuls that were not ejected from the OU knew full well that failure to have a mechitza is a no-no. So did every other Orthodox shul. The current campaign is very different.) Torah life has halachic demands, hashkafic demands (often even more important!), and expectations about the sophistication a Rav must have to really be a player in the halachic process. (Semicha alone doesn’t do it.) People in certain shuls should at least be aware that what they are sometimes being fed by their spiritual leaders is seen by the majority of rabbis (and an absolute consensus of major talmidei chachamim) as beyond the pale.

    I would also like to see that any process of inclusion, if that is appropriate, does not harm the interests of everyone in all the other OU synagogues. The blandishments of the far left can seem very attractive to innocents in other shuls as well. It is important that all thinking Orthodox shulgoers know that we are not dealing with a question on the level of whether to shorten the davening by eliminating Yigdal. The stakes here are huge – the very definition of Orthodox self-understanding. Erroneous (in my opinion; yes, I do believe that there are errors about the nature of Torah, that not everything is OK as long as it does not conflict with a line of Shulchan Aruch) notions should not be able to fly in under the public radar, and then gain acceptability through a PR campaign waged in the press. People who disagree (strongly, passionately, and hopefully respectfully) should be able to make their positions known.

    3) I’m sure the tape is good. Dr Luchins gave me a preview on Shabbos.

  6. Shira Schmidt says:

    26 b Kislev
    (a)Your remarks about Rav Kook seem to me too glowing. R. Kook’s famous eulogy for “him” (Rav Kook didn’t want to name Herzl) has been analyzed several times at various conferences in Israel. It has to be understood against the background of the issue of the deep chasm between the Jaffa Jews (R. Kook was chief rabbi of Jaffa at the time, I believe) and the Yishuv Hayashan in Jerusalem whom R. Kook did not want to antagonize and carefully tip-toed around in that eulogy.

    (b) On your comments about the left wing of Orthodoxy – I agree. But a friend raised the question of whether this “left wing” can possibly be a life preserver for those Jews in R and C temples who want something relatively more intense. Example: on Shabbat I talked with a Reform woman rabbi who was leading a tour group from her California Temple (my cousin was on the tour). She, and the previous Reform rabbi of her Temple who now lives in Jerusalem, love to attend the “Shira Hadasha” minyan in Jerusalem started by David Hartman’s daughter,Tova, where there is a mehitza down the exact middle, and men & women get aliyot & read TOrah. Women lead pesukey dzimrah, kabbalat Shabbat, etc. (but not the hard-core parts of the service). I have debated Tova Hartman, I have argued against this minyan, I have promoted Prof. Eliav Shochetman’s monograph against these new minyans.
    Questions – what can I answer my friend who claims these innovations may be a bridge back to halakhic practice for members of Reform and Conservative temples? Why do the aforementioned Reform Rabbis attend the “orthodox” Shira Hadasha with its mehitza curtain down the middle and limits on women’s role, when there are many truly egalitarian Conservative and Reform places to worship in Jerusalem??

  7. szn says:

    — too bad tapes of the fri nite are not available. is thee anywhere we can get a detailed report of the give and take?

    2– the OU prides itself [unlike aguda] of having a place for everyone at the table. are you being too quick to write off a left wing? and considering how large some of those shuls are, do you want those people driving to Beth Am?

    3– i would heartily recommend the tape of dr luchin’s assessment of the o/CW/RW sociology, as rabbi shere z’l discussed with him, and has come true….