At Whom Do We Point Fingers?

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When I posted my response to David Ellenson’s latest anti-Orthodox diatribe, I said that Rav Mordechai Eliyahu’s speculation that the Holocaust might have been caused, in spiritual terms, by the old Reform Judaism was an exercise in “point[ing] fingers at ourselves first,” a traditional Jewish response to tragedy. Ori Pomerantz inquired if it would not be more appropriate to point at things Rav Eliyahu’s followers actually did. I responded that (a) it wouldn’t be appropriate to ignore that rebellion against G-d while pointing at smaller things, and that (b) one frequently hears Rabbis blaming the Orthodox for letting down the non-Orthodox, giving the example of the Rosh Yeshiva who “told his Talmidim that if they are mevatel Torah, if they fail to study with diligence, then another Jew lights a cigarette on Shabbos in Berlin.”

This Shabbos, Rabbi Shimon Levin, a local scholar and sofer (scribe), put this principle into action. Following our own services, we had gone to a Bar Mitzvah celebration to congratulate the young man and his parents at a Kiddush; they were still finishing, praying Musaf (the “Additional Prayer” for Sabbath mornings). He stepped inside for a few moments, and came out saying that he’d had enough of disgracing G-d’s Name in the Sanctuary for the day.

He had gone in because he noticed that they were about to say the Kedushah, sanctifying G-d’s Name, the holiest moment of communal prayer. Following an old custom, congregants had thrown candies at the Bar Mitzvah boy after the Haftarah, and Rabbi Levin had seen a fellow in a black yarmulke, with a Tallis over his head, throwing candies during Kedushah — and gesturing to encourage others to throw them back! Wearing a black velvet yarmulke and Tallis over the head are both supposed to signify someone who is serious about his Judaism, and this fellow was … tossing candies during Kedushah.

An older and less learned congregant turned to Rabbi Levin and mentioned the many cars parked outside, implying that non-observant relatives had driven in for the service. Rabbi Levin’s response acknowledged that that might be true… but he said “that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is this man throwing candies during Kedushah, and the people in the back who drove in are looking at him and saying ‘this is what you think of Judaism?!'”

He then went on to describe a scene that happened at another local synagogue. One morning a young African-American man came into the synagogue when services were going on. People asked what he was doing there, and he said he wanted to learn about Judaism. So they gave him a prayer book and he followed along. Then, at the end of services, a group of men sat down to study together — but some people asked the visitor to go. They were studying the law, they told him, and he couldn’t stay.

The underlying assumption, said Rabbi Levin, was that the young man was crazy. It was as if they felt there was nothing in Torah Judaism that a person could sincerely want in his own life — and that’s wrong.

I recall hearing a young man say in college that while he was Orthodox, he didn’t feel he could say to others that they should be Orthodox. I was disturbed enough by that remark to ask Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb (of Ohr Somayach, not our Rabbi Gottlieb) about it when I went to yeshiva the following summer. His response was similar to Rabbi Levin’s reaction to the men in synagogue — it meant that something was wrong with that student’s own observance.

An observant person must feel that observance is a joy and a privilege, the birthright of every Jew. To be observant is the natural state of every Jew, and a Jew without Torah will flail about like a fish out of water, searching for meaning and purpose. Before we can ask anyone else to feel that way, we have to feel that way.

It’s not hard — just look around. Whatever the favored “-ism” of the day, you will find Jews at the highest levels of involvement, from Communism to Socialism to Buddhism to the “Harriet’s Kishkas” (which, being real live idolatry, we shouldn’t name accurately). Jews seek achievement at top universities, on Wall Street and in Hollywood.

When people talk about why they are not observant, they will often point at the attitude of observant Jews. Much of this is false. First of all, they see the burden of mitzvos and don’t want that level of commitment. But further, they are encouraged by articles like David Ellenson’s to think that people such as Rabbi Eliyahu “hate” them. I’ve never met Rabbi Eliyahu, but I know that he would welcome any Reform Jew into his home and treat him like an honored guest. Rabbi Gifter zt”l [1915-2001, Rosh Yeshiva of Telshe in Cleveland, OH] told the story of sending a Conservative Jew to visit Rav Shach zt”l [1898-2001, acknowledged head of Lithuanian Jewry and the creator of the Degel HaTorah political party] without telling the fellow whom he was visiting. When he returned, he talked about what a wonderful, warm, and obviously loving person the great Rabbi was, and responded with disbelief when Rav Gifter described Rav Shach as “the head of the fanatics!”

What, then, is the kernel of truth? That we have failed to live as a society in a way that screams out to every Jew that they, too, want to live this way. People have to look more deeply, under the surface — like the South African sociologist who became a Baalas Teshuvah after doing a study of observant Jews. If non-observant Jews are not stampeding towards observance, it is because we have left the diamonds covered over, instead of polishing them and laying them out on display for fellow Jews to see.

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10 Responses

  1. Quick pointer says:

    I posted this elsewhere, but apparently, when asked, Rabbi Ellenson will tell you that the inflamatory title (at the very least) was chosen by the Forward and that he put down something like “A call for decency”.

  2. Yaakov Menken says:

    As Micha said, the minhag (however dubious) of throwing candy at a Bar Mitzvah is “old enough” for me to call it an “old custom.” Discussing the history and validity of the custom would have distracted attention from the topic of my post.

    For the record, Rabbi Oberstein, this was a special Bar Mitzvah minyan, not held at the shul you are thinking of — though I know you are not making it up; there were people in that shul that no one who did not go through the Holocaust could lecture about decorum in the King’s abode.

    I did not get the impression that Rabbi Levin recognized him as a congregant of that shul. And the current Rabbi has been so successful in his labors that I don’t think his congregants, much less his “imports” (the ones with the black yarmulkes and talleisim over their heads), would have thrown candy during kedusha.

  3. Loberstein says:

    Permit me, dear Rabbi Menken, to put something in context. I wasn’t at the BarMtzvah, being out of town ,but others in my family attended.
    My father once told me that Harry Truman once used the word “darn” in his critique of an opponent. Someone told his wife that it wasn’t right for the Prsident to use “darn”. Bess Truman answered, you don’t know how many years it took me to get him to use “darn” instead of the other word.”
    If you know the history of that shul, you know that decorum was never its main feature. The current rabbi has labored mightily to elevate the prayer service and eliminate the shmoozing. He has made progress. There was a time when it was notorious for talking non stop and the talkers were learned people who had survived the Holocaust and couldn’t help themselves. The old rabbi understood that and said that just as there are shuls for tailors and shoemakers, his shul is for talkers. I didn’t make this up.
    Times have changed and there is no excuse for throwing candies during keshusha. However, in that particular kehila, I would try to figure out if there is some way to give the person the benefit of the doubt dan l’kaf zechut. Maybe I am wrong and not being there I have no idea who is involved and want to keep it that way.
    Some people go to shul to daven, others just to be with Jews. You would be surprised how many are in the later category.

  4. Micha Berger says:

    The quote you’re remembering is from Tenu’as haMussar, the “Rosh Yeshiva” was actually Rav Yisrael Salanter, and the quote went: When Lashon Hara [pointlessly derogatory stories about others] is spoken in Vilna, the effect will be Chillul Shabbos [desecration of Shabbos] in Paris.

    Given Rav Yisrael’s reluctance to teach mysticism, it was probably meant in mundane terms. When otherwise observant Jews aren’t serving as stellar examples of interpersonal behavior, it turns off the rest of Jewry.

    More to the point of this topic, I’m reminded of Rav Yisrael’s comment that people all too often take interest in their own stomach and the other’s soul, while the ideal is the other way around. He also noted how often we see someone standing outside saying they need “ah tenster”, a 10th man for their minyan, but not so often see people standing by the door announcing that they have food for another to come for the meal to be their mezuman!

    Same thing here… So what if we ignore the big problem to look at our own smaller ones? Do we ignore our faults because at least we’re not as bad as the Son of Sam or Nasrallah?

    The ego issue can be addressed otherwise. Telling people to look at the chut hasa’arah (the thread of hair) of sin means that we’re telling them they are tzadiqim, for only the righteous are judged on such minutae. Make that point, and you can criticize while building up a person’s assessment of what he is capable of, rather than tearing down. The Alter of Slabodka did it; others can too.

    My rebbe, R’ Dovid Lifshitz zt”l, would rebuke by sitting with me, holding my arm lovingly like a grandfather about to share a warm secret, looking into my eyes, and saying that “for someone with your great …. (intellect, heart, generosity, whatever is appropriate for the person and the error), you could do better than this. Why not ….?”

    Totally off topic: Candy at a bar mitzvah is a relatively modern expansion of a custom designed for aufruf. Not “very” modern, as I recall in the 1970s preparing a hardhat in the cabinet under the bimah to throw on. So, it was done back then and was common enough that jokes about it were already appropriate.

    -mi

  5. joel rich says:

    Following an old custom, congregants had thrown candies at the Bar Mitzvah boy after the Haftarah, and Rabbi Levin had seen a fellow in a black yarmulke, with a Tallis over his head, throwing candies during Kedushah—and gesturing to encourage others to throw them back! Wearing a black velvet yarmulke and Tallis over the head are both supposed to signify someone who is serious about his Judaism, and this fellow was … tossing candies during Kedushah.

    This is a bit confusing, perhaps you can elaborate on the phrase old custom. Is it the minhag of that shul based on a long history? If so, there may be more to discuss.

    KT

  6. Bob Miller says:

    A side question:

    In my youth, candy was thrown at the aufruf of the groom-to-be, after his aliya of maftir. Exactly how old is the custom of also doing this after a bar mitzvah’s aliya?

  7. Mordechai says:

    “Following an old custom, congregants had thrown candies at the Bar Mitzvah boy after the Haftarah, and Rabbi Levin had seen a fellow in a black yarmulke, with a Tallis over his head, throwing candies during Kedushah—and gesturing to encourage others to throw them back! Wearing a black velvet yarmulke and Tallis over the head are both supposed to signify someone who is serious about his Judaism, and this fellow was … tossing candies during Kedushah.”

    Of course the indignation here is very proper and admirable. The situation described is more problematic than you realize, however.

    Let me point out a few important points to readers –

    1) Throwing candies or bags at bar mitzvah boys in Shul is actually not an old custom among us. It is a relatively recent extension by some of an older custom to do so at the aufruf of a chosson.

    However, a bar mitzvoh boy is emphatically not a chosson. This innovation has been opposed by great gedolim, among whom are the Steipler Gaon, Rav Schach, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, and lihavdil, Rav Yosef Shlomom Elyoshiv shlit”a.

    So it is problematic even if not done during kedusho.

    2) Even throwing such at a chosson in Shul on Shabbos is a relatively recent custom, which is really Sephardic in origin. E.g., note the language of the Mishna Berura siman 171, seif koton 21, where he refers to it as a new custom instituted then. The real Ashkenaz minhag, which is the minhog of Yekkes, is that kernels of wheat were thrown on the heads of chosson and kallah before the chupah on the day of the chassunah. Following that old minhag avoids problems of bizoyon ochlin and bizoyon beis haknesses, etc.

    For more information, see the comprehensive discussion of this and related matters in the sefer Shorshei Minhag Ashkenaz by Rav Binyomin Shlomo Hamburger, cheilek daled (IV).

  8. Yaakov Menken says:

    Yehoshua is correct, of course — HaRav Shach was the Rash’k’behag, the leading scholar of the exile. I had the privilege of seeing him give shiur once in Ponivezh, and have never seen the concept of Torah giving life to a person demonstrated so literally as I saw once he began to speak. I certainly intended no slight to his kavod — however, in this context, his stature as an author of Torah texts or Rosh Yeshiva would not identify him as, in Rav Gifter zt”l’s term, a “fanatic.”

    Ori, to the best of my understanding, we are only prohibited from naming an idol worshipped in our day. I have not heard previously that Ba’al was anything other than the name of an idol, or that an Asheira was not a tree venerated for idolatry, but in either case I understand it to be permitted to name them for the reason I gave.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Excellent post. I just have one minor point I want to comment on.

    Rabbi Yaacov Menken: “Harriet’s Kishkas” (which, being real live idolatry, we shouldn’t name accurately)

    Ori: Are we allowed to name the Ba’al and Ashera, or are they just varieties of the real names, Batel & Asura (note to those who don’t know Hebrew – Batel is “cancelled” and Asura is “forbidden one (fem))?

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I certainly agree with R. Yaakov’s points in general, but I bristled when he referred to the Avi Ezri, Rav Shach zt”l as “acknowledged head of Lithuanian Jewry and the creator of the Degel HaTorah political party” without mentioning his major Torah works or his position as head of the prestigious Ponivezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak. He was simply a great educator, as is acknowledged by serious Torah scholars from all sectors of Torah-observant Judaism. One of his most pointed statements was “Wehn you ask a question you open a door, when you give an answer you close the door.”