Living with the Tension

Yaakov Avinu represents the highest level of perfection among the Avos. Avraham Avinu produced a Yishmael; Yitzchak Avinu produced an Esav. But Yaakov’s progeny became the Twelve Tribes; each one of them entered into Klal Yisrael.

Avraham’s defining middah (characteristic) was chesed (loving-kindness); Yitzchak’s was the opposite, gevurah (strict judgment). Yaakov’s characteristic of emes (truth) can be viewed as a synthesis of the two.

The above schema is well-known. But it raises an interesting question. Why did HaKadosh Baruch Hu have to proceed through Avraham and Yitzchak to reach Yaakov? Why could He not have just started with the embodiment of emes in Yaakov? Apparently, emes could only arise out of a creative tension between chesed and din. That tension was a necessary condition for reaching the ultimate perfection.

My friend Rabbi Aharon Lopiansky first articulated this insight while counseling a young ba’al teshuva who was torn between his desire to deepen his own Gemara learning and his sense of obligation to share what he had already learned with the great majority of Jews who have never tasted Torah in their lives. The most important thing, Rabbi Lopiansky told him, was to continue to live with the tension rather than try to deny the validity of either goal.

Many of the most difficult choices in life are of this nature. The choice is not between life and death, good and evil, but how to balance two Torah values. The easiest course is often to suppress one side of the equation and to remove the tension. But from such a course, emes will not emerge.

Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu both were tested in ways that required them to act against their dominant middah. For Avraham, the greatest test was Akeidas Yitzchak, which required him to act contrary to the message he had taught the entire world for decades by sacrificing his own son. Yitzchak’s greatest test, as described by Rabbi Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu, came when he affirmed the blessings to Yaakov.

Yitzchak knew that Yaakov was at a higher spiritual level than Esav, and thought therefore that Yaakov should not receive any material blessing but rely exclusively on strict justice. When Yitzchak sensed, because of Yaakov’s voice and the scent of Gan Eden emanating from his clothes, that it was Yaakov standing before him, he recognized a Divine hint to depart from his lifetime emphasis on strict judgment and that Yaakov might also need a blessing of material bounty. Thus his great fear and trembling.

Avraham and Yitzchak were severely tested. But only Yaakov, the man of emes, experienced a life of unbroken travail – from being forced to flee from his brother Esav, to the twenty years in Lavan’s house, to the confrontation with Esav, to the twenty-two years that he mourned for Yosef. Only Yaakov could have said, “Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life. . . (Bereishis 47:9). From Yaakov we learn that fashioning a new synthesis, while holding fast to two competing poles, is the most difficult task. But only by doing so can emes emerge.

Too frequently, when we hear something with which we disagree our initial inclination is to suppress it. Yet often times, both on an individual and a communal level, we would benefit from an airing of both sides of the debate. On most important issues that affect us as individuals and as a community, there is more than one perspective that is relevant. And the truth is more likely to emerge from the clash between the varying approaches than from one side of the debate trying to censor the other.

The great historian of the Italian Renaissance Jakob Burkhardt wrote in the 19th century that the future would belong “to those who see things simply.” And in the next century, we witnessed totalitarian regimes that slaughtered tens of millions of human beings in the name of some easily grasped ideal promising to free human existence from all tension and complication.

THE NECESSITY OF Avraham Avinu and Yitzchak Avinu, with their diametrically opposed defining characteristics, preceding Yaakov Avinu also has important implications for our understanding of Jewish history. Far from being static, Jewish history follows certain cycles and patterns. The Ohr Somayach, in a famous passage, describes one such pattern with respect to recently exiled Jews arriving in a new land and the change from one generation to the next.

After every catastrophic event that destroys the previous equilibrium, there is a pendulum swings until a new equilibrium is found. Let us take one contemporary example. The period between the beginning of World War I and end of World War II completely destroyed a European Jewish civilization built over nearly two millennia. In order to rebuild the entire world of Torah learning destroyed by the Nazis, Rabbi Aharon Kotler in the United States and the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael declared a societal ideal of long-term Torah study for all males that had few precedents in Jewish history. The pendulum swung in one direction, as part of the rebuilding.

As the original small flock of dedicated idealists who rallied to the banner of Reb Aharon and the Chazon Ish has miraculously swelled today to an entire community of hundreds of thousands, encompassing a wide range of abilities and spiritual levels, the pendulum has begun to swing in the other direction in search of a new equilibrium.

But whatever happens in the future it is s crucial to understand that the extreme response was absolutely necessary, just as the pure chesed of Avraham and the pure din of Yitzchak were necessary for Yaakov to emerge. And so it has been with many of the great conflicts in Jewish history, like that between Chassidim and Misnagdim. In retrospect, the extremes of the early Chassidic movement and the fierceness of the Misnagdic response can be seen as necessary for the synthesis of the qualities of both that has emerged.

We could all gain a great deal in the way of tolerance if we recognized that approaches that we dismiss out of hand are often the necessary expression of one pole of an inherent tension. Our task as individuals and a community is too forge our own synthesis from the tension.

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18 comments to Living with the Tension

  • Baruch Pelta

    I don’t understand how the first part of this article connects to the second part. In the first part, R’ Rosenblum argues for broadmindedness and trying to look at issues from the perspective of the Loyal Opposition and engage in dialogue as opposed to simply censoring the other side. In the second part, he makes an argument that his way of looking at the initiatives of the Chazon Ish and R’ Kotler is — lo and behold — “absolutely” correct!

    Still, I am pleased that R’ Rosenblum is calling for dialogue and I can remark that such refreshingly open dialogue has taken place on this very blog (e.g. my recent dispute with R’ Menken on his post, “The Right to Disrupt Your Prayers). Nevertheless, I feel that my own attempts to express concern with some of R’ Rosenblum’s own assertions have been rebuffed through silence.

    In a recent article in the Yated which was reprinted here on Cross-Currents, R’ Rosenblum argued against what he referred to as Obamacare with a number of arguments which I felt were incorrect, but most importantly, incorrectly asserted that nobody in Britain over 59 is allowed to have an artery stent…which is verifiably and factually not true. Although I asked R’ Rosenblum in two correspondences to retract, I have to date received no response.

    In addition, I have written a letter to R’ Rosenblum expressing my concern about his presentation of the Synagogue Council of America controversy in his new volume where he quotes R’ Sherer to the effect that all the gedolim concurred and that the OU and the RCA were simply not following Judaism’s proper dictates regarding deferring to those rabbinic authorities (I’m paraphrasing). We know that the Rav and R’ Eliezer Silver disagreed with this assertion and that they did not in fact concur with the judgement of the other gedolim, but R’ Rosenblum omits that fact in a presentation of the RCA and OU as organizations which were acting against the wishes of all the gedolei yisrael with regards to the SCA issue. I felt that this made the Rav and R’ Silver look bad and I expressed my concern; I have received no response from R’ Rosenblum regarding this very important issue.

  • cvmay

    Let us keep the pendulum swinging till “emes” is the trademark of Jews worldwide. Living with friction is not an easy task & difficult for most therefore quick choices are made as to alleviate the tension.

    Excellent, insightful, poignant article layered with depth and honesty.

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    I would add that the tension between Zionism and anti-Zionism, with secular Zionism being moderated by religious Zionism, followed by the Zionist yeshivot moderating both the cultural and national excesses of religious Zionism, is another step toward equilibrium. The end to which every reasonable Jew committed to Torah and mitzvot is that the Torah-committed camps in both the hareidi and the national religious world will learn to work together so that another expulsion will not happen and ultimately there will be a nation in Eretz Yisrael where Torah rules. I once read an English translation of religious kibbutznik and former MK Moshe Unna’s (z”l) memoirs in which he talked at length about the incessant incitement by Ben-Gurion to play divide and conquer between Aguda and Mizrachi, realizing that if they would work together life would not be simple for the secularists. Buy off one and incite against the other. If the two get together and form a united front, secularism will be defeated sooner rather than later.

  • Marty Bluke

    Interestingly enough this column was published in the Hebrew Mishpacha this week with one significant omission. The contemporary example of Kollel for everyone as a reaction to the holocaust “The pendulum swung in one direction, as part of the rebuilding.” was omitted. In Israel it seems, to say that Kollel for everyone is a reaction and not simply the ideal cannot be said.

  • kollelguyinEY

    I must say that I was shocked to read your article in the English Mishpacha in which you preach “the original small flock of dedicated idealists who rallied to the banner of Reb Aharon and the Chazon Ish has miraculously swelled today to an entire community of hundreds of thousands of dedicated Bein Torah. Yet there can be no certainty that rules applied to a smaller less diverse flock can apply forever to a vastly larger public encompassing a wide range of abilities and spiritual levels”

    Do you have backing of the Gedolei uManhigei Yisroel on your side? Did you consult with RYSE? RAYLS? RMYL? RCK? RNK? Anyone of stature?

    Truth is, you can think what you want… but how can Mishpacha claim to be a chareidi magazine and print a baalebos’ opinion on a communal level without consulting with gedolim?

    Shocked.

  • Marty Bluke

    kollelguyinEY,

    Those same Gedolei uManhigei Yisroel who you quoted assur the internet. What are you doing posting on an internet forum?

    In any case, I guess you didn’t notice that the whole paragraph that you objected to was left out of the Hebrew version (Hebrew Mishpacha) probably because they knew that they would get reactions like yours in Israel.

  • Bob Miller

    Regarding the comment by kollelguyinEY — December 6, 2009 @ 6:29 pm :

    1. Is anyone who is not a Gadol to be considered a “baalebos”?

    2. Who defines “stature” in a Rav?

    3. Is anyone who sees a need to improve our system automatically a “baalebos”, or at least without “stature”?

    4. “kollelguyinEY” appears to assume that arguments that do not appeal to him are ipso facto baalbatish and developed without consultation.

  • zadok

    The period between the beginning of World War I and end of World War II completely destroyed a European Jewish civilization built over nearly two millennia. In order to rebuild the entire world of Torah learning destroyed by the Nazis, Rabbi Aharon Kotler in the United States and the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael declared a societal ideal of long-term Torah study for all males that had few precedents in Jewish history. The pendulum swung in one direction, as part of the rebuilding

    Is there any credible verifiable source for the contention that the ideal of long-term Torah study was only a reaction to the post Holocaust situation?Although I’ve seen and heard that claim repeatedly, so far no one has provided me with any real basis to believe it.And those who promote long term kollel invariably do so on the grounds of Torah L’shma, rarely does one hear about the holocaust.In fact at the dedication of the Lakewood Yeshiva building, Rav Ahron Kotler, stressed that Yeshivos don’t exist for the sake of producing Talmedey chacomim, but rather for the sole purpose of Limud H’Torah(I’m told by people who were there)

    Like most idealist movements, long term kollel can not encompass all people, but neither can the Cross Currents apparent ideal, that everyone should be a successful college educated professional, who is also an erlhicer yid.From what I see however, a higher percentage of those who claim to follow the former ideal are successful at it, then the latter.

  • Ori

    Kollel Guy, there are two possibilities here:

    1. Jonathan Rosenblum and the editorial board of Mishpacha are risking their position within charedi society and their livelihoods to defy the leaders of charedi society on a topic near and dear to their hearts. That would indeed by shocking.

    2. Gelodey Israeli do think that change is warranted. However, if they were to publicly announce such a change, it would cause an over reaction. They want the best and brightest to stay in kollel. But they want those who aren’t as bright or as dedicated to go get a livelihood. In such a case, they would permit/ask somebody like Jonathan Rosenblum to publish a piece like this, and see what the reaction would be. If it were insufficient, they might speak up themselves – but that’s an extreme measure given how much power their words carry.

    BTW, what do you think of the substance of the message? Or do you think you (and Jonathan Rosenblum) are not supposed to have a personal opinion, that this kind of decision does not belong at your level?

  • kollelguyinEY

    1. Is anyone who is not a Gadol to be considered a “baalebos”?
    No.

    2. Who defines “stature” in a Rav?
    Klal Yisroel as led by the previous and this generations Gedolim

    3. Is anyone who sees a need to improve our system automatically a “baalebos”, or at least without “stature”?
    No.

    4. “kollelguyinEY” appears to assume that arguments that do not appeal to him are ipso facto baalbatish and developed without consultation.
    No. “kollelguyinEY” is concerned that these ideas were developed without consultation with gedolei Yisroel, for if they had the backing of Gedolei Yisroel, where is the list? That was actually the questions posed “Do you have backing of the Gedolei uManhigei Yisroel on your side? Did you consult with RYSE? RAYLS? RMYL? RCK? RNK? Anyone of stature?”

  • kollelguyinEY

    –Kollel Guy, there are two possibilities here:

    And I suspect that this is the correct approach – Jonathan Rosenblum and the editorial board of Mishpacha are risking their position within charedi society and their livelihoods to defy the leaders of charedi society on a topic near and dear to their hearts. That would indeed by shocking.

    – I, and I am not alone, feel that there is an agenda in Mishpacha magazine, and that agenda is not 100% in sync with current chareidi hashkafos. This is felt more in innuenedo that in specifics, and I will not involve myself with debating my feelings. Perhaps if you are chareidi inclined you understand the nuanced differences in hashkafa. Perhaps not.

    BTW, what do you think of the substance of the message? Or do you think you (and Jonathan Rosenblum) are not supposed to have a personal opinion, that this kind of decision does not belong at your level?

    I feel that a question regarding direction of klal yisroel as a whole belongs to the leaders of klal yisroel, who see 100 years of hindsight and 100 years of foresight at the same time. No, not every Rov. Not most rabbonim. But the Gedolei Yisroel. Leaders like the Chazon Ish, The Brisker Rov, The Steipler Gaon, Rav Shach, Rav Elyashiv and Rav Shteinman. I – and I speak for myself not for RJR – consider myself unworthy of a decision that affects klal yisroel. This is the lesson of Yisro – the big decisions go to Moshe Rabbeinu. Not to the sarei asaros, not to the sarai ma’os, not to the sarei alafim, or the sarei revavos. But to Moshe himself. The Manhig of the tzibbur. (To give credit where it is due, I think I saw this idea on this very website, or in a post by one of the writers for this blog)

  • Shades of Gray

    “We could all gain a great deal in the way of tolerance if we recognized that approaches that we dismiss out of hand are often the necessary expression of one pole of an inherent tension. Our task as individuals and a community is too forge our own synthesis from the tension.”

    The ideas of tension, equilibrium, and balance can be found in many examples in the external universe, as well as inside a person. For example, “shalom” can refer to peace between the opposites of water and fire (as in one who sees a pot seen in a dream, or as in “oseh shalom b’mromov”). Regarding internal character traits, the Rambam describes the “derech hayeshara”, the upright path, as being “the middle path of all the qualities known to man”.

    I read of a parallel “internal/external” idea in a book describing the body’s natrual and automatic system of responding to panic. Before introducing that system, the author points to examples of ever-shifting balances in the natural world(“Don’t Panic”, pgs. 147-148):

    “There appears to be a balance in this universe of ours, which is maintained by constant change. The tides of the sea are either in the process of rising or in the process of falling. Nothing is still. Everything in nature is in constant flux, but it is not in random change. Just as the pendulum swings, the rhythms of this world seem to produce a balance between two poles…

    This rhythm is equally profound in the human body. Consider the heart. It expresses a singular pattern as it beats within the chest: contract, relax, contract, relax, contract, relax…Expanding and contracting. Activity and rest. This is the principle polarity that maintains the equilibrium within all the systems of the natural world…”

    Though the spheres of application are different–the tide in the ocean, human heart, the regulation of calmness in the body, Rambam’s balance of character traits, Kabalistic synthesis of “Tiferes”(or “Emes” of Yaakov), or the Earning versus Learning equilibrium in the Jewish community –the concept of balance and of shifting equilibriums is similar or the same.

  • cvmay

    L’kvoad Zadok,
    Rav Ahron zt”l said on many occasions and it has been written in his name that the goal after the Holocaust was to rebuild European Life/Yeshivos/Kehillos on the shores of America.

    Re: the post of M. Bluke, is a normative activity when translating works from English to Hebrew or vice versa. Hashkafos, questionable statements & ideas are deleted, erased or just voided from the article, biography, story or event depending on the agenda of the editor or media’s board. Unfortunately this blatant act of deceit (rewriting of history as an example) gives a green light to future dishonesty, fraudulent acts, and bending of rules/regulations to fit the situation (read the Sound of Silence by R. Shafran).

  • zadok

    L’kvoad Zadok,
    Rav Ahron zt”l said on many occasions and it has been written in his name that the goal after the Holocaust was to rebuild European Life/Yeshivos/Kehillos on the shores of America.

    Can you please give a few reference sources?

    Also please explain how having a goal to rebuild European Life/Yeshivos/Kehillos on the shores of America, makes doing so, the intrinsic purpose of the Yeshivos/long term learning, as is implied here.

  • Dave

    It seems to me that you’re getting played by Kollelguy. His comment sounds sarcastic to me.

  • Bob Miller

    The comment by Dave — December 8, 2009 @ 10:50 am rings true to me.

    A true Kollelguy would not use an alphabet soup of English abbreviations for the names of Gedolim, or even communicate with a blog.

    Hiding behind a misleading made-up name to undermine what you’re ostensibly for is a common blog tactic.

  • Torah Umadda

    A couple of points

    First, there is an additional consideration of the Vietnam war. Since the military used to give deferments to people in school, college admissions shot up in the 60s and 70s. The same happened with Yeshivos, as many Jews started learning full time in order to escape the draft. Additionally, even when that provision was done away with, anyone with smicha could serve as a chaplain in the military rather than as a combat soldier. As a result, many Jews started going for smicha at that time and would often get it just as they were drafted. There have been a few articles on the web about that phenomenon, but my dad remembers meeting some people like that when he was at Ner Yisroel in Baltimore (he didn’t have to worry about it since he was from Canada).

    The second point is that this synthesis that Jonathan Rosenblum describes sounds similar to the Torah Umadda synthesis that Rav Yosef Soloveitchik formulated. Modern Orthodox Jews are often looked down at by chareidim as just looking for ways to be lenient, but this synthesis is ultimately what the Modern Orthodox hashkafa is about.

  • Bob Miller

    I apologize for my earlier comment — December 8, 2009 @ 12:25 pm, since it now seems probable that Kollelguy really is one.