I came to full Jewish observance relatively late in life. I was nearly thirty and married when I first walked through the doors of Ohr Somayach. I don’t fully remember the entire process of becoming religious. But certainly the most important element of our decision was exposure to people of a refinement and depth that we had never before encountered.
For the last twenty years, I have been writing biographies of modern Jewish leaders. If one bright thread unites the lives of all the disparate figures whose lives I have researched it is their commitment to the Torah imperative that “the Name of Heaven should be become beloved through you.”
In the 1930s, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, today renowned as one of the premier Jewish thinkers of the century, supported himself in London tutoring young public school students. He instructed one of those young students to drop a coin in the cup of all the numerous beggars along the way. To another, he suggested that he should always go to the upper-deck of the London bus he rode to the lessons. Since he only travelled one stop, perhaps the conductor would not reach him to collect his fare, and then he – an identifiably religious Jewish boy – would hand the change to the person next to him and say in a loud voice, “The conductor did not collect my fare, please pay him for me.” The lesson: Not only must one sanctify G-d’s Name through one’s actions; one must seek out opportunities to do so.
These figures saw themselves as teaching about Torah in every situation. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, the wise man of American Jewry, once took a ball out of his pocket in a doctor’s office and started playing with a young boy. When asked if it was not beneath his dignity, he replied, “He may never see another old Jew with a white beard. I want his association to be a good one.” When he passed away, a group of nuns in Monsey wrote a letter lamenting the loss of the old rabbi who always smiled at them on his walks.
For thirteen years, the Klausenberger Rebbe traveled the globe raising the money to build Laniado Hospital in Netanya, to create a model of a Torah approach to healing. Once he learned that a pamphlet on the laws of family purity was being distributed to patients, and ordered it be stopped immediately. He built the hospital not to do missionary work but to demonstrate how the Torah views healing, he explained. That was reflected in the no-strike clause in every doctor’s contract, the surfeit of respirators so no triage decisions would ever have to be made as to who would receive a respirator, the willingness of nursing students, inspired by the Rebbe, to spend days and nights by the beds of patients upon whom everyone else had given up; and the use of much more expensive, but less painful, disposable syringes for shots.
The Rebbe was famous for his stringency with respect to shmiras einayim (guarding one’s gaze). But in the DP camps after the War (in which he lost his wife and eleven children), when he heard that young Jewish girls, dehumanized by what they had been through, had set up a red light district, he personally went to bring them back to their heritage.
These great Torah leaders treated each every person with whom they came into contact with respect and empathy. Reb Yaakov Kamenetsky and another rosh yeshiva once entered a cab, in which the music was blaring. The other rosh yeshiva asked the cabdriver to turn-off the radio. But Reb Yaakov told him not to. “The driver’s work is so monotonous that he’ll go mad without out it so we have no right to ask him to turn it off,” said Reb Yaakov, citing a Talmudic passage in support.
Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach would not jump up from his seat on the bus if a woman not dressed according to halachic standards sat down next to him, lest she feel insulted. He would simply push the button as if his stop was coming up and get off the bus.
A religious family undertook to cover the expenses of the fertility treatments of a non-religious Jewish couple, and sent them to Israel to receive blessings from great tzadikim, including the Rosh Yeshiva of Mirrer Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel. When the couple arrived at the Rosh Yeshiva’s house in summer attire, not usually seen in Meah Shearim, Rebbetzin Finkel greeted the wife with a hug and words of encouragement – “You are both Jewish. It is such a big thing to marry Jewish today.”
So as not to embarrass her visitor, the Rebbetzin explained that her husband was such a holy man that out of respect she dons a shawl when she goes into speak to him, and offered her guest another shawl and a piece of matching jewelry.
Reb Nosson Tzvi remained silent when the couple entered. The person who escorted them in started to explain their situation, but the Rosh Yeshiva stopped him short: “Of course I know who they are, I’m thinking of their pain.” Then he turned to the husband and asked, “Do you ever feel people are staring at you?” The husband nodded. Reb Nosson Tzvi added, “I often feel that way and that people cannot understand what I’m saying [on account of the loss of muscular control from debilitating Parkinson's disease].” Let’s cry together. And that’s what the Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva and the childless couple did.
Non-religious Jewish politicians who worked closely with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time president of Agudath Israel of America never felt that he looked down on them. New York Mayor Ed Koch said, “He personified the Talmudic rule, ‘Hate the sin, not the sinner’.” Upon Rabbi Sherer’s death, Alexander Schindler, the head of the American Reform movement, wrote a eulogy in The New York Times. The morning after his funeral, the black woman behind the entrance desk at the building housing Agudath Israel’s office, whom Rabbi Sherer always made a point of greeting effusively and inquiring after, and the Latin American building superintendent, whose family had been spared deportation because of Rabbi Sherer’s use of his political connections on their behalf, both wept openly.
LAST FRIDAY NIGHT, a rav who was one of my role models at the beginning of the journey and remains one today spoke about yesterday’s fast of Aseret b’Tevet, which, according to some opinons, is the date of the sale of Yosef by his brothers. The Torah portion of the week, VaYigash, relates how Yosef and Binyamin fell on each other and wept. Rashi comments: Yosef wept for the two Temples that stood in the portion of Binyamin, which would be destroyed; and Binyamin wept for the Mishkan at Shiloh, in the portion of Yosef’s son Ephraim, which would also be destroyed.
What is the connection between those destructions and the reunion of Yosef and Binyamin? Yosef had constructed an elaborate test for his brothers to see whether his brothers would stand by their half-brother Binyamin, and thus rectify their sale of him. The brothers passed that test. But only in part. Throughout Yehudah’s plea to Yosef on Binyamin’s behalf, he refers to the latter as the son of their father Yaakov and as “the lad”, but not as “our brother.” Something was still lacking in brotherly unity. And that lack was felt in the destruction of the Temple for causeless hatred.
Until we can repair that lack of brotherhood, the Temple will not be rebuilt. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, the head of Kesher Yehudi, is trying to do just that. In recent years, she has organized thousands of learning partnerships between religious and non-religious women. The main message she offers the hareidi volunteers is: “If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship, but don’t feel you have anything to gain or learn from your secular partner, this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believe every Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to one another.” I have been present at events in which the phone study partners met each other for the first time, and the warmth and excitement was palpable. Many pairs sat with their arms around each other for the rest of the evening.
Last Shabbos was spent with a group of over 100 women university students receiving an introduction to Torah Judaism under the auspicies of an organization called Nefesh Yehudi. I was amazed by the sophistication and command of the breadth of Jewish thought of the lecturers, including Mrs. Miriam Kosman, who made her debut in these pages last week. The conversation on Friday night lasted until 4:00 a.m., and the students did not hold back with their questions on every topic – relationships, homosexuality, why most hareidi women wear wigs, and, of course, Ramat Beit Shemesh.
Neither that Shabbaton or hundreds like it or 7,000 phone partnerships in Torah learning will fully repair the tear in Klal Yisrael. But they are steps in the right direction.
I HAVE NEVER REGRETTED the decision to become religious. I cannot even imagine how much less rich my life would have been without Torah. But it must be admitted that there is much in our society that does not conform to the paragons one meets upon entering the hareidi community. And much that I have subsequently been exposed to would have made the decision much harder at the beginning.
It is unrealistic to expect an entire community to attain the level of the great figures I have spent the last two decades writing about. But, at the very least, we should strive to emulate their example of turning every encounter with a fellow human being, and especially a fellow Jew, into a positive experience. Those whose insularity has rendered them oblivious to that message fill me with pain and anger.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.