Friday, June 07, 2013

Meeting the Angels: A Lesson For Public Life and Leadership

The past twenty-four hours have been extraordinarily stressful for me. The stress is not because of work, or family. I suppose it's because I care, and care passionately: about God, about the Torah and three millennia of Tradition, about the Jewish People and its qualitative survival as a worthy descendant of a 'Kingdom of priests and a Holy People,' and about the continued safety and ongoing growth here, where God desires us to be, in the Land of Israel.

The stress is because all around me I see this people, in this Land, about whom I care so deeply, pulling in radically opposite directions, aiming for extremes; extremes both of which I feel in my deepest being are destructive, and belie much of what I have been taught or come to believe that the Torah teaches. On the other hand, I identify with the fundamental probity and correctness of both sides of this divide. It is the pell mell rush to the extremes that leaves me dizzy and hurting. I walk around burdened by the awful truth once expressed by Ralph Waldo Emerson: '"A foolish Consistency is the hobgoblins of little engage in the most dangerousminds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines. With consistency, a great soul simply has nothing to do." All around me, good people, thoughtful people latch on to slogans that deny life's complexity, and run with them.

I, as I'll try to show, live in the middle. I believe, as someone once noted (I don't know recall who- and neither does Dr. Google), that extremes are both logical and absurd. While living in the middle is a principled place, it forces one to engage in the most dangerous action: a two-front or three-front war. Of course, I could not do this. I could totally retreat back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but my conscience won't allow it (though there is time for research too). My soul won't allow it, and my sense of responsibility to my God, my Torah and my People won't allow it.   

Let me explain.

Yesterday, I was involved in two, very different, though strikingly similar debates. On the one hand, I was engaged in arguing the legitimacy of teaching Math and English in Haredi Schools, to allow students to break out of poverty and enter the work force. I was met, from circles that I thought were my home turf, not simply with rejection, some abuse, but more than that refusal to even engage that which I was saying. The points I advocated were hardly revolutionary, based upon a panoply of proofs from Gemora, Rishonim and Aharonim. But, it appears, the willy nilly run to the Right within the once Modern Orthodox community has gone so far, as to be nigh on irreversible. So, on this front, I was the rejected, suspected 'Liberal'.

Not long after, I heard that the Women of the Wall were determined to push their agenda and actions even further by bringing a Sefer Torah to the Kotel on Sunday. I dread the Hillul HaShem that will ensue. My thoughts on the controversy are mixed, and this is not the place to expand upon them. I will say, that (as with a lot of other issues roiling the Orthodox community in Israel, and abroad) I see a lot of screaming for rights, but not enough if any יראת שמים, or deference to tradition, to Hazal, to the integrity of the Torah. Too much judging of God, because what the Torah teaches doesn't jibe with post-Modern, anthropocentric relativism. In a word, while the concerns are legitimate, and the Torah can provide far more legitimate leeway, this side of the community has no brakes. And there are limits, serious limits beyond which we cannot go and still call ourselves God Fearing, Torah observant Jews. Greatness of vision, as the Rav זצ"ל taught, must be constantly tempered with Humility. גדלות מוחין and קטנות מוחין. If the first group runs with the latter, the former is intoxicated by the former. Neither is healthy, neither is legitimate. Only both together can work.

God forbid that Yeats (The Second Coming) should prevail :

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is downed;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.

Actually, Rav Soloveitchik taught that Yeats' apocalyptic terror should not sidetrack a person. On the contrary, inner conviction- even between extremes- is the way to go. His point was made in an observation that he once made to Rabbi Norman Lamm, which Rabbi Lamm related to me.

A prominent rabbi came under attack, from Left and Right, for a series of positions that he had adopted. Beleaguered, he asked Rabbi Lamm to arrange for him to meet with Rav Soloveitchik to seek his advice. After hearing him out, the Rab told him the following (my paraphrase):  

At the end of Parshat Va-Yetze, the Torah tell us (Gen. 32, 2):  וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱ-לֹהִים, And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of G-d met him. 

'Jacob,' the Rav remarked went לדרכו, on his own way, in the service of God- the principled way that was uniquely his own. He didn't look to his left. He didn't look to his right. Because he walked in his own way: ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים. He was met by angels of God. 

אמן, כן יהי רצון