Restoring Leadership

The Derekh. It is very important to be on it. If, God forbid, someone is off it, his parents will be the talk of town. Not, God forbid, publicly. Behind closed doors, by the (kosher) water cooler, in hushed conversations during the Torah reading in shul: “have you heard? So and so’s (son; daughter; the whole mishpuche) is OTD – Off The Derekh. The Derekh is the path. The path of Torah and Mitzvot. There is only one Derekh! To each faction, that is. The Waze of Torah are multiple, but they all lead to the gates of the World to Come, so just make sure your seat is secure. There may have been shortcuts, traffic jams, bending some legal corners, and stopped vehicles [i.e. baffled believers] on roadsides, but if you never lose your faith, or if you have lost and found it you will be OK. Or so we believe.

The truth is that the Derekh of Torah is not about ping-ponging from the road to your smartphone, looking to spend as little time as possible on the road before hearing that bugle of the Messiah, the harbinger of redemption declaring: “you have arrived at your destination.” The Derekh of Torah is not about the destination, it is about the path. It is the road trip we plan with the best travel book in hand, looking for scenic roots and byways, hikes and lakes. We want to enjoy every moment of that road trip, and we definitely should, because YOLO. 

In Parashat Ekev (Deut. 18:12), Moshe tells the Israelites that God does not ask too much of them:

וְעַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה יְיָ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־יְיָ אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־יְיָ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ

Now, Israel, what is it tat God is asking of you? [not much] just revere God, walk in His paths, love Him, and serve God with all your heart and might.

The Talmudic sages were perplexed by Moshe’s statement and asked (Berakhot 33:2): “Is this a small feat?”. Their answer is no less perplexing: “Yes! for Moshe it was a small feat!”. How can Moshe, the greatest leader our nation ever had, speak to the people from his perspective without considering where they are coming from?

The answer is Customer Experience. The feeling that Moshe conveys to the people is that of a satisfied customer, and when you feel like that, it is easy and genuine to tell others to try and enjoy as well. Instead of looking at the Torah as a legal codex which must be obeyed to avoid punishment and merit eternal bliss, one should look at it as a product with divine origin, a system geared for the improvement to near perfection of the human experience, which uses are supposed to enjoy and be thrilled about. When this is how one perceives the Torah, he reveres God. The reverence is not fear of punishment or loss of future reward, but rather a concern about losing the beneficial experience. Inter-personal relationships, especially between parents and children, can be either based on the fear of punishment, or on the reverence which stems from love. That is when one side loves the other so deeply, that it is afraid of acting disrespectfully or apathetically and losing that wonderful connection. 

When that feeling is present, the rest follows naturally. One loves God, walks in his path, and serves Him, but unlike human relationship, it seems that here only one side benefits, since God is immutable. The truth is that while the observant person is the direct benefactor, the circles of positive impact reach much further, and influence his family, his community, nation, and eventually the whole world. And that brings us back to the OTD problem. If the path is so wonderful, if on the scenic by-way of our lives we ware able to experience many great things thanks to the observance of Torah and Mitzvot, how come so many people veer off the Derekh?

In many conversations with parents, educators, and rabbis the most common theme is that of faith. There are courses, retreats, lectures, books, and workshops which try to restore or create belief in the tenets of Judaism and to answer theological questions such as divine justice, life after death, and evolution versus creation. While all these are very important, there is a very important element which is ignored or overlooked by most parties involved. It is not because they think it is does not merit attention, but rather because they believe that most people who are off the Derekh or not on it yet would not care about it before their theological questions are answered. I beg (as is my Minhag) to differ. 

Consumer Experience

What is missing, for millions of Jewish users, is a positive experience with that product called Judaism, and specifically with its practical aspect. The greatness of Judaism is that it is not an abstract system of beliefs reserved only for the elite, nor is it a set of rituals meant for isolated groups of hermits, ascetics, and fakirs. Judaism is a path for everyday life. It reminds and helps us to be more sensitive, more aware, better friends, spouses, and parents. It teaches us to give charity, to help someone find a job, to return a lost object, to find our spirituality, and to appreciate the power of repentance. To get the full value the Torah promises again and again, especially in the book of Deuteronomy, faith alone is not enough. Observance is needed. And it is there where we have a problem. Our customer service needs an upgrade.

I’ll explain. It is important for people to observe Mitzvot, and that includes OTD’s. They still feel guilt and remorse when they depart from their religious education, and I have heard from many of them that they feel a jolt of familiar joy when once in a while they follow a familiar ritual. What went wrong is that the feeling of importance is not reciprocal and thus consumer experience is hurt. We all feel that Halakha is important to us, but we also want to feel that we are important to Halakha. We want to know that if we, as consumers, are not satisfied with the product, the seller or his representative will fix the problem, and if they cannot we will be entitled to return the product. In our analogy, the original product, the Torah, obviously cannot be changed, but there is a wide field of authority given to the representatives, and we would like them to use it, and to show us that our needs, concerns, and the things which might push people off the Derekh, are recognized and addressed.

Many of these representatives, our rabbis and poskim, are trying to do the best, but most of them say that they will address concerns only privately and only when they are brought to their attention. Indeed, there is a proliferation of private rulings, just for this person, at this time and place, and under these circumstances. Even halakhic works are prefaced with the warning that the rulings presented in them are not to be followed without consultation with the reader’s rabbi. The truth is that for every person who asks the rabbi a question, there hundreds if not thousands who do not ask. They do not ask because they are ashamed or embarrassed, they don’t know of any rabbi whose ruling will solve their problem, or they simply gave up. My estimate, based on correspondence with my readers and from the many FB pages which deal with halakhic questions, that at least seventy-five percent of observant Jews have a serious problem with a certain aspect of Halakha. Their solution is either to suffer quietly, to slowly drift away from observance, or to forego that specific law. That last approach is more common then what people believe, and it puts a heavy burden of guilt on the observant person, who usually hides it form his or her immediate family and friends. 

It is incumbent upon the rabbis to deal less with questions of theology and philosophy (though they are no doubt necessary), to get out of the comfort zone of “personal rulings”, and to move beyond the publication of theoretical halakhic musing which cannot be relied on in practice. Let the rabbis consider the option of following the commandment of the Torah, presented few verses after the verse mentioned above (ibid. 17-18):

כִּ֚י יְיָ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם ה֚וּא אֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽאֱלֹהִ֔ים וַאֲדֹנֵ֖י הָאֲדֹנִ֑ים, הָאֵ֨ל הַגָּדֹ֤ל הַגִּבֹּר֙ וְהַנּוֹרָ֔א אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹא־יִשָּׂ֣א פָנִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יִקַּ֖ח שֹֽׁחַד. עֹשֶׂ֛ה מִשְׁפַּ֥ט יָת֖וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֑ה וְאֹהֵ֣ב גֵּ֔ר לָ֥תֶת ל֖וֹ לֶ֥חֶם וְשִׂמְלָֽה

For God… is great, mighty, and revered. He will not give preferential treatment and will not accept bribe. He upholds justice for orphans and widows and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothes.

God’s might is in His ability to hear the plight of the weaker layers of society, those who are usually pushed aside or stepped on by the system. The warning of Deuteronomy, and the call to follow God’s pathways in caring for orphans and widows, was unfortunately ignored already in biblical times, as the prophet Isaiah demands and laments (1:17 and 23):  

לִמְד֥וּ הֵיטֵ֛ב דִּרְשׁ֥וּ מִשְׁפָּ֖ט אַשְּׁר֣וּ חָמ֑וֹץ, שִׁפְט֣וּ יָת֔וֹם רִ֖יבוּ אַלְמָנָֽה… שָׂרַ֣יִךְ… יָתוֹם֙ לֹ֣א יִשְׁפֹּ֔טוּ וְרִ֥יב אַלְמָנָ֖ה לֹֽא־יָב֥וֹא אֲלֵיהֶֽם

Learn well, seek justice, rectify corruption, provide justice for the orphan, and defend the widow… your leaders… do not provide justice to the orphan and the plight of the widow does not reach them…

Let our religious and lay leaders rise to the task, fight for solutions for all Jews, at any level of observance, even if they do not explicitly ask for those solutions. Let them understand that the Jewish world is stratified and that each stratum has its own weaknesses and stress, so that one size does not fit all. Let us all follow the paths of God and become, in the words of Psalms (68:6):

אֲבִ֣י יְ֭תוֹמִים וְדַיַּ֣ן אַלְמָנ֑וֹת אֱ֝לֹהִ֗ים בִּמְע֥וֹן קָדְשֽׁוֹ

A father to the orphan and a defender to the widow, God who dwells in His Holy Abode!


1 My original plan was to discuss here the painful example of the Agunah, but it will be out of the scope of this
article. I will save it for the daily blog (once we are done with makeup…). Meanwhile, for those readers who are
interested, here are three rulings by R. Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, in which he explains the solution for the Agunah
problem. The question is: why is it not used?
שבט הלוי, יא:רצ: באתי היום להשיב בקיצור על עובדא נוראה שעשה אחד בליעל רשע, לפי דבריו, לקדש בתו הקטנה, לפני עדים לדבריו…
לענין קטנה הוא עשה שלא כהוגן אף חכמינו עשו לו שלא כהוגן והפקיעו קידושיו… מכ”ז יראה לענ”ד אם יסכימו ת”ח אמיתים לדברינו שאין
ממש בקידושין כאלה
שבט הלוי, ג:רד: וביסוד הדבר למאן דאמר גזלן דאורייתא כשר צריך להבין דהא גזלן מטעם שקר מיפסל ואינו דומה לעד א’ וכה”ג דלא משום
שקר נפסל לדעת הסוברים כן… דפליגי בטעם דהאמינו כל עדות פסולה בעגונא דדעת רש”י דהוא מטעם אפקענהו רבנן לקידושין מיני’,
דבלא”ה לא הי’ להם כח אפי’ בעד א’ ומכ”ש בעד מפי עד לעקור דבר מה”ת בקום ועשה כאשר הקשו תוס’ לקמן פ”ח ע”א ד”ה מתוך
שבט הלוי, ג:ר: כיון דהחליצה מעושה (בלא אמר רוצה אני) פסולה לא ראו חכמים לכפות אלא במקום עגונה, ומשמע מדבריו דרק מדרבנן
הרחיקו מזה אבל מעיקר הדין כופין גם שלא במקום עגונה… מתשובת מהר”ם בר ברוך סי’ תצ”ב שכ’ ביבם שדחה את יבמתו… דמכין עד
שתצא נפשו עכ”ל… ונראה מדבריו דגם האי דחוזרין אצל הגדול למכפי’ הוא מטעם זה… אלא שלא במקום עגונה לא רצו להשתמש בכח זה

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