Category Archives: Pluralism

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Mortal Etiquette vs. Immortal Truth

As you may have noticed, the first day of Shavuos falls on the fourth day of the week this year. Were any Tziddukim around today, they’d be unhappy. They held that Shavuos must always fall on a Sunday.

There are, however, no Tziddukim left. They, of course, were one of the camps of Jews during the Bayis Sheini period that rejected the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the “Oral Law,” the key to understanding the true meaning of the Torah Shebichsav – explaining, for example that “An eye for an eye” refers to monetary compensation, and that “totafos” refers to what we call tefillin (one of which is worn, moreover, not as the unelucidated passuk seems to state “between your eyes,” but rather above the hairline.)

The Perushim determinedly preserved the Torah Sheb’al Peh, and it is to them that we owe our own knowledge of the mesorah.

The Tziddukim’s insistence on a Sunday Shavuos, though, holds pertinence for the contemporary Jewish world.

Because the Tziddukim invoked support for their position from the Torah Shebichsav, accepting at face value the word “haShabbos” in the phrase “the day after the Shabbos” (when Sefiras Haomer was to commence). The mesorah teaches us that “Shabbos” in that passuk refers to the first day of Pesach.

But there was also an underlying human rationale to the Tziddukim’s stance. The Gemara explains that their real motivation was their sense of propriety. It would be so pleasing, so proper, they reasoned, at the end of the Omer-counting, to have two days in a row – Shabbos and a Sunday Shavuos – of festivity and prayer.

“Propriety,” in fact, was something of a Tziddukian theme. The group also advocated a change in the Yom Kippur avodah, at the very crescendo of the day, when the Kohein Gadol entered the Kodesh Kadashim. The mesorah prescribes that the ketores, the incense offered there, be set alight only after the Kohen Gadol entered the room. The Tziddukim contended that it be lit beforehand.

“Does one bring raw food to a mortal king,” they argued, “and only then cook it before him? No! One brings it in hot and steaming!”

(Daf Yomi adherents recently learned [115b] about a Tzidduki attempt to indirectly, and improperly, favor a daughter in an inheritance law.)

The placing of mortal etiquette – “what seems appropriate” – above the received truths of the mesorah is the antithesis of the central message of Shavuos itself, when we celebrate Mattan Torah. Our very peoplehood was forged by our forebears’ unanimous and unifying declaration there: “Naaseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will hear!”

In other words, “We will accept the Torah’s laws even amid a lack of ‘hearing,’ or understanding. Even if it is not our own will. Even if it discomfits us. Even if we feel we have a better idea.”

It’s impossible not to see the relevance of “Naaseh v’nishma” to our current “you do you” world, to contemporary society’s fixation on not only having things but having them “our way,” to developments like a self-described “Orthodox” movement that hijacks the terminology of halachah to subvert it, in an effort to bring it “in line” with contemporary sensibilities.

But from Avraham Avinu’s “ten trials” to 21st century America, Yiddishkeit has never been about comfort, enjoyment or personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter can surely emerge from a kedushah-centered life). It has been about Torah and mitzvos – about accepting them not only when they sit well with us but even – in fact, especially – when they don’t.

Shavuos is generally treated lightly, if at all, by most American Jews. But its central theme speaks pointedly to them. Mattan Torah’s Naaseh v’nishma reminds us all about the true engine of the Jewish faith and Jewish unity – namely, the realization that Judaism, with apologies to JFK speechwriter Ted Sorenson (mother’s maiden name: Annis Chaikin), is not about what we’d like Hakadosh Baruch Hu to do for us, but rather about what we are privileged to do for Him.

© 2017 Hamodia

Kotel Krusade

An op-ed of mine about the recent disruption at the Kotel engineered by non-Orthodox Jewish clergy and an Israeli feminist group appeared in Haaretz.

 

It can be read at:

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.750731?=&ts=_1478444374594

Torah Vs. Egalitarianism

The “Kosel Controversy” – whether “nontraditional” prayer services should be accommodated at the Kosel Maaravi – blazes on, fanned by the winds of politics, courts and “activists.”

Respect for the Jewish mesorah at the site has characterized tefillah there since Yerushalayim’s liberation from Jordan in 1967.   What underlies the desire of some to diminish that respect?  I think it’s something that emerged from a conversation I recently had with a nine-year-old.

I had scheduled a lunch appointment with a Jewish journalist, and he e-mailed me the day before to ask me if his daughter, who was off from school the next day, could join us.  Of course she could.

“Sarah” seemed a precocious and intelligent young person, and listened intently as her father and I conversed.  At the end of the conversation, her father asked her if she had anything herself to ask me.  She did, and wasn’t shy.  “Why,” she inquired, “are you Orthodox?”

Not a question I’m often asked. I explained how I had been raised Orthodox but had also, after much reading, study and thinking, come to realize that Mattan Torah, as the singular claim in history to mass Divine revelation, is undeniable.  And that the beliefs, laws and practices of the Jewish mesorah are incumbent on Jews.

Sarah considered my words for a moment and then responded, “Well, I love Judaism, but I believe in equal rights for women.  So I don’t think I could be Orthodox.”

I admitted to Sarah that the Torah indeed assigns different roles and responsibilities to men and to women.  But, I added, life demands that each of us establish a hierarchy of values – and only one thing can be at the very top of any list.

Orthodox Jews’ first-place value, I explained, is the Jewish mesorah, as it has been carefully preserved and developed through the rules of the halachic system over the centuries.  As she gets older, I told my young interviewer, she will have to decide what to honor with first place status in her own life – Judaism, egalitarianism or any other ideal she may opt to value above all else. She should realize, though, that, as in any hierarchy, only one thing can be in first place.

That thought returned to me when I read of yet another in the series of media-directed protests-in-the-guise-of-prayer-services of the activist group agitating for the “right” to behave at the Kosel in a way that dishonors halachah and hurts those who regularly daven there. The activists takes pains to wave the flag of “religious freedom,” and there may well be individuals among them who are impelled, if misguidedly, by religious feelings.  But it doesn’t take a Ph.D in sociology to discern that the movement as a movement is motivated, above every other concern, by the desire to “empower” women – to erase gender distinctions.

There is, of course, much in the Torah that seeks to protect, and even “empower,” women – like  Chazal’s statement requiring men to honor their wives more than themselves (Yevamos, 62b), the kesuvah, women’s special mitzvos.  But the Torah also precludes women from certain roles (as it does most men from the roles of some – like Kohanim).  The Torah is not “egalitarian.”

“Egalitarianism,” however, and “religious pluralism” are the first priorities of the Kosel activists.  If Torah has a ranking at all on their roster, it’s, at best, in third place.

Those advocates for changing the status quo at the Kosel have clearly ordered their ideals; they should be honest enough to admit the fact.  To declare, in other words, without apology or dissembling, their conviction that the contemporary notion of egalitarianism trumps all else, and merits their quest to turn the remaining courtyard wall of the Makom Mikdash into a balkanized site of strife and disunity.  Then, at least, the issue will be clear: Judaism vs. Egalitarianism.

What is our role here?  There may come a time when Jews committed above all else to Torah will be directed by Gedolim to demonstrate that conviction in one or another way.

For now, though, perhaps we can help undermine the “egalitarianism first” push with a spiritual demonstration of our own dedication to the ultimate Jewish ideal.

Few if any of us are crass enough to embrace contemporary notions as more important than Torah.  But there are numerous blandishments – like material success, government influence or social status – that can subtly insinuate themselves into our lives’ “first place” without our even realizing it. Resisting such things with all our strength will not only make us better Jews, but might even cause reverberations at the Kosel plaza.

© 2016 Hamodia

Letter in the New York Jewish Week

The letter below appears in the June 24, 2016 issue of the New York Jewish Week:

Editor:

Gary Rosenblatt asserts that, as per the headline over his recent June 17 essay, “Ruth’s Conversion Would Be Rejected Today” by the Israeli rabbinate.

The Jewish religious tradition, however, sees precisely in the biblical Ruth’s conversion the sine qua non of conversion to Judaism.

Both Ruth and Orpah, her sister-in-law, loved and wanted to accompany their mother-in-law Naomi in her trek back to the Holy Land.  Both wanted to be part of her life and people.  But only Ruth refused to be dissuaded.  She insisted that, “thy G‑d [will be] my G‑d” – which, along with her other declarations, represent kabbalat hamitzvot, “acceptance of the commandments” of the Torah.  The Talmud explains that, while a convert need not be conversant with all areas of halacha, he or she must, in principle and with full sincerity, accept its authority.

What the Israeli rabbinate has attempted to do is ensure that conversions in the Jewish state comply with the timeless requirements for a non-Jew to miraculously become a Jew.  “Converting” people who do not meet those requirements misleads those well-intentioned people, casts doubt on the Jewishness of true converts and does Klal Yisrael a well-intentioned but lamentable disservice.

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Director of Public Affairs

Agudath Israel of America

No, Rabbi Yoffie, That’s Not What I Wrote

I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement.  In Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.720279), he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.

That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990 , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews.  In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.

Some excerpts from his essay:

“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”

 “The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”

“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”

“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”

“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold…  And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”

That’s a rich field to mine.  Let’s do some digging.

If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.

Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform.  Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.

No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.

As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate.  “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”

And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population.  Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews.  More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.

Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero).  But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place.  Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.

As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”

How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades?  That’s not a hard question to answer.  The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid).  Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.

Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.

The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future.  The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure.  What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.”  It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.

Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing.  And it is.  Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise.  What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel.  That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.

How Dare Reform Rabbis Speak On Behalf of Diaspora Jewry?

He may not have meant it as a threat, but Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, certainly sounded like he was delivering an ultimatum when he warned that if an area at the Kotel Ma’aravi is not set aside for non-Orthodox services, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.”

Struck my ears like a Jewish version of a protection racket pitch.  “Hey, nice relationship you got there.  Be a real shame if anything bad happened to it…”

Those are the opening paragraphs of a piece I wrote that was recently published by Haaretz.  For the entire article, please visit

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990

The American Jewish Buffet

“Secular Orthodox.”

That’s how Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, recently characterized many Israelis.  What he meant was that, while an Israeli may not be observant of halachah, or even affirm belief in Torah miSinai, he is likely to still recognize that there is only one mesorah, one Judaism, the one that has carried Klal Yisrael from that mountain to Eretz Yisrael, through galus Bavel and countless galuyos since, and that carries it still to this day.

If only American Jews were so perceptive.  Many criticisms can be cogently aimed at the movements to which so many American Jews claim fealty (or, at least, to whose congregations they send dues).  Were there only an Orthodox option, that of Torah-faithful belief and practice, there would likely be a greater degree of Jewish observance throughout the broader Jewish community; intermarriage would probably be more rare than it sadly is; Jewish unity would certainly be more evident, and more real.

But the most damaging legacy of the heterodox movements (and I write here of those movements qua movements – their theologies, not their members, most of whom don’t understand the basics of Yahadus) is their propagation of the notion that there are different “Judaisms,” that Jews stand before some spiritual smorgasbord from which they are free to choose whatever doctrinal hors d’oeuvres they find appetizing.

I had a neighbor in the out-of-town community where I once lived, a middle-aged man who had observed some mitzvos as a youth, but who had long since lapsed and become a member of a non-Orthodox congregation.

One Shabbos, on my way to shul, I heard a disembodied “Good Shabbos” come from beneath my neighbor’s parked car.  His head then appeared from under the vehicle, followed by his hands, one of them holding a wrench.  I returned the greeting along with a forced smile, and then, with some sheepishness, my neighbor added: “I gotta say, my Shabbos is sure different now that I’m a Conservative Jew!”

In my neighbor’s mind, he had undergone a metamorphosis; he’d become a “different kind of Jew” – a perfectly observant, rabbinically-endorsed, card-carrying “Conservative Jew.”  Changing the meaning of a Jewish life had become the equivalent of what he was doing, changing his oil.

Contrast my erstwhile neighbor’s attitude (that of most American Jews, unfortunately) with the insight of Nobel laureate I. I. Rabi (1898-1988), a groundbreaking physicist. He told a biographer that “To this very day, if you ask for my religion, I say ‘Orthodox Hebrew’ – in the sense that the church [sic] I’m not attending is that one.  If I were to go to a church, that’s the one I would go to.   That’s the one I failed.  It doesn’t mean I’m something else…”

He was, and knew he was, a Jew.  Far to one side of the observance spectrum, to be sure.  But observance is a continuum on which we all live, with perfection far from most of us.  Professor Rabi was perceptive and honest enough to recognize his failure instead of choosing to just invent a new entity, a “Judaism” where he could consider himself a success.

It is a tribute to the Israeli no-nonsense mentality that so many of the country’s less- or non-observant Jews haven’t bought into the American Jewish buffet model, and recognize what Professor Rabi did. Israelis tend to think and talk dugri – straightforwardly, even bluntly.  Hence, Mr. Bar-Yosef’s seemingly, but not really, oxymoronic phrase, “secular Orthodox.”

What evoked that characterization, as it happens, was his interview by the New York Times about the recent Israeli government decision to expand an area to the south of the current Kosel Maaravi plaza, for feminist and non-Orthodox services.  The Israeli was trying to explain why the American Jewish model of Jewish identity has not taken root in his country.  American Jews, he continued, have “a desire to bring into the tent everyone who feels Jewish,” whereas Israeli Jews, even secular ones, “live in a [Jewish] state and want a unified system.”

That “unified system” – halachah –  is, unfortunately, under attack by some American Jews, not only with regard to conduct at the Kosel but in even more important areas, like marriage and geirus.  We have to hope, against all the evidence, that our less observant brothers and sisters recognize the danger – to themselves above all – of promoting a “multi-winged” model of “Judaisms,” instead of recognizing the most trenchant truth: that ke’ish echad was possible only because our ancestors were neged hahar.

© 2016 Hamodia

Agudath Israel Reaction to the “Kotel Compromise”

Designating an area at the Kotel Maaravi for feminist and mixed-gender prayer not only profanes the holy site, it creates yet a further lamentable rift between Jews.

For more than three decades, the Western Wall has been a place – perhaps the only one in the world – where Jews of all affiliations and persuasions have regularly prayed side by side.

What has allowed for that minor miracle has been the maintenance at that holy place of a standard – that of time-honored Jewish religious tradition – that all Jews, even those who might prefer other standards or none at all, can abide.

If the current plan is in fact realized, that will be no more.

Instead, there will be two options: some Jews at the Wall will pray at a space whose atmosphere respects and reflects traditional Jewish prayer, and others at a space that doesn’t.

Denominational Déjà Vu

This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week

Back in February, 2001, an article I wrote for Moment Magazine caused quite a stir.  Its thesis – that, since the Conservative movement’s claim to halachic integrity was not supported by fact, Conservative Jews who respect Jewish religious law should consider joining Orthodox communities – was understandably disturbing to some. Much of the uproar, however, was likely caused by the incendiary title that publication insisted on slapping on the piece.  I had titled it “Time to Come Home”; Moment ran it under a large, bold headline reading “The Conservative Lie.”

The article ended up causing some healthy discussion (and, I immodestly add, won an American Jewish Press Association award).  It also inspired several Conservative movement officials to call me nasty names.  None, though, offered any cogent rebuttal to what I had demonstrated, namely that the process of determining Conservative “halacha” differed in an essential way from the halachic process of the millennia.

Halacha has always been decided through the objective examination of Biblical verses, mediated through the Talmud and legal codes, with a single goal: to discern the Torah’s intention. By contrast, I observed, the Conservative process generally involved first identifying a desired result, and then massaging the sources to “yield” that outcome.

An example I noted was the issue of same-sex intimate relationships.  Although halachic literature, based on verses in the Torah, considers such relations unarguably wrong, contemporary Western society, even at the time, had come to embrace the idea of “alternate lifestyles.”

I predicted that, in the realm of sexual expression, the Conservative movement would soon enough “halachically” approve what halacha forbids in no uncertain terms.  In 2006, I was vindicated when the Conservative movement’s “Committee on Jewish Law and Standards” endorsed a position permitting “commitment ceremonies” between people of the same sex and the ordination as Conservative rabbis of people living openly homosexual lives. Since then, of course, as homosexual activity has come to be celebrated in the larger world, the Conservative legal system has trotted close behind.

It didn’t take any powers of prophecy to discern what I did, only those of observation and perception.  And I perceive precisely the same Conservative approach to halacha in what bills itself today as “Open Orthodoxy.”

That neologism encompasses three institutions: Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, Yeshivat Maharat – educational entities that ordain men and women, respectively – and the International Rabbinic Fellowship, a rabbinic group.

If the “open” in “Open Orthodoxy” means to imply that what has long been called Orthodox Judaism is somehow “closed” to other Jews, that proposition would greatly surprise any non-Orthodox Jew who has ever walked into an Orthodox shul.  What it more likely means to suggest is that, theologically, what has until now been called Orthodoxy is somehow “close-minded.”

That stance, though, reveals that the other word in the phrase, “Orthodox,” is deeply misleading. Which is why the Council of Torah Sages, an elite group of widely-respected yeshiva-dean elders, has declared that the new movement has no claim on the title “Orthodox.”

Whether the halachic topic being addressed is same-sex relationships, interfaith interactions, kashrut, marriage, divorce or conversion, the desideratum of “Open Orthodoxy” is unmistakably to bring Jewish religious praxis “into line” with contemporary mores.  That may not be not explicit in the wording of “Open Orthodox” statements or responsa – any more than it was fourteen years ago in those of the Conservative movement.  But in both cases it is manifest.

In halacha as it has developed over millennia, there are decisions that render permissions and others that yield forbiddances.  Tellingly, the Conservative movement’s “halachic” positions are almost exclusively permissive.  Ditto for those of “Open Orthodoxy.”  In fact, the two movements are, their different chosen names notwithstanding, simply indistinguishable.

Let me stress that I am speaking of a concept here, not people; of theological systems, not the intentions of students who have been attracted to “Open Orthodox” institutions, some of whom are clearly idealists who wish to serve the Jewish people.  The problem isn’t those students or their idealism, but rather the proposition they are taught, that halacha is ripe for “updating.”  Halacha does indeed take societal developments into account; sometimes they make a difference, sometimes they do not.  But the Zeitgeist does not determine the halacha.  The accepted elders, the most experienced Torah scholars, of each generation, do.  That is itself a premise of the halachic system.

The new movement’s name is a misnomer, a dangerously misleading one.  Just as “kosher-style” food isn’t kosher, neither is “Open Orthodoxy” Orthodox.  It is neo-Conservatism.  Which is why the greatest, most widely recognized, Torah scholars today – and not only those of the haredi world – have rejected its Jewish authenticity.

I take no pleasure in revealing the truth about “Open Orthodoxy.”  But truth-in-labeling is not only a civil mandate but a halachic one.

Fourteen years ago, I implored halacha-respecting non-Orthodox Jews to come home to the Judaism of the ages.  Today, I experience – apologies to the late Yogi Berra – “déjà vu all over again.” My plea persists.

Spaghetti and Jewish Unity

Last week afforded me an opportunity to sit with a group of Jews spanning the gamut of American Jewry – resolute secularists, members of non-Orthodox congregations and Orthodox Jews – to discuss Jewish unity and how it can be strengthened.

Most American Jews, rightly or not, don’t think they are capable of living observant Jewish lives.  With the passage of time, the Holocaust has lost the binding power it once had for many Jews; and Israel, unfortunately, has become a source of contention rather than unity for many American Jews, particularly younger ones.  It’s unfortunate, but unfortunately true.

Someone in the group raised the fact that the coming Shabbos – the Shabbos past, as you read this – was to serve as a Jewish unifier, through the “Shabbos Project,” the brainchild of South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein that has brought together thousands of Jews in observance and celebration of Shabbos over the past two years. More than 550 cities in 70 countries were set to participate in this year’s event.

What other means, though, could bring Jews together?  Many aspects of Torah-centered life involve things that, sadly, do not resonate with – or, worse, sadly, even offend – some American Jews, infected as they are with misguided notions like “egalitarianism.”  And even Shabbos, in the end, observed properly, involves trials that might challenge many a Jew who was not raised observant – a fact to which anyone who has been stuck in an erev Shabbos traffic jam near shkiah can readily attest.

I suggested the study of Torah, which, after all, is the very genesis of Jewish unity, that which was bequeathed us all at the foot of Sinai, when we stood “as one person, with one heart.”  And the proposition that Torah-study remains a potent unifier of Jews is well borne out by the experience of programs like Partners in Torah and TorahMates.  (The brachah we make each morning, it’s worth noting, is “Nosein haTorah” – pointedly in the present, not the past, tense.  The Torah is still being given to Klal Yisrael.)  The idea was well received.

Afterward, though, I thought of another mitzvah that should present no problem to any Jew, and that can serve as a unifying observance.

The two d’Oraysa brachosbirkas haTorah and birkas hamazon – and the many other brachos we make regularly on foods or mitzvos, or as birchos hoda’ah – comprise a paramount element of Yiddishkeit.  They focus our attention on the Source of our blessings, and can serve as a potent unifying force for all Jews.

By undertaking to recite brachos, an otherwise distant Jew can be reminded that he or she is connected to the rest of Klal Yisrael multiple times a day, every morning, every time a flower is sniffed, thunder is heard or one is sitting down to a plate of spaghetti.

What a powerful campaign a broad-based “Brachos Project” could be.  No non-Orthodox Jew could have a problem with it – brachos, after all, are egalitarian.  There are many excellent guides to brachos in English, and reciting them entails no expense or inconvenience.

Truth be told, such a project could also do us some good, too.  As we are reminded by the baalei mussar, reverence can all too easily devolve into rote, and that is particularly true when it comes to brachos.  Many of us find ourselves reciting them by habit, without pronouncing their words distinctly, much less focusing on their meaning. Anyone who’s watched a baal teshuvah recite a brachah has been graced with a good example to follow.

Rav Chaim Vital testifies that the Arizal called birchos hanehenin “the essential way for a human being to attain the spirit of holiness… removing the [unholy] shells and [sublimating] his physicality,” adding that the Arizal “admonished me greatly about this…” (Etz Hachaim, Shaar Ruach Hakodesh).

The mystical perspective alluded to by those words is that the human being straddles the realms of the physical and the spiritual. Food mediates between the two, nourishing the bodies that house our souls.  So it should not be surprising that the act of consuming food would provide opportunity for bringing the holy into the mundane, for removing the “shells” and rarifying physicality.

What better empowerment of Jewish unity could there be than a rededication of Jews from all types of communities and walks of life to sharing in an observance that reflects the quintessential Jewish ideal of acknowledging Hashem’s blessings?  And, at the same time, strengthening our own dedication to brachos?

Who knows what other shells might thereby be removed?

© 2015 Hamodia