Jeffrey Saks in his recent Editor’s Note (“It Takes a Cosmic Village,” Summer 2022) is certainly right in decrying the growing polarization that has crept into the American Orthodox community vis a vis political affiliation. He anecdotally notes with chagrin a number of encounters with laypeople who “can’t talk to person x” anymore in their congregation because of the candidate they voted for or the policy they advocated.
Later, however, he adds a curious distinction between the climate in America to that in Israel, stating: “the current political moment in Israel—with our unrelenting visits to the ballot box—seems to be, on the whole, strangely lacking in the vicious vigor of the public debate on the American scene.” Really?
A few short months ago, Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionist political party (not an anonymous ba’al ha-bayit opining at kiddush after shul) publicly encouraged synagogues in Israel to prevent Naftali Bennet and other religious members of his cabinet from participating in tefilla and receiving ritual honors, shutting them out of the religious life of the community.
The shunning of people who hold vastly different political views is a disease that unfortunately exists both hakha and hatam.
Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot
To the Editor:
I was surprised that TRADITION published “The Asmodeus Letters” (Spring 2022), a rather harsh attack on the Orthodox community. It brought to mind a passage in Yevamot (49b) regarding the death of Isaiah, who hid in a tree to escape death at the hands of Menasheh. When Menasheh’s servants sawed through the tree, and the saw reached Isaiah’s mouth, he died. The Talmud says he died when the saw reached his mouth because he referred to the Jewish people in a derogatory manner, “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Rashi explains that Isaiah was not authorized by God to address the Jewish people in this manner. Isaiah’s outburst was an expression of his own frustration, “Woe is me, I am lost” (ibid.).
When a prophet is authorized by God to admonish and rebuke the Jewish people, I understand it. When a Rav on Shabbat Teshuva seeks to inspire his flock to greater religious sensitivity and observance, I understand it. But why publish such a letter of harsh criticism of Am Yisrael? In the 1950s there were those who wrote the obituary of Orthodox Jewish life in America. Since then Orthodox Jewish life has flourished in the United States through hard work, deep dedication to God and His Torah. Day Schools and Yeshivot have educated generations of Jewish children. Taharat haMishpaha has been restored to its honored place in Jewish life. Synagogues are well-attended and even during COVID-19 we witnessed the resolve of our people to pray outdoors as a community.
Are we perfect? Obviously, only God is perfect. However, we need advocates and champions of our people. I would expect TRADITION to serve as a force for advocacy for our community; we certainly have enough external foes.
Rabbi Menahem Meier
The Editor responds: That some of our recent issues have elicited responses from two such distinguished American Jewish educators is itself a compliment. As to the critiques offered in these letters, I suggest the following. Rabbi Helfgot suggests that the deplorable statements of one Israeli politician show the problems on the American-Jewish scene are present in Israel as well. Yes and no. The subject of my essay was the deleterious effects of importing the worst of the American culture wars into Jewish communal and religious life. He keenly observes that Minister Smotrich is no mere “anonymous ba’al ha-bayit” at Kiddush—and there’s the rub. We all know that politicians say outrageous things, often willfully ignorant of the effects of such speech on the masses. This is not news. I took up my pen to denounce the incursion of such divisive culture within amkha, among the “common” people whom we seek to both talk to and daven with (as I wrote).
All attempts were made to contact Asmodeus himself in order to solicit a response to Rabbi Meier. As of this writing, no answer has been received. As R. Meier’s letter did not engage so much with the content of Asmodeus’ epistle but with the wisdom of the editor in choosing to publish it, I will concede that, as a piece of C.S. Lewis-inspired satire, this essay was unusual for TRADITION. Nevertheless, we found its insights into contemporary Orthodoxy to be keen and worthy of publication. While the author does offer a critique of aspects of our community we do not believe it to be in the category of the “obituaries for Orthodox life” referenced by R. Meier. Quite the contrary: It offers tongue-in-cheek chiding in the hope of improving, not burying, Orthodoxy.