The Rav on Remaining True to Ourselves
Knowing when to conform to one’s moral, intellectual, and social milieu, and when to stand against it, is a difficult and complex issue for the contemporary Orthodox Jew. Fortunately we are not the first generation to face this problem, and thus we can benefit from seeing how those who preceded us responded to the challenge in their time. What follows is a summary of one such response, articulated more than fifty years ago.
In 1958, American Orthodoxy was very much on the cultural defensive. Torah-observant Jews often lived a lonely and daunting life in the face of widespread secularism, Non-Orthodox communal dominance, and widespread dismissal of the values and practices of the Halachic mesorah presented in the name of science and various academic disciplines. At the time, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”), himself the recipient of a Ph.D. in modern philosophy, was giving weekly Gemara shiurim (lectures) at the Moriah synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, sometimes followed by incisive comments and observations on American Jewish life. Unfortunately, because they were delivered in Yiddish, they remain largely unknown and inaccessible to many of our contemporaries.
What follows is a summary, certainly not a verbatim transcript, of the main ideas delivered at the conclusion of a shiur on Berachot 36a, that followed the Rav’s halachic analysis of the passage regarding the Borei Pri ha-Eitz blessing on fruits. The Yiddish audio of the Spring 1958 lecture can be found here (and located in the final 20 minutes of the lecture).
We learn important moral and hashkafic lessons from the Halachah, not just from the Midrash. Thus regarding the correct blessing over a fruit that has been processed, the Gemara Berachot 36a posits the principle that as long as be-milta kai, i.e., tzurat ha-pri kayemet (i.e. some of the original fruit remains visibly intact), one recites borei pri ha-eitz. If not, one recites (depending on whose view in the Gemara one follows) either borei pri ha-adamah or she-hakol.
Herein lies an important lesson. The status of fruit grown on a tree is particularly significant, as the Torah compares man to trees. (See for instance “For man is like the tree of the field… (Deut. 20:19) and “he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water that brings forth its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not wither…” Psalms 1:3) The Sages often use the same metaphor. In what respect is man like a tree?What is special about the tree is that it cannot survive over time if it is severed from its roots. A healthy fruit-bearing tree is always well-grounded and attached to its stock. So too with people: if they are to reach their fullest fruit-bearing potential, they must always be spiritually and emotionally connected to the roots from which they have grown, which, being grounded in the soil, provide ongoing nourishment and strength. Without a strong connectedness to their foundations, without remaining recognizably true to their formative sources, they will not themselves flourish and in time will not produce future generations who will remain true to their past in turn.
Without a strong connectedness to their foundations they will not themselves flourish and in time will not produce future generations who will remain true to their past in turn
So it is too with Jews and Yiddishkeit. We are like trees that can flourish and bear fruit only to the extent that we remain faithful to our roots and as long as we refuse to embrace that which is alien to our tradition. This is the key to being able to produce future generations who will be able to retain the essential tzurat ha-pri of Yiddishkeit.
The Gemara in Berachot 6b states “What is a krum? It is a bird whose feathers change colors depending on the sunlight.” It seeks to survive in a predatory and constantly changing world by adopting colors that conform to the milieu of the moment. So too, we might say, many Jews, particularly in America, are like the krum: whether from conviction or convenience their religious and intellectual identities constantly adapt to the dominant ideology and fashion. Rather than being true to themselves and their roots, they fall under the excessive influence of the surrounding culture at the expense of their connection to the Torah. Of course, one should always strive to grow and develop and even change – but never in a way that negates one’s essence as a Jew rooted first and foremost in the Torah. This requires that we know when to take from, and adapt to, the surrounding culture and when to resist absorbing any of its influences and be true to ourselves.I was very young when I came to America and various people gave me advice how to be an effective Rabbi and teacher by following the example of this or that successful person. They meant well of course but had I followed their advice, I would not be what I am today. Of course I am nothing, but the little that I am is because I refused to change my persona. God has given each of us a unique identity, and to the extent that we are faithful to it we will be fulfilled. Why then do we see so many unsuccessful and frustrated Jews despite God’s promise that we will each be richly rewarded? It is because in developing themselves they did not remain faithful to their roots, to their true selves. My father, who was my real teacher, taught me this lesson. When I was young and we would learn Gemara together, I would repeat his words exactly, only to have him tell me “if you simply repeat what I said you will never be a lamdan – you have to explain it in your own words.” In other words, a person is true to himself when he is faithful to the Torah and tradition, and faithfully upholds their fundamental principles, albeit in ways that reflect his unique persona.
A person is true to himself when he is faithful to the Torah and tradition, and faithfully upholds their fundamental principles, albeit in ways that reflect his unique persona
I have students in the Yeshiva who have sharp minds and who can repeat my shiurim verbatim, exactly the way I gave them. But of what use is that? It is only when I hear them using their own formulations that I can tell if they truly understood what I said. Education is more than just repeating the rebbe’s words. Simple repetition, Rabbeinu Bachya (in Duties of the Heart, Service of God ch. 4) says, is like a chamor nosei sefarim, an ass bearing many books, i.e., one who reads but does not truly absorb what he reads. Much to be preferred is the one of whom Chazal say torato be-toch mei’av, “the Torah is in his intestines,” i.e., he has not only swallowed the words of the Torah, he has digested and fully absorbed them.
This is especially true when it comes to preserving Yahadut from one generation to the next. I knew a lot of fine and learned Jews who came to America from Europe. They did not lack in yirat Shamayim or in learning, yet they were not successful in transmitting Yiddishkeit to their children. Why? Because, like the bird that constantly changes its color, they submitted to the pervasive influences of the larger American culture. It was entirely understandable. After all, forty or fifty years ago in America there was a pervasive skepticism regarding all spiritual matters, especially Yahadut and the Talmud. This affected them and they themselves were changed. Had they instead remained faithful to Yahadut, had they not subjected themselves so much to the influence of their milieu, the Jew would today be facing a different reality in America.
As opposed to their fate, I also knew a number of simple Jews – butchers, carpenters, shoemakers, and the like, who knew very little, some of whom having davened every day for 60 years still were unable to read Hebrew well. Yet their children remained faithful to Yiddishkeit – because they were faithful to their Torah roots, with a strong sense of their uniqueness as Jews. Like them, each of us must be ourselves, avoiding any manifestation of an “inferiority complex”, while resisting the urge to be mitatef betalit she-eino shelo, i.e. covered in garments that are not ours.
In short, as the verse says, we should strive to be like a tree, so rooted in the past that even as we grow and develop we can produce fruit that will not lose its tzurah, its unique identity, remaining consistently recognizable and true to itself and to the Torah.
Shir Hashirim compares Israel to the tapuach be-atzei ha-ya’ar, (“a citrus among the trees of the forest” Song of Songs 2:3). How can this be – after all, citrus trees do not grow in forests, but in fields? The answer is simple. The verse is speaking of the small Jewish people that finds itself in an alien environment, surrounded by larger nations. It obstinately refuses their enticements to imitate them and take on their ways. Rather than directing its resources into growing large and powerful, its priority is to be true to its past, and committed to producing future generations who will reflect all that came before.
R. Akiva explained the phrase mah dodech mi-dod asher hishbatanu (“What is your beloved more than another, that you so resist us?” Song of Songs 5:9) as referring to the nations that seek to entice the Jew to follow in their ways by promising acceptance, riches, honor, aristocracy, and the like. But the Jew refuses to heed them, and instead chooses a way that is true to himself and to the Torah.
Thus do we preserve our unique tzurat ha-pri, ke-tapuach be-atzei ha-ya’ar, as a unique and rooted fruit-producing tree, in the midst of the trees of the forest.
These comments of the Rav bear particular resonance when we consider recent trends and developments within the Orthodox community. It is not only in the second decade of the 21st Century that Orthodoxy finds itself challenged to take principled stands against passing but alluring cultural fashions and politically correct thought and behavior. Throughout history, Jews have exhibited great courage in rejecting intellectual or cultural nostrums that, while they appeared to be intellectually or morally compelling, contradicted the Torah. Sometimes it was necessary to say “our way is the way of the Torah, even if we cannot now understand it fully. In time we will understand.” Of course, there were also times we were prepared to reinterpret the Torah’s teachings, but always in a way that preserved the essentials of Torah belief and halachic practice.
The Orthodox challenge is to strike the right balance between these competing priorities. No one should think that it is a simple task. Yes, we are part of the culture of modernity, but no, we are not defined by it. Rather, it is our roots that make us what we are. The litmus test for the correctness of our intellectual, spiritual, and behavioral choices will depend, as they always have, on the tzurat ha-pri, the degree to which our offspring in generations to come will adhere to our Mesorah (tradition).
Every few years, it seems, a different challenge to traditional thought presents itself in its own alluring fashion. To cite but a few instances, in generations past it might have been a dominating Christianity or Islam, or a self-assured Communist atheism. Today it might be a gender and sexual “everything goes” value-system, or an opposition to established religious text and authority, or a wholesale rejection of religious and cultural separatism in favor of cultural homogeneity, or a rampant materialism.
We must embrace only that which is truly in harmony with the timeless values and essential life-nourishing practices that our Mesorah embodies and teaches
It is not an easy path and there are no simple formulae. At a time when, religiously speaking, so many choose extremism and one-dimensionality, our path requires ever greater Torah study, faithfulness to tradition, intellectual courage, personal humility, heartfelt prayer, and siyata di-shmaya (divine assistance). It also requires nuanced and informed guidance by our teachers, mentors, and halachic authorities. And if it will require that we take the road less travelled by our contemporaries, Jewish or otherwise, to the left or to the right, we will need to evince the courage of heart and fortitude of spirit of those who came before us, and upon whose giant shoulders we are privileged to stand.
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