November 18, 1999
What Happened to Them?
By Curt Schleier
This past summer I participated in a symposium on the coverage of Orthodoxy in the mainstream Jewish media at the American Jewish Press Association annual convention. I argued, inter alia, that the typical portrayal of Orthodoxy as something from the Dark Ages leaves American Jews unable to interpret the reality around them. Armed with that disinformation, American Jews are, for instance, incapable of understanding how their children -- products of the finest secular education -- could become Orthodox Jews.
I had occasion to recall that discussion recently. Gathered around my Shabbat table were an early '80s Yale graduate who had gone on to a successful business career, a woman who three months ago was a booker for the Larry King Show, and another young man who after graduating Harvard Law School clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court. Each is currently learning in a yeshiva or seminary in Israel.
Over the years, I have listened to the stories of hundreds of such Jews. No two are alike. Given the prejudice against religious belief with which they grew up and in which they were educated, each Jew who becomes religious is a miracle. And miracles cannot be replicated. Each journey involves a unique combination of emotional and intellectual elements. Yet some common themes do recur.
In most cases, the road to Orthodoxy begins with meeting an Orthodox Jew who seems qualitatively different from anyone previously encountered. That Orthodox Jew, usually a teacher of some kind, offers a vision of life lived as a whole, a life unified by the awareness that all one's actions are in the presence of God; a life without the usual bifurcations of modern existence -- work/family, public morality/private morality, work/leisure. Through that mentor, Matthew Arnold's famous epigram -- "The Greeks taught the holiness of beauty; the Jews the beauty of holiness" -- comes to life.
Experiencing a Shabbat or another Jewish holiday with a large Orthodox family is another standard part of the journey. Many are amazed to be exposed for the first time to a world in which each child is considered an incomparable blessing, incapable of being subjected to any cost-benefit analysis. Having been raised with an emphasis on the generation gap, young secular Jews are attracted by a world in which traditions are passed down from one generation to the next and bind those generations together. In a world in which the anomie of individual existence has replaced traditional communities, the emphasis on communal life, and the many ways that is expressed among Orthodox Jews, draws those from the outside.
On the intellectual level, many of those who become Orthodox have lived for years with a profound sense that there must be some moral order to the universe. Yet their search through the world's philosophies has led them to conclude, along with the great Polish philosopher Ledzek Kolokawski, "Every philosophical system begins by assuming that which it seeks to prove." They recognize that without God, morality becomes largely a question of each person's prejudices. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, they have no wish to live in a world in which they set all the rules.
"Without God, everything is permitted," says Ivan in "The Brother's Karamazov." Unable to deny Dostoyevsky but unwilling to accept that everything is permitted, some of the brightest and most sensitive young Jews search for God instead.
Once they accept that a moral order can only be founded on God, it follows for many that God must have revealed His will, for how else could finite man know the will of an Infinite God. Forms of religious expression that are left to individual discretion or popular vote, and, as a consequence, change every Monday and Thursday, cannot satisfy the thirst for contact with an objective moral order.
Some of the most talented and accomplished of these spiritual seekers have lived for years with an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a feeling that their natural gifts obligate them to cure all the world's ills. For them knowledge that God, not they, runs the world comes as a relief.
But that knowledge leads neither to quiescence nor an end of striving. Nearly two thousand years ago, Rabbi Tarfon summed up their newfound attitude: "The task is not yours to complete; neither are you free to leave it off." No Jewish idea is so powerful as the belief that everything we do or think has consequence. Every moment provides us with an opportunity to either imbue the world with holiness or the opposite. There is nothing neutral, no standing still; at any given moment we are either raising ourselves spiritually, and the world along with us, or we are lowering ourselves. We are either conduits of God's blessings to the world or plugs stopping up channels.
A Torah life is a demanding one. It insists that we can change ourselves in fundamental ways. True, each of us is born with a basic nature, a combination of good and bad qualities, but our innate nature does not define us. We have the power to overcome the bad qualities and to emphasize the good. In short, we are what we make of ourselves.
Thus the final attraction of a Torah life for many of our best and brightest is that it not only provides the discipline necessary to make oneself a better person but also the incentive to do so.
Jonathan Rosenblum is an Israeli biographer and Israel director of Am Echad, an Orthodox outreach group.