‘Don’t judge Judaism by its Jews’ is one of the most controversial statements one can make about Judaism and its members. And it is an erroneous one. The fact is that one can and should judge Judaism by its practitioners. When Orthodox Jews misbehave it casts a shadow not only on our people but on our beliefs.
That’s why I rail against all the Orthodox Jewish miscreants that seem to constantly be in the news. Unfortunately there has been a lot of them in recent times. I need not name them. They are all too well known and a frequent subject of many of my blog posts. Some of them even prominent rabbinic figures.
It is these Jews people mean when they say do not judge Judaism by its Jews. But it is unfair to judge a people and their beliefs by the actions of a few. Even when they are prominent people who claim to be living the values we proclaim.
Does this mean that most of the rest of us live exemplary lives? No. I can safely say that I don’t – much as I’d like to. The Talmud tells us that with little exception, there has not lived a man on this earth who hasn’t sinned. Even though God expects us to live by His laws, in His infinite wisdom He knows that it is practically impossible to do. That’s why God is also known as Rachum V’Chanun. He is slow to anger, and forgives those who sincerely repent. Repentance is God’s gift to man. All God wants us to do – is our best.
So if a man sins and repents it is unfair to say Judaism is flawed. It is people who are flawed. Even though in theory we should be able to live by God’s laws - the Torah was given to people. Not angels. And people are human and sometimes prone to error.
But a fair minded person would not look to the sin of one individual and judge the entire religion. Nor should he say that there are so many prominent Jews who have sinned and judge Judaism that way. Because there are people who are exemplary individuals. They are not only careful in Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom – man and God… they are equally careful with Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero - man and man. Perhaps even more so. One of the most revered Rabbinic figures of the last century by Charedim is Rav Chaim Soloveichik. He is of course the grandfather of my Rebbe, Rav Aharon who followed in his footsteps.
But R’ Chaim’s greatness is not only in Torah learning – although that too is one of his great achievements. He is perhaps the most influential Torah giant since the Vilna Goan. That is in fact why the Torah world reveres him so greatly. And with good reason. He is the progenitor of the Brisker Derech - the premium method of Torah study in the Yeshiva world today and it crosses all boundaries, from left to right.
But his reputation for greatness is not limited to the Torah world. He was renowned as a moral giant even by atheists of his time. Unfortunately there are not too many people alive today that can carry that mantel.
If one wants to judge Judaism by its Jews, then one should look at R’ Chaim, or his children. Or his grandchildren, most notably the Rav and Rav Ahron. Here is what the Forward wrote about R’ Chaim 100 years ago:
Haym Soloveitchik, otherwise known as the Brisker Rov, is one of the best-known scholars among contemporary rabbis. Considered one of Jewish law’s top authorities, people turn to him from all over the world with their legal queries. For the young generation, Soloveitchik is regarded as a fanatic who is unwilling to recognize that we have entered a new, modern era. But if you talk to young people in his hometown of Brisk, Belarus, even the apikorsim, or secular Jews, don’t see it that way. To the locals, who know the rabbi, he is, quite simply, a moral giant. In Brisk, young atheists and old religious Jews share the same view of Soloveitchik. He is talked about as if he is a living legend. Soloveitchik’s breadth as a thinker and moralist is known to all in his hometown, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have.
It behooves us all to follow in his moral footsteps even if we are not brilliant enough to follow in his Torah knowledge. If we are going to be a light unto the nations we need more leaders like that. Perhaps someday we can say with pride: One can judge Judaism by its Jews.