Monday, August 23, 2021

Crumbling Foundations - A Judaism of Habit

Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky (OU)
I have often expressed my admiration for Rabbi Aaron Lopiansky. He is one of the clearest thinkers in the Charedi world. I tend to agree with most of what he says although I have disagreed with him (sometimes strongly) on occasion. 

His op-ed in Mishpacha Magazine published a few weeks  ago (which somehow escaped my attention at the time but was featured in a Facebook group to which I belong) once again highlights his clear thinking. Therein he asks whether the world of Orthodox Judaism which has experienced an explosion of success post World War II is in danger of crumbling. 

I found that quite astonishing - if one judges by the sheer number of people in Yeshivos and Kollelim. Today, I think it is safe to say that it is unprecedented in Jewish history. I believe that includes even the days of Chazal.  This is not to say that the quality of study is the same. It is not anywhere near the same. But in terms of sheer number, I don’t think it is a contest. Not even close. There are more people studying Torah by far today than at any other time in history. And it seems to be growing exponentially with each generation. 

If that is the case, then how in Heaven’s name can he ask that question? he proceeds to explain. The short version of which is that a lot of what goes on in Orthodoxy is based as much on rote behavior that it is on foundational principles.  Are we observant because that’s what we are used to? Because we were raised that way? Is it for social reasons? Is there any actual spiritual connection to our observance? Do we serve God because of a genuine awe, reverence and love of God? Is there an intellectual component? Or is it all just habit. Old habits may die hard, but can easily be broken. 

Rabbi Lopiansky suggests that a lot of what goes on today is done through rote behavior. We do things the way we are taught to do them, without appreciating why we do them. We do what our peers do. We do it for social reasons. I wonder how many of us observe Judaism beyond that? If one’s Judaism is all about habit, it is yet another reason for the OTD problem. 

This of course does not apply to those that have gone OTD because of trauma. That is an entirely separate discussion. Which I dealt with in an earlier post.  Rabbi Lopianksy’s issue is a much larger one. He is talking about the spiritual danger we all face if our entire connection to observance is based on habit. 

Apparently Rabbi Lopiansky seems to believe our foundations are crumbling. Habit - is not what Judaism is about. And yet habit seems to be driving a lot of us. Adding that this is not the first time in Jewish history this is happening. He excerpts an interview with Rav Schach who expressed these same thoughts about an earlier period on Jewish history: 

Did you ever think, how did the Haskalah in Europe succeed in toppling so many households like a stack of cards? The Jews are such a stiff-necked people, yet they were devastated overnight! How did this happen?

I’ll tell you. There were indeed Jewish homes with Judaism; but it was a Judaism of habit, practice by rote. Jews who observed the mitzvos, but without a soul!

Yiddishkeit is so beautiful, so rich. The life of an observant Jew is a life of song, a song that is both pleasant and uplifting.

And yet this had become a Judaism of rote, with no sense of being uplifted, no Divine spirit. And these houses collapsed overnight.  

The period of Haskalah boasted some of the finest minds in all of Jewry. They were among the elite that were invited to attended the finest Yeshivos of their time. They excelled in their Torah studies, and yet they embraced a philosophy that rejected everything they were ever taught in their homes. Going OTD is not a new phenomenon that only became an issue in our time. Jews were dropping out of Judaism in droves back then. 

Are the two eras connected? Are the reasons for going OTD the same? I don’t think so. Different times – different issues. The world we live in today is radically different that it was then. The reasons many of us go OTD today are far different than they were then. But I think Rabbi Lopiansky has a point. If one has the foundational underpinnings of belief that includes love, awe and reverence for God, it will instill the feelings and inspiration that are necessary to overcome those issues. 

My guess is that a lot of us, whether we are willing to admit it or not are ‘guilty’ of that. Being FFB (Frum From Birth) is almost the definition being observant out of habit. A habit that includes cookie cutter behavior on the part of so many of us. Which means many of us going through the motions and not living up to our full potential as Jews. 

That being said, I do not see any large scale attrition from the ranks. The largest and fastest growing segments of Judaism continue to feed the aforementioned explosion Torah study - encouraging all to study Torah fill time for as long as possible. But will it continue without instilling the foundational principles or awe, respect for - and love of God? Can Judaism survive without feeling? Without inspiration?  Rabbi Lopiansky seems to think it might not. And as a result there will be a lot more observant Jews going OTD. He might be on to something.