Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


For Orthodox Jews, a Wake-Up Call from God

posted by David Klinghoffer

My Forward op-ed is out now seeking the meaning behind the scandals that have plagued my religious community, Orthodox Judaism, with increasing intensity of late. The first comment over at the Forward website illustrates the extent to which many of us Orthodox Jews don’t seem to get what the problem is. A “Rabbi Dr. Rosenberg” complains, “There are good, bad and ugly among all peoples. Do not pick on Orthodoxy alone.”

But the whole point here is that if Torah is true, and I stake my life on its being so, then why do we not stand out from other people, as an illuminating presence in the world? Anyway, here’s what I said. It was painful to write. Please let me know what you think.

For all its outward vigor, the Orthodox community, which is my own, appears to harbor a sickness. You don’t have to be an ideological critic of traditional Judaism to wonder if the cause should be sought in Orthodoxy itself.

The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.

Of course, not every allegation turns out to be true (and you certainly cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet with its bias in favor of grudges and witch-hunts). Yet the pattern of accusations can’t be coincidental.

For a convert or a baal teshuvah, like me, the greatest stumbling block to faith may indeed be the Orthodox community itself. If Torah is true, why do Torah Jews not stand out as particularly impressive? Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation'” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?

The answer, I think, lies in the nature of Torah that has allowed its adherents to persist for millennia. While liberal Jewish movements inevitably fade into the broader gentile society, traditional Judaism survives thanks to a hedge of religious laws that keep Jews somewhat separate from others: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Paradoxically, our ministering to and illuminating humanity as the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) that God calls us to be is conditioned on this apartness from other people.

But insularity also has its risks. For communities, as for individual human beings, there’s a madness that often goes with spending too much time by yourself. Reality becomes a little unreal. So too, alas, in our Orthodox world.

At times you feel you are on Planet Frum, where eccentricities and trivialities — “Orthodox” jargon and accents, minutely observed quirks of attire, tribal foods — loom large, as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. This is pronouncedly so on the East Coast (which is one reason I moved to Seattle). For example, not long ago I was talking with a young woman who grew up in a Hasidic community. I was trying to get clear what exactly distinguished her former community from other Hasidic groups. Her answer kept coming back not to beliefs but to styles of socks and hats.

I recall another conversation with a New York woman, Modern Orthodox, who was seeking to locate another woman along the spectrum of religiosity. “Basically, she wears pants and eats fish out,” was her summary statement that would sound insane to any outsider. (She meant the other woman doesn’t strictly observe rules regarding modesty in attire or not eating in non-kosher restaurants.)

In an insular community, Torah can easily be reduced to cosa nostra — merely “our thing,” a game of chess with arcane rules that bear no meaning outside a narrow context. The serious danger lies in Judaism becoming a hermetically sealed environment, irrelevant and indifferent to the world. The highest ethics and values to be found in the wider society — which Judaism praises as derech eretz — are then minimized or even discarded as somehow goyish.

The visionary spokesman of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th-century Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, warned of the peril Jews face in living up to our calling. In his Torah commentary, Hirsch wrote, “The sanctification of certain persons, things, times or places can very easily result in the pernicious idea that holiness and sanctification are limited to these persons, things, times and places. With the giving over of these things to holiness, the tribute has been paid, and the demand of holiness for everything else has been bought off.”

If you have “bought off” the Torah’s call to be holy by sanctifying yourself and your community, while ignoring all else, it becomes easier to overlook behaviors that run the gamut from silly to grotesque or worse.

When I lived in New York, I saw countless instances of Orthodox Jews behaving in public with little refinement or dignity. Visit the Kiddush table on Shabbos morning at many a shul. Grown men and women push and grab for food with all the manners and elegance that I regularly observe in my 2-year-old twins. Isolation from outsiders has something to do with it. In our bubble floating undisturbed through the world, we forget how to behave.

With our childishness goes a naiveté that may also explain how abusers are able to get away with it. Rabbis are regarded with childlike reverence. There is a guileless, ingenuous failure to confront reality.

The picture of a tragedy is complete when you consider how our unimpressiveness, our mediocrity, assures that even if we suddenly decided to accept the priestly role that God commanded us to fill, the world would hardly take us seriously. The credibility we might have, we have squandered.

I note this in sadness and frustration, not because I have any immediate remedy to propose. However, we can at least put the matter into its proper spiritual context, understanding that God appears to have built directly into the Torah the dilemma in which we’re caught. There is a necessary separation between clergy and congregation — the Jews and other men and women. Without it, there can be no priesthood. But isolation carries with it a risk that must be vigilantly guarded against.

By our observing Shabbat or kashrut, the Torah intends to remind us of our high calling, not to dispense us from it. It’s hard to avoid the impression that this year has been, as a rabbi friend suggested to me, a wake-up call from God.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 25, 2010 at 5:52 pm


What a litany of nonsense…..There is no such thing as a wakeup call from a god…The problem with jews,same as Christians,Muslims and other nutcases lies in the belief that there exist a god.Every relgion claims superiority over others and encourage division.The verdict is still out in my brain as to which religion is worse between the 3 major ones…They all bring pain,suffering and misery.The only major difference between them is about who their victims are.Right now,the Jews are killing everybody but mainly Palestinians.The christians are busy killing everybody but mainly the Muslims.The muslims are busy killing other Muslims and Africans.THey all go around claiming that their mission on earth is to bring peace and love…..



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joseph goldberg

posted February 25, 2010 at 6:44 pm


Jews are not killing anybody not actively trying to kill them. I also know of no cases where Christians are trying to slaughter anybody. Though “christianslayer 1955″ doesn’t mention them, the Hindus of India have not even reacted with violence to the horrible massacres in Mumbai last year, where some Moslems travelled from Pakistan specifically to kill as many Hindus, Jews, and others that they could. In Darfur, Moslems slaughter Christians and animists. Around the world, this is the pattern, all the way to the London and Madrid subways. Only a Moslem country (Iran) repeatedly publicly threatens nuclear holocaust of another, of course the Jewish one (Israel). There is a problem here, but this writer is not the one to analyze it. His “pox on all your houses” approach is adolescent wise-guyism at its worst. Meanwhile, Mr. Klinghoffer has written a very thoughtful column, with more questions than answers, which I hope Orthodox Jewish leaders read and act on. Can it be, that only those who like Klinghoffer “come in out of the cold”, come to orthodoxy from the give and take of the “real world”, are able to understand what being good, in a religious context, really entails?



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Philip Koplin

posted February 25, 2010 at 8:22 pm


joseph
Although you might believe Israel’s actions to be justified, it doesn’t serve the cause of truth to deny that Jews are killing people. And so are Hindu extremists, killing both Christians and Muslims. And so have the Christians running the US, torturing and killing Muslims with the support of both Christian and Jewish voices in the media.
Yes, christianslayer’s arguments are sophomoric, but your denial of reality doesn’t help.
David did write a thoughtful column, which deserves a careful response from those involved in the issues.



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TheN01skinsfan

posted February 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm


Mr. Klinghoffer,
I am saddened by the fact that you are spiritually troubled. But please know that you are not alone. I am a Catholic. But many of the recent “scandals” (if that is the right word) that you have cited among Orthodox Jews have affected Catholics as well.
The problem is “tolerance.” We have been told as a society that we cannot “judge” anyone anymore. That we cannot “shun” the sinner. The problem comes when (and I really do hate to seem political here, BUT)we can have a married President fiddle around with interns and not DEMAND that he be run out of town on a rail; SIMPLY because the economy is going well.
Our society has lost its sense of decency. Our society has traded decency for prosperity. Now, God has shown us that if you make that trade, soon, there will be neither decency or prosperity. It was only a matter of time after we allowed the non-secular head of our country to sin so openly, without REAL punishment, that our clergy would begin to do so. The faith of those clergy is immaterial. We must bring back the concept of sin, and more importantly, of SHAME. That is how we restore our respective faith’s to health.



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Philip Koplin

posted February 25, 2010 at 9:25 pm


Sexual abuse by Catholic priests was prompted by, and didn’t begin until, Bill Clinton’s actions, which were so pernicious that they even retroactively poisoned the Irish clergy generations before Clinton was elected. A little more sense in the diagnosis would help us take your cure more seriously.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 25, 2010 at 11:52 pm


Most of the problems we face stems from religion.We learn from a very early age that we are sinners responsible for all that is wrong with society.We also learn about murder,bloodshed,wars,assassinations,treachery,executions and all those other beautiful things from our good bible,good koran and the good talmud….All these beautiful holy books full of so many nice examples are used by the evil masters of the universe to control us and keep us at each other’s throats while they are busy stealing us blind.For any member of any religious organization to have the nerve to offer religion as the answer to our problems is akin to someone trying to put out a fire with gasoline….”Why has a religious turn of mind,always a tendency to narrow and harden the heart?”.The answer is simple..;Religion always excuses cruelty by presenting us with a story which is supposed to justify the cruelty.I am not singling out Jews but,this comes to mind at the moment.Let us examine the story of Issac and Ishmael….A peace loving god plants the seed of hate and envy between two brothers and condemn their descendants to perpetual wars amongst themselves.How can any sane person believe in such nonsense to the point that they are killing one another in our present time?This is worse than insanity because these things are being supported by doctors,lawyers,teachers,yogis,police officers,etc….It is as if religion has turned the planet into a large mental institution”';The problem is all the patients are in charge…I suggest we burn all religious books and ban them from our lives..



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Fred

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:00 am


It’s so simple. There is no God and so all the screwy ways people struggle to match their religion with reality will always fail in the end. I see religion, after religion (Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Mormonism, etc.) saying that the solution is to pray more or follow religius practices more devotedly. What was Einstein’s quote about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results?



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Mike Petzer

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:07 am


Religion always attracts to its ranks the deeply flawed, those who acutely conscious of their failings and desperate for answers to their self destructive life styles. This does not make the religion bad. Religions are made up of the societies they find themselves in. For every scandal and for every disappointing piece of individual conduct, there are ten thousand stories untold of the quiet, faithful and godly service of so many in relative obscurity. But, being as we are, obsessed with finding fault in people behind which to hide our own sense of failure, we tend to highlight the shocking and disgraceful conduct of others in any group. Not for the purpose of bettering it, but for the purpose of regarding ourselves as somehow better than them. It is not those who join the religion that are guilty of this judgment but those who feel somehow better by not belonging. These feel no collective guilt for their society. They live somehow in a protective bubble of superiority where they are responsible for nothing that happens around them.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 26, 2010 at 12:13 am


Joseph Goldberg,
You know of no instances where Jews and Christians are in the process of killing people…Wow,,,,,,,Have you ever heard of a group of people called Palestinians..?There are also a couple of countries called iraq ,Afghanistan,Pakistan,….I do not blame you for not turning the television on but,you need to keep up with a bit of the news before you offer any type of opinion about anything.



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Your Name

posted February 26, 2010 at 7:18 am


Christianslayer1955:
While religious people ahve done, and are still doing bad things, if you study history, you will find that the worst mass murderers where atheists, and that a disproportionate numbers of mass murderers were atheists. So, if anything religion does seem to prevent the commiting of atrocities. So, while religious people do bad things, the numbers are against the atheists.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 26, 2010 at 9:12 am


Mike Petzer,
You seem to have it all backwards my friend.It is us non believers who are always saddened by the actions of believers who are bent on destroying this world because they want to bring about the second coming of a man who never existed in the first place.We are mostly the ones you find behind the picket lines protesting in favor of climate protection,social welfare,worker’s rights,ending all wars etc…Believers on the other hand give up and leave everything in the hands of god…
Not long ago,I was having a conversation with a man concerning the massacres taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan.This other young man introduced himself by admitting that he had served in Iraq.My first question to him was if he had killed anybody,to which he replied in the affirmative.I then asked him how he was able to appear as normal as he was,not going crazy and contemplating suicide as so many other ex soldiers have…He looked at me straight in the eyes and told me that he was able to do so because he had asked his god for forgiveness and he knew that god had forgiven him and,based on that,he felt great….This same line of thinking applies across the board to all religious teachings.I remember seeing this disgusting piece of video on youtube around Israel’s latest grand scale massacre of the Palestinians which took place around emperor Obama’s inauguration.A reporter went to Times square in the heart of N Y city where a group of Jews were happily dancing in the streets celebrating the murder of innocent human beings.They even had drums and other musical instruments.Old jewish grandmothers were amongst this group calling for the extermination of another group solely based on a story.;A story I doubt very much truly happened……So Peter,get your facts straight before you open your mouth and start throwing blames and ccusations around



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Betzalel

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:01 pm


As a baal teshuva, I’ll attest that your article is right on the mark.
I think that the main problem today is that we frum people fear not keeping the Torah properly but we still do not fear Hashem. There is a big distinction between the two.
A person who has fear of not keeping the Torah properly but no fear of Hashem will run to do a mitzvah while knocking everyone else down in his path to do the mitzvah. People with fear of Hashem do not behave this way.
And this is why we have the scandals.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 26, 2010 at 1:52 pm


Your name,
Please name for me a group of Atheist that you know of who is presently waging wars on this planet.You can;t because none exist.This country has never had an Atheist president yet,it has been waging wars of agression eversince it’s birth.Hitler,as a christian,had the sign of the cross engraved on his soldier’s belt.It was discovered last month that the company manufacturing the rifles being used in Iraq and Afghanistan has been engraving bibliqual texts next to the viewfinder of those weapons.Even if there was ever an Atheist who became a leader of an army,that Atheist would have to use religion to persuade that army to fight…..Patriotism and religion are the tools used most often to convince a person who has never killed before to go out and kill another person in cold blood….Your name….Most Atheist I have met in my life are nice and cool people.They love humanity not because of a fear of god,but simply because it is the right thing to do.We do not judge,condemn nor hate for no reason or because somebody else tells us to.We are incharge of our thoughts and follow our own ideas….So,Mr your name,you are deliberately lying when you accuse Atheists of being murderers….



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Your Name

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:21 pm


christianslayer:
Atheists seemto have no trouble slaughtering members of their own kind. And do you think you could provide some sort of link to the story you cited, or is it merely anecdotal?
And your name would imply that you intend to kill Christians.



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christianslayer1955

posted February 26, 2010 at 2:46 pm


Yourname,
I do not waste my time arguing with dishonest people….This is my last reply to anything you have to say.



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Your Name

posted February 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm


Crhistianslayer:
Kim Jung Ill of North Korea comes to mind as an atheist who is engaged in killing his own people. same thing with the rulers of Communist China. Stalin and Mao did not have to use religion to convince people to commit mass murder. They killed more people than any theists ever did. And if you read “Meim Kampf” you will find that Hitler’s core belief system was Darwinism, not Christianity. I recommend a careful perusal of chapter 11, volume one. The pratise of putting “Gott Mit Uns” on the Wermacht belt buckles was started by the Kaiser. The Nazis were merely continuing a military tradition
As far as not atheists being full of lovehating, Dr Dawkins said that theists are worse than child molesters. Harris said that it is okay to kill all theists as asort of preemptive self defense because the moderate theists are guilty of enabling the fanatical theists. That isn’t love.



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Your Name

posted February 26, 2010 at 3:49 pm


Through out Jewish history they followed GOD and were blessed or did not follow HIS Laws and were cursed. If you reject JESUS CHRIST as the Messiah who fulfilled the Lae then you have a choice of strictly follow the Law or be cursed. GOD told HIS people this many times.



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Your Name

posted February 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm


Christainslayer:
Below is a list of atheistic mass murderers. Each one was responsible for at least 20,000 murders.
Afghanistan Nur Muhammad Taraki, Babrak Kamal
Albania Enver Hoxha
Angola Agostinho Neto, José Eduardo dos Santos
Bulgaria Vulko Chervenkov, Todor Zhivkov
Cambodia Pol Pot, Heng Samrin
China Mao Tse-Tung, Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintau
Cuba Fidel Castro
Czechoslovakia Klement Gottwald, Antonín Zápotocký, Antonín Novotný, Gustáv Husák
East Germany Walter Ulbricht, Erich Honecker
Ethiopia Tafari Benti, Mengistu Haile Mariam
French Republic Jean-Marie Collot d’Herbois, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne
Greece Nikolaos Zachariadis
Hungary Mátyás Rákosi
Laos Kaysone Phomvihane, Khamtai Siphandone
Mongolia Khorloogiin Choibalsan, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal
Mozambique Samora Machel
North Korea Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il
Poland W?adys?aw Gomu?ka, Boleslaw Bierut
Romania Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, Nicolae Ceausescu
Soviet Union Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev
Spain Manuel Azaña, Francisco Largo Caballero
Vietnam Ho Chi Minh, Le Duan, Truong Chinh, Nguyen Van Linh, Do Muoi, Le Kha Phieu, Nong Duc Manh
Yugoslavia Josip Broz Tito



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Mark

posted February 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm


What a courageous and needful editorial, David! Thank you for penning it. It has long saddened and perplexed me that the religion I have the most respect and admiration for (Judaism) seems to have so little spiritual impact on persons outside its own realm.



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Michael

posted February 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm


Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation'” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?
I do not know the answer, but I would like to hazard the following guess. A people who are purposefully insular will not be viewed as moral leaders, no matter how righteous their lives. To be a “light unto the nations” requires that one be in those nations.
The Jewish people succeeded in ancient times because they were active evangelists. After the destruction of the Temple they turned inward and collapsed in on themselves (this was largely a defense mechanism against Roman and Christian anti-semitism, I’m ashamed to say).
I would just add that some of humanity’s greatest moral leaders were Jews who lived outwardly their Jewish calling. I recall the mid-60s when Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jew) marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King (Baptist) and Richard John Neuhaus (Catholic) down the streets of Selma… While many might simply write this off as simple ecumenism, Heschel, King, and Neuhaus advanced a moral outreach of the highest order.
Sadly, I agree with you. The Orthodox community seems to have lost its way in the world. It’s a loss the world will come to regret, I believe.
Blessings,



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Philip Koplin

posted February 26, 2010 at 6:23 pm


The argument over who killed more people, believers or atheists, is meaningless. Christians and Muslims had less-lethal methods available to them in the centuries in which they had both the political authority and the willingness to murder “nonbelievers,” religious outsiders, and indigenous peoples, and the Hebrew Bible is appalling when it calls for the elimination of whole populations.
History shows that people with an absolute commitment to a rigid belief system that reduces outsiders to subhumans are likelier to commit crimes against humanity, regardless of whether they defend their actions by reference to god(s) or not.



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Mark

posted February 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm


Another group of Jews saw the same problem. One was James and the other Paul who were having a fight over if one needed to be an observant Jew to be a Christian. Peter stands up and says, why put on this people (the convert gentile Christians) the weight we ourselves have never been able to carry. (Acts 15). Mr. Klinghoffer, that is the weight of the law which we cannot carry, no matter how much we would desire to. The answer is not in doubling down on observance or ever stronger calls to personal holiness, but in the grace of God. The answer is not in us, but in what God has done for us, and the humility to accept that grace.



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Hector

posted February 28, 2010 at 2:20 am


Michael wrote: “The Jewish people succeeded in ancient times because they were active evangelists. After the destruction of the Temple they turned inward and collapsed in on themselves (this was largely a defense mechanism against Roman and Christian anti-semitism, I’m ashamed to say).”
Are you implying that they haven’t been successful for the past 1900 years?



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David Klinghoffer

posted February 28, 2010 at 2:51 am


Oh, Mark, you are so right. Wasn’t God foolish to put the idea in our heads to begin with that we can bear “the weight of the law”? When you read Deuteronomy 30:8-14, you realize how He must have been kicking himself afterward, realizing we weren’t up to it after all. Or maybe foolish is the wrong word….Cruel? Sadistic? Perhaps He was deliberately lying to and tormenting the Jews, just to teach us a lesson we never would have needed to learn had He not instilled the lie in us and set us up to fail in the first place.



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Michael

posted February 28, 2010 at 6:23 pm


Hector wrote:
Are you implying that they haven’t been successful for the past 1900 years?
I was simply answering the question of why the influence of the Orthodox Jewish communities seems to have lost the influence the Jews were originally called to exert. In my opinion, the answer is that the Orthodox, in particular, avoid social intercourse with Gentiles.
I also noted that this is to be regretted, in my opinion.
I should note that David has written a book whose thesis, in part, is that the Christian community has taken up this mission and has been largely successful in evangelizing [the moral codes] of the Jewish Torah and monotheism to the world (Acts 26:23).
Blessings to you,



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Hector

posted March 1, 2010 at 12:01 am


Michael writes: “I would just add that some of humanity’s greatest moral leaders were Jews who lived outwardly their Jewish calling. I recall the mid-60s when Abraham Joshua Heschel (Jew) marched arm-in-arm with … ”
I would just add that some of humanity’s greatest moral leaders were Jews who lived inwardly (vis-a-vis non-Jews, that is) their Jewish calling. I recall the great leaders Yisroel Kagan, Moshe Feinstein, Joseph Soloveitchik, Menachem Mendel Schneerson…”
Michael also writes: “I was simply answering the question of why the influence of the Orthodox Jewish communities seems to have lost the influence the Jews were originally called to exert.”
That’s a far cry from what you wrote earlier, “The Orthodox community seems to have lost its way in the world.”



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