And The Walls Came A Tumblin' Down

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

One of the most cherished aspects of Jewish life in America has been the openness of American society to the Jew. Today Jews in America are with rare exception part of the majority. Jews are found in every strata of American life and are afforded the rights and privileges the society accords each of its citizens.

This reality, this tremendous opportunity comes, as do all opportunities, with a down side as well. Totally immersed in Americana, the Jew tends to forget his own heritage. In his/her desire to achieve as an American, Jewish religious practice and values often fall by the wayside. This is particularly true when one considers the moral issues that are so much a part of the American debate today. Many have categorized this tension as the battle for the American soul – the battle between the G‑dly and the unG‑dly. Other than the most observant, Jews have exchanged their societal moral norms for liberal ones. Oft times this moral approach is in opposition to the time honored and religiously mandated morals of Judaism.

The question before us is how do we maintain Jewish morality in a society that has largely abandoned our moral system? The answer to this question is not a simple one and, as we consider the approaches available in Orthodoxy today, one that defines the various Orthodox trends in Jewish life.

In the summer 2005 edition of Tradition, Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser comments upon an article written by Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel in the spring of 2004, which was part of a major discussion entitled “Orthodoxy and the Public Square.” Rabbi Goldwasser questions the position advocated by Rabbi Zweibel in the ever contentious public debate over abortion. Specifically he questions the position that States have the right to restrict abortion in all cases except “when abortion is necessary to preserve the mother’s life, or when it is mandated under the mother’s religious beliefs.” Without rehashing his entire critique, Goldwasser claims that de facto Zweibel is giving credence to the anti-halachic stance of the vast majority of Jews who can argue that their religious beliefs countenance abortion. He as well touches upon the Halachic restrictions on abortion placed upon all humanity which, as we know, are more stringent than the restrictions placed upon the Jewish People.

This difference of view on abortion encapsulates the major problem facing Orthodoxy in America. How does the Orthodox community maintain its integrity in a society that is open and welcoming to its adherents? Zweibel’s view, expressed by many on the so called Orthodox “right,” is to protect Orthodox Jewish observance even when, as in the case of abortion, that protection allows for continued violation of Halacha by Jews and gentiles alike. It is key to understanding this approach to realize that the abortion issue opened the door to the “slippery slope” regarding the very sacredness of human life as the ultimate gift of a benevolent G‑d.

Today, many in American society pass from this world through euthanasia disguised as mercy and compassion. In a recent article entitled “The Value of a Moment of Life” (Mishpacha, June 14, 2006) discussing end of life issues and the Orthodox community, the author states, “Some religious people hesitate to call their rabbi, either because they’re afraid that the answer may not be what they want to hear, or because they are simply unaware that halachah governs such situations.” As a congregational Rabbi, I am very much aware of the acceptance by some in the Orthodox community of the removal of life supports, i.e. feeding tubes and resuscitators, as an act of compassion. Such an action, in direct opposition to the view of contemporary Poskim, can be understood within the Jewish moral framework as tantamount to murder. The wide acceptance of euthanasia by American society has already encroached upon the moral thinking of Orthodox Jews. Undaunted by this reality, the devaluation of human life itself, Zweibel nevertheless takes a stance which he perceives will protect Orthodoxy ignoring the tragedy it is allowing to continue to fester in society – a tragedy now overflowing into the very community he is attempting to protect

Many years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l initiated his Mitzvah campaign. Each year the Rebbe selected a particular Mitzvah for his Hassidim to propagate among the Jewish People. One year the Rebbe declared The Seven Laws of Noah as that Mitzvah. People were confused. “What does the Rebbe want us to do?” they asked. “Does the Rebbe want us to reach out to the Gentile as we reach out to the Jew, as for example, Chabad’s Tephillin campaign?” Obviously, that was exactly what the Rebbe required. What motivated the Rebbe?

I cannot say for sure. Yet, as a Hassid, I think I can hazard an educated guess. Isolation from general society has been the “norm” in Jewish life for most of our sojourn in the Diaspora. The ghetto, imposed physically through a wall, or through restrictive law, separated the Jew from the world at large. But the ghetto walls came a tumblin’ down in America. In a society in which the Jew has free movement, he/she, no matter the depth of sincere religious devotion, is affected by that society. Ghettos, in all their forms and shapes, can only be built by the majority to restrict the minority and not by the minority to keep out the open and accepting majority.

It is with this understanding of American society that the Rebbe emphasized the importance of moving the American society as a whole toward acceptance of The Seven Laws of Noah, not only as the Jew’s religious responsibility to the world at large, but, perhaps even more importantly, as the means by which the Jewish community will be supported in its quest to do G‑d’s Will.

A unique and contemporary challenge, American Orthodox Jewry must rise to it if it is to continue to be the standard bearer for the Torah true way of life. For the religious buoyancy of our Torah vessel is constantly challenged by the turbulent seas of escalating immorality in America today.