September 20, 2019

The middle way is killing you

An “aha moment,” according to the dictionary, is a moment of sudden realization, insight or comprehension. As we begin the month of Elul, leading up to the High Holy Days, how do we identify our “aha moment”? 

How do we pinpoint the paradigm shift that enables us to tackle issues keeping us up at night, such as raising children, connecting with God in a meaningful way, finding financial success? 

How do some of us answer the questions recently posed by Jewish Theological Seminary professor Jack Wertheimer in Mosaic magazine: Can Modern Orthodoxy survive? Can a serious Judaism flourish that is fully committed to the Torah and its sages and, at the same time, not be afraid to engage the modern world and totally encourage and support the State of Israel?

To begin addressing all this, I’d like to take you back to 1976, when composer Philip Glass and theatrical director-producer Robert Wilson premiered an opera called “Einstein on the Beach.” It lasted for five hours, and viewers were invited to come in and walk out at will. Movements within the opera repeated over and over, dance numbers went on for extended periods of time. The creative concept was to have the audience lose themselves entirely to the piece.

When I reflect upon “Einstein on the Beach,” I think about what our Judaism wants of us. God wants us to lose ourselves in the experience. God wants us totally immersed. Even the simplest mitzvah and the most common act of living should be committed with intensity and passion.

Judaism is not reserved only for our relatively few moments in shul. No, we must be totally invested. Judaism is alive when we sit down for breakfast. Judaism is being experienced when we help our children with their homework. It vibrates in every part of our lives.Being a Jew in the modern world doesn’t mean that we are committing ourselves to a middle way. Middle way is pareve, boring and insipid. We are proud and we are strong because we carry the totality of time as we move through it. I recently picked up a new sefer that is more than 300 pages of halachic analysis on issues that have newly risen because of the internet. It is projects like this that reflect how our tradition is meant to be totally lived, not partially. 

There is a wonderful book filled with anecdotes and sources aimed at building greater enthusiasm for learning Torah; it’s called “Shteigen.” Let me share with you a stark illustration used in the book. 

Imagine a waiter at an amazing wedding. He hears the dynamic band, he gets to taste the same delicious food, and he sees the same important people that everybody else at the wedding gets to see. But something is different. He’s estranged, detached, removed. Why? Because he isn’t truly part of the celebration. He is there but he is not there.

This story nails the necessity of our full engagement and integration with our Jewish experience. We can’t stand on the sideline watching our mitzvot go by. We can’t just let Shacharit be something that we observe and go through the motions. We need to fully integrate the experience. Why are we davening? Who are we davening to? Go totally in.

Our effort to be in the middle is simply killing us. Our effort to be neutral, “modern” or normal is sucking the life out of our experience. Living as a Modern Orthodox Jew is not about being in the middle or in one space in the Jewish time continuum; it’s about living with HaShem fully in everything that we do.

This past week was the yahrzeit of the saintly Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. Rav Kook, in his “Orot HaKodesh,” writes that the great tzadikim are the ones who see the world in all of its beauty and respect it. They see the exaltedness of the world. They don’t look around and say, “Feh, this world is unkosher.” 

They look at history, at art, at creativity and notice the awesome power that HaShem has bestowed onto humanity. They notice that even among the backdrop of intense horror, there is a tremendous capacity for love and healing. The tzadik’s Judaism is total and complete; it embraces the light of the entire world.  

This is our “aha moment.” It’s the realization that the best shot we have at our struggles and challenges is to live with a holistic yiddishkayt. HaShem is not only our adviser in shul, but also in school, on Wall Street and on the street.

With prayer, it’s not an on-and-off occupation. With prayer, we must be all in. There is no middle way; there is the complete way, where every experience of our lives is worth a prayer.

Let us live our Elul fully, and in that merit, may there arrive a truly life-changing Rosh Hashanah.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh and the author of “Judaism Alive” (Gefen Publishing, 2015).