By Rav Aryeh Zev Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
To the dismay of many people involved in Jewish communal life, as the Orthodox community continues to grow at a rapid pace (kein yirbu), so do the communal strife and divisions amongst us.
The divisions are not limited to Chassidic courts; strife has penetrated into almost every shul, school, and communal organization. We find shuls being split in two and then the two become four. Longstanding business partnerships are breaking apart at an alarming rate and the reputable batei dinim are overwhelmed by their caseload of disputes between partners, neighbors, former friends, and, probably most painful of all, family members. One caterer at a popular chasunah hall in New York shared that in 6 out of the last 15 chasunahs that he hosted, brothers, sisters, mechutanim, and even one set of grandparents were missing from the chasunah due to a family conflict.
As to why conflicts, both communal and personal, seem to be growing significantly in recent years, I leave that to the sociologists and community observers to offer their theories. There is nothing we can do to stop anti-Semitism or hatred of Klal Yisrael throughout the world—as Chazal say, “Halachah hi, Eisav soneh Yaakov.” That conflict will only end with the coming of Mashiach. My issue for this article is how we stem the tide before all these various internal conflicts consume us. The conflict amongst ourselves has to end, if we truly want Mashiach to come and finally put an end to the other conflict that has spilled oceans of Yiddishe blood throughout our painful history.
Conflicts stem from human frailties of ga’avah, ta’avah, and kinah—pride, lust, and jealousy. These bad middos didn’t just start now, but began with the conflicts of the first brothers—Kayin and Hevel. But conflict has, unfortunately, become the norm in our kehillos, rather than the exception.
There is no easy solution, but one simple suggestion comes from a pasuk that we all are familiar with—”דרכיה דרכי נועם”, the ways of the Torah are pleasant.
Rav Moshe’s Lesson
An encounter decades ago with Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, the great gadol ha’dor and posek, provided a lifelong lesson of the significance of this pasuk.
Years ago, a great controversy arose in Eretz Yisrael when a rabbi in an important public position rendered a psak on the legitimacy of a particular family that drew fierce opposition and condemnation from gedolim throughout the world. While this conflict was at the height of intensity, that rabbi was invited to speak at a venue in Forest Hills, Queens, just blocks from my yeshiva, Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim.
Many calls came in to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, zt’l, suggesting that he send the bnei ha’yeshiva to peacefully protest the speaker’s presence as a demonstration of kavod haTorah. The rosh yeshiva politely responded to all that yeshiva bachurim are in yeshiva to learn Torah and not to attend protests. However, one distinguished rav whom the rosh yeshiva greatly admired had forcefully made the request as well. Not wanting to create a conflict, he decided to present the question to the posek ha’dor, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, and to abide by his decision.
Having had the great z’chus of being a frequent visitor to Rav Moshe’s home, I was asked by the rosh ha’yeshiva to present the sheilah to him. Rav Moshe immediately responded that the rosh ha’yeshiva was correct and the talmidim belong in the beis midrash. I then asked for the reason for his psak that my rebbe could share with those pressuring him to send the students to stand up for kavod haTorah. Rav Moshe responded immediately, “Tell them, דרכיה דרכי נועם.”
It has been almost 40 years since that encounter, which has left a lasting impression upon me. I learned from Rav Moshe at that moment that “דרכיה דרכי נועם” is not just a metaphor, but instructive on how to live one’s life. When making decisions for yourself, a family, or a community, the guiding principle should be reflective of “דרכיה דרכי נועם”. If we do so, so much conflict and dispute would undoubtedly be avoided.
An epilogue to that story is that I was curious to see how that rabbi would address the many critics of his psak from throughout the Torah world, so I attended the lecture. A group of hotheaded bachurim from a different local yeshiva had decided to take matters into their own hands and attended the lecture. They began to interrupt and shout down the lecturer, and the evening turned into a shouting match between the bachurim and the rabbi’s supporters. Photographers from the secular media recorded this fiasco on the front pages of their publications. All I could think of while watching this debacle was Rav Moshe’s instructive words of “דרכיה דרכי נועם”.
This instruction from Rav Moshe was not just a recommended path in life for others; it was also his own personal way of life. Someone once asked him in what z’chus he merited that his psakim are accepted as the final word in every segment of Orthodox Jewry. He responded, “Throughout my life, I have never knowingly caused any hurt to another human being.” Indeed, דרכיה דרכי נועם.
It was related that when Rav Moshe went for a visit to Eretz Yisrael for the only time in his life, for the World Agudah conference, he took the opportunity to visit the Tchebiner Rav, one of the greatest gedolim of the generation. After the visit, in which they spent considerable time conversing in learning, the Tchebiner Rav escorted Rav Moshe for a great distance upon leaving his home. When he returned, he was in awe of his special guest and he said to his family, “Doz is doz gantza sheinkeit”—his great middos, humility, and sweetness are the essence of his beauty.
At The Kotel
A few months ago, upon a chance encounter I had with an aggressive secular Israeli news reporter, Rav Moshe’s instruction came in useful and even led to a public dialogue.
We spent last Sukkos in Yerushalayim, and the birth of a granddaughter to our children living in Eretz Yisrael required us to extend our stay for another week. I had long heard of the rosh chodesh events at the Kotel and of the Women of the Wall showing up to stage a protest amidst attempts to change the status quo of the traditional manners of tefillah strictly observed at that holy place. We’ve all seen the pictures and videos of the ugly protests and demonstrations that take place there on every rosh chodesh. What pain and anguish it brings us all. However, until this past Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, I had never personally witnessed it.
I was making my exit from the Kotel area after davening and headed towards Shaar Ha’ashpot to grab a taxi to the hotel. I noticed a large group of people clustered together, some holding up signs, some holding sifrei Torah, and some wearing bicycle helmets in anticipation of the impending confrontation. Amongst the crowd were several women dressed in provocative clothing. There had also been ads placed in secular newspapers asking people to join them in their “protest against religious tyranny,” with the demonstration being led by several visiting religious leaders from large American Reform and Conservative synagogues. They stood in the front, holding more than a dozen sifrei Torah being used in their protest.
This caught my attention and I stood there for a few minutes taking in the scene. A chiloni television reporter noticed me—a person with a black hat, a beard, a suit and tie, clearly from the “other side”—and approached to ask a question. Seeing that this reporter found a “live one” who undoubtedly would make incendiary comments and add fuel to the fire, dozens of reporters suddenly surrounded me with cameras and video recorders waiting to hear a combative verbal assault on the actions of the Women of the Wall.
The first reporter asked me, “Are you against the actions of this group?” I responded that I was. And he followed up with a question: “Why do you object when Jews want to pray in the manner they are comfortable with?” Everyone in that group of reporters pushed in a little closer to record every word of criticism and dismissal they assumed was about to come out of my mouth. Instead I remembered that lesson I learned long ago from Rav Moshe, zt’l, and I said the following: “I have no objection to anyone praying to Hashem in the manner they feel comfortable with; however, doing so in a place that antagonizes so many other people and causes others so much pain, that is not the way of the Torah. My Torah is דרכיה דרכי נועם, and causing so much pain and conflict by their actions is clearly not in that spirit.” The reporters were so taken with that approach that most of them seemed pleased that they had a story to run with. Some of the staff at the hotel where we were staying told me that the interview made the evening news.
But there was one reporter in the group, the only one wearing a kippah, who followed up with a difficult question. He asked, “When the chareidim throw stones at cars traveling on Shabbos, or stage protests blocking major intersections throughout Yerushalayim, inconveniencing hundreds of people, how is that דרכיה דרכי נועם?” I was pained by the question, knowing that whatever answer I gave would not bode well for the chareidi image. And for all those who do these things not realizing how negative an image is portrayed to fellow Jews outside the chareidi camp, the sublime message of this reporter was that if the Torah warrants behavior that is pleasant, that is “נועם”, then it has to work that way for all Jews and in all of their actions.
Don’t Blame The Pig
Our gedolim went out of their way to ensure that all their teachings and directives were presented in the most pleasant of ways. Many years ago, the gedolim in the U.S. were concerned about religious life in Israel, which was being put in jeopardy by the passing of many new secular laws. One of these laws was the importation of pig into Eretz Yisrael, and a public proclamation was being prepared by askanim for the gedolim to sign. When it was Rav Pam’s turn to sign, he refused. He explained that it was written in a manner that could be seen as demeaning to pigs. He said, “Vos is der chazir shuldig az iz a chazer? Der Eibishte hut em azoi bashafen.” Why should the pig be faulted for being a pig? Hashem created him that way.
Even when describing a pig, it has to be “דרכיה דרכי נועם”. How much more so in dealing with a human being, a tzelem Elokim and a fellow Yid, how pleasant our behavior should be with them! When a complication arises in a relationship—whether with a spouse, sibling, or even a child—before we act or react, we should take a moment to contemplate, “Is this reaction in the spirit of דרכיה דרכי נועם?” How much pain, strife, and conflict could be avoided. How different our families, shuls, and communities would look to us, to the outside world, and most importantly to the Borei Olam himself, if “דרכיה דרכי נועם” would be our guide.
If only this focus on דרכי נועם could be expanded upon, it might even help prevent a seemingly inevitable split in the Modern Orthodox community. Over the last number of years, a movement has sprouted up, all stemming from one charismatic but misguided individual in Riverdale, New York, that has challenged every accepted and traditional norm of Orthodox Jewish life. They have named their breakaway from halachic Orthodoxy with the word “open,” when it’s much more befitting to call themselves “closed Orthodoxy,” as they have closed the door to Orthodoxy as they drift further and further away from the majority of the Orthodox community.
What I find particularly troubling is not just the halachic distortions and misquotes of sources from gedolei poskim like Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, but their lack of concern for the feelings and the pain that they cause to so many Yidden in the greater Orthodox community. When they introduce innovations that are beyond the pale of traditional Orthodoxy, do they for a moment stop and think about the conflict they are creating in the Orthodox community? Does the concept of דרכיה דרכי נועם ever enter into their orbit and into their thought process?
When I had the displeasure of watching a video clip of a black church gospel choir singing gospels, standing in front of an Aron Kodesh inside a shul in Riverdale, hosted by the founder of this breakaway movement from Orthodoxy, with many Yidden singing along, I wasn’t thinking about the many halachic violations taking place by bringing ovdei avodah zarah into a beis ha’kneses; I was rather thinking about one elderly Yid named Myron Friedman.
Mr. Friedman is a Holocaust survivor who lived in Forest Hills Gardens. Despite the strictly observant home that he came from, he would come to the shul (led by my father, zt’l) only on Yamim Nora’im, to say Yizkor for his family lost in the Shoah. His personal horrific experiences just didn’t allow him to enter into a shul more than twice a year.
He shared with my father, zt’l, one thing that he was very particular about. He lived one block from a church and yet he crossed the street every time he had to walk by, never allowing himself to walk in front of the church. He explained that his behavior was due to a painful experience at the beginning of the war.
His parents had run a successful feather business in a town near Cracow during the years before the war. In the town was a large church and seminary that housed many priests, nuns, and students studying to become clergymen. They were frequent visitors to his parents’ feather store and they had developed a strong personal relationship with many of them. They often did repairs for the priests and nuns at no charge.
When the Nazis entered the town, Myron’s mother took him, a boy of 10, and his two younger sisters to the church and asked the head priest who had been a longtime friend to please watch over her children until she could return from hiding. The priest took them in and assured her that she had nothing to worry about, as they would be well cared for. The next morning, the very same priest put all three children into a car and drove them straight to the Gestapo headquarters in town and handed over the three “dirty Jewish children” in his possession. Myron, who is well over 90 years old today and has great difficulty walking, still takes pains to avoid walking past a church.
While we don’t share Myron’s experience or his attitude, our Tishah B’Av Kinnos are filled with words of the devastating destruction brought upon countless Yidden over the centuries at the hands of the followers of the church.
While we have to live with them side by side until the final geulah comes, do we have to invite them into our shuls? In front of our Aron Kodesh? What pain the image has brought to Myron and countless other Yidden like him. Is this דרכיה דרכי נועם? And for what purpose? To pacify some goyim? Whether it made any difference to even one non-Jew can be debated, but that it caused such division and pain to so many Yidden and caused such a split in our community needs no debate. Where is the נועם, the pleasantness of their actions, in all that they do?
The leaders of this “Closed Orthodoxy” movement have violated the most basic halachos and hashkafos of Torah, although for that we can forgive them. But even more so, they have taken our Torah, a Torah of דרכיה דרכי נועם, and used it to create an irreparable division in our community. For that there is no forgiveness.
Divisions in our community are painful; divisions in our families even more so. If only we were able to incorporate in our communal and personal thinking that our actions need to be measured and guided by the line in the sand—whether this action or reaction is in the spirit of “דרכיה דרכי נועם”—it would go a long way toward starting a healing process.
This is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. Let us start with the basics. This is so important, for our very future is dependent upon it.
This article is dedicated l’zecher nishmas Sarah Chaya, z’l, bas Rav Aryeh Zev.