15 Adar 5759
From the Desk of: Rabbi Leib Keleman
(This is the third in a series of actual letters written by Rabbi Keleman to a student. Names have been changed.)
Once again, your letter stimulated hours of conversation between me and Chana, and it would take many dozens of pages to share all of our thoughts. Before offering any detail, though, I should just tell you that the two major points we kept returning to were: (a) how much we care about you; and (b) how much we wish you were here so that we could just shmooze about all the important issues you raised. Writing limits us, though, and so we decided to address just one of the issues in your note. If time allows, we’ll write more another time about the other questions you raised.
You wrote that you consider yourself “a more modern religious person.” It sounds like you perceive that there are at least two groups of Jews in the world: modern, and non-modern. This was confusing at first for me and Chana. Who is who? Are non-modern Jews “ancient” in some way? Do you mean to distinguish yourself from a group who (a) purposely refuses to confront modern halachic issues (maizid), (b) from a group who is just less competent than modern Jews to apply the principles of the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch to modern questions (shoggeg), or (c) from some group that expresses loyalty to “ancient-ness” in some other way? Precisely what is the difference between the two groups? How could we tell which group we fall into? As we read your note, we wondered what “modern” has to do with “covering hair.” We wondered if you are really “modern” at all.
I don’t remember if I ever told you this story, but it will help clarify our vague impression of what “modern” means. I first met Chana at a summer camp for college students, and there I also met another fellow — a wonderful man by the name of Alex Singer. Chana, Alex, and I became close friends, and we explored Judaism together. Chana and I found our path in Torah study, and Alex found his path in Zionism. Chana and I went to yeshiva, and Alex made aliyah.
Alex was very idealistic. Alex felt it was good to fight for Jewish lives, he was driven to do the right thing, and so he asked to be drafted the day he arrived in Israel. The army authorities ignored his requests at first, but eventually he prevailed and fought his way into the IDF months before he would normally have been drafted. Next Alex requested to be placed with the paratroops — Israel’s most elite division. Alex had flat feet and asthma, so they just laughted at his request. But Alex felt that fighting for Jewish lives was the right thing to do, and so he heroically pursue his goal until he somehow got into the paratroops, too. Then Alex workied his way into tone of the elite units, the crack-troops that do the secret misions like entebbe. Then Alex worked his way up to second-in-command of his crack troop.
Alex kept a diary, filled with gorgeous sketches and poetry. I have copies of many of those drawings and prose. On August 17, 1986, as he was completing a training course to take complete command o his crack troop, Alex wrote this poem in his diary:
Once in a while
As I progress towards the course’s end
I feel a pang of fear…
If the war comes
When the war comes
I will have to lead men to die…
And I will have to have the calm power
To yell to them
Or to whisper
Kadima [go forward].
I will have to have the calm power
To step forward myself.
Alex only wanted to do the right thing. That’s the only thing that drove him. He often worried that he might someday have an opportunity to do the right thing and would fail.
About a year later, on September 15, 1987 — on Alex’s 25th birthday — his special unit was sent up to Lebanon to track down terrorists that had been murdering Israelis in the northern towns. Alex’s unit was ambushed, and Alex’s commander was badly wounded and trapped alone under enemy fire. In that moment, Alex was automatically promoted to commander. My best friend, my idealist, my hero, was faced with the choice of retreating and leaving his dying companion until reinforcements could arrive, or running in to save a human life. Alex “stepped forward” to aid his commander and fell to a terrrorist’s bullet on a rocky hillside in Southern Lebanon.
I don’t know if Alex did the right thing or not. I don’t know if any person could ever know. But I know that Alex was driven by the right motivation. My bet friend only wanted to do the right thing. He didn’t mind sacrificing. He sacrificed to come to Israel; he sacrificed to join the army early; he sacrificed to join the paratroops, and again he sacrificed when he joined his special crack unit. Alex’s life was about sacrifice for some higher ideal. Alex’s life was about heroism, about grabbing moments and using them to do the right thing, and that gave his short life awesome value.
We have so little time here on earth. Why would anyone want to waste life? Why would anyone want to avoid heroism, when heroism is all that really lends life meaning? The world is so flawed in so many ways. Why would anyone want to take the easy way out and waste the precious moments that could be used to make this world a better place? Why would anyone want to miss out on doing the right thing? Why compromise on goodness? For what?
And yet, we were brought up in a culture that despises heroism and sacrifice. We were taught about “our inviolable rights” — we were taught that nothing should be allowed to threaten our life, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. These are our culture’s highest values. Not empathy. Not kindness. Not integrity. Just selfish life, liberty, and the prusuit of happiness.
As Americans, we were taught to live to protect “our rights,” but for 4,000 years our ancestors lived for a different goal, to fix the world — “l’saken ola b’malchus Shakai” — to jump into the breach, to be a hero, to sacrifice when goodness so dictated.
Alex was unusual. He acted like a Jew. That made him a great man, even though he was barely 25 years old.
And what about us? What are our lives about? I’m beginning to think that there are only two answers to that question: Either we live for life, for liberty, and for the pursuit of our happiness; or we live to do the right thing. Either we live selfish lives, or we live heroic lives. Of course there are degrees on both sides, but I don’t know if there are any options besides these two. We either step forward, or we don’t.
Now back to that word, “modern.” Sometimes I wonder if people use that word to separate the world into these very two camps: people who want to pursue life, liberty, and happiness; and people who want to do the right thing, even when it costs them — people who are afraid to step forward, and people who aren’t.
I’ve never been asked to give up my life for Hashem and Torah. I don’t know which camp I would find myself in. I hope from some place deep, deep in my heart that I would have the strength and integrity to do the right thing even if it meant dying.
Almost every day I get little test, though. Almost every day, Hashem does ask me — through his Torah — to sacrifice a little here and there. When I’m in the middle of the test, I usually feel that I’m really facing a painfuly extreme Divine request; and every now and then, I remember Alex, and I realize how tiny Hashem’s requests have been.
I think I understand and empathize with “modern-ness.” “Modern-ness” doesn’t ask women to cover their hair. Modern-ness provides an easy way out. With one word — “modern” — we can do away with the Gemara (Kesubos 72a), Rambam (Issurei Biah 21:17), and Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 21:1-2 & 115:4). There! Now we have life, liberty, and happines.
But modern-ness isn’t righteous or heroic. Modern-ness is not a “new” way of sacrificing for Hashem and for Torah. Modern-ness is “a more normal life,” “a practical life,” “something we can live with.” Modern-ness is what happnes when one wrings every last drop of idealism out of existence. “Modern” is a nice way of classifying those people who really aren’t very interested in stepping forward, those people who don’t understand the awesome potential packed into every moment of our short, precious lives.
A month ago I made Aliyah. I used to pay my American Express credit card bill in dollars, but now that I’m an Israeli I can’t get dollars anymore. So I called AMEX and asked if I could pay in shkalim. No problem, they explained. They said I just have to call the AMEX offices in the U.S.A. before paying my bill so that they can tell me, based on that day’s conversion rate, how many shkalim to send in. And so the bill came. $378. I called. Thye told me to send in 1,200 shekel. And so I did. And what do you think I did when this month’s statement came and indicated that I had paid 1,200 DOLLARS?! Yes, they had mistaken my Israeli shekel-check for an American dollar check and credited me for three times the amount I had sent in. Of course, there’s a “normal,” “practical,” “livable” solution to this problem. And even the Shulchan Aruch says explicitly that a Jew doesn’t have to return money that a goy lost if the loss will never be detected. There, I have a “clear heter!” I was in an even better situation halachically than all those women who don’t cover their hair. If God doesn’t expect women to cover their hair — despite explicit orders to do so in the Gemara, Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch — then He certainly doesn’t expect me to return money that even these very sources say I can keep!
But what am I alive for?! What am I wasting my time breathing for, if not to fix mistakes and difficulties? If I am not here to sanctify Hashem’s name, then why do I bother getting up everyday? Where is the greatness in my life? Where is the light? Where is the inspiration? Where is the goodness? Where is my relationship with our Father in Heaven?
Of course! Of course, I sent the President of AMEX a note: “You made a mistake in my favor, and as an Orthodox Jew, who learned the ways of justice and honesty from our Torah, it is my privilege and pleasure to return to you the money you mistakenly credited to my account.” Can you imagine how happy that makes “ABBA?” Can you imagine how happy I was? Isn’t this what life is all about? Yes, I could have found some way of spending the extra $800, but is our time on earth just about life, liberty and happiness? Is life just about convenience and pleasure? Isn’t our time here about heroism?
What’s the difference between returning a gentile’s lost money and a woman covering her hair? As far as the letter-of-the law goes, we have less of an obligation to inform AMEX than we do to cover hair; and as far as the spirit-of-the-law, the two mitzvos are identical — we are supposed to be courageous, step forward, and do the right thing. If we view these mitzvos differently — if we view hair covering as less significant — we must realize that we are thinking like non-Jews; we have lived among them for so long that we can’t read our own Torah anymore. But from the Jewish perspective, mitzvos are mitzvos, and life is life, and heroism is heroism.
What’s the difference between returning a gentile’s lost money and a woman covering her hair? As far as the letter-of-the-law goes, we have less of an obligation to inform AMEX than we do to cover hair; and as far as the spirit-of-the-law, the two mitzvos are identical — we are supposed to be courageous, step forward, and do the right thing. If we view these mitzvos differently — if we view hair covering as less significant — we must realize that we are thinking like non-Jews; we have lived among them for so long that we can’t read our won Torah anymore. But from the Jewish perspective, mitzvos are mitzvos, and life is life, and heroism is heroism.
Chana and I agonized over your note. There are so many apologetics we could have written to you. We could have written something about how romantic it is to “reserve your hair for your husband,” or how “covering hair is a badge of honor.” But all these excuses miss the point. Does it really make a difference how I personally Howardefit from a particular halacha? Is that why I follow it, because I get a better Olam Hazeh? Life is about doing what Hashem asks. Life is about doing the right thing, even when it costs us. And we must not allow American culture to suck out of us every last drop of idealism and courage. We are big people on the inside. We are heroes on the inside. We must not forget that.
When people who try to set you up with dates ask if you will cover your hair, I don’t think that’s really what they want to know. I think they really want to know if you are a life-liberty-hapinnesser, or if you are a Jew. They want to know, deep, deep, inside, what your life is about. Are you a great woman? A hero? A lover of Hashem? Are you driven by a more lofty vision? Or are you an American? Are you a life- is-about-2-cars-in-the-garage-and-summer-in-the-Catskills sort of person? I think that’s their question. I think they want to know if covering your hair is too big a sacrifice to make for God.
Rachel, you know who you are. You’re a great, great woman, in the middle of a long and difficult road. You’re an Avraham. You’re a struggler and a grower. Deep within, you are someone who would sacrifice for a higher goal. As we prepared to write this note, Chana and I concluded that you aren’t “modern” at all. You want answers, not for the sake of escaping difficulty. You want answers even when those answers make life a little less comfortable. You are essentially “ancient,” but you happen to be in the early stages of your growth. You are on the way to covering your hair, even if you aren’t there already.
Okay, it’s late and we’ve got to wrap this note up. Please forgive our passion. We care about you, and we admire you so much! We just couldn’t say over any of those “kiruv” lines to you, so we just let it flow from the heart. Again, we really wish we could have talked this over in person. We could have explained ourselves so much better. Please feel the love behind all these words. We promise to write more about the other issues you raised as soon as time permits. In the meantime, please stay in close touch.
Leib & Chana