August 7, 2018

Maintaining religious identity in a secular society

Tonight I would like to address a topic that affects all of us who, in one way or another, live in a society whose values differ from our own. It is an issue that affects adults and children alike, and a problem which all of us have pondered at one stage or another. The question? How we can maintain our religious identity in a secular society.

In this talk, primarily based on a study of Torah texts from this week’s parsha, I will be offering my ideas of how we can stay ‘On the Derech’ and present practical ways to help you strengthen your religious identity while living and working in a secular society. However, to begin with, I would like to share a brief story involving Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, the famous Rosh Yeshiva of Metivta Torah Vodaath. He said:

You know, when I was a boy growing up, I had a friend. He was always a little more than I was, and did more than I did. He was a year older: I was 10 and he was 11. He wore long payos, I didn’t. He wore a gartel, and I didn’t. Last summer when I was in Eretz Yisrael, I met him again. He was living in K’far Saba and I paid him a visit. While talking to him I found out that things had changed and that, unfortunately, he was now turning on the lights on Shabbos. He turned to me and he asked, ‘Yankel, what’s happened to us? Wasn’t I always frumer than you??!!’, to which I replied, “Yes, yes you were always frummer but I was always kluger (wiser).”

For R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky, just being frum doesn’t keep you ‘On the Derech’ if you live in a secular environment. Instead, you need to be both frum and wise.

To help explain this idea, I would like to present an extraordinary insight by this same Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky based on this week’s parsha.

Last week in shul, we read Parshat Toldot which tells the famous story of the pregnancy, birth and growth of the twin boys, Yaakov and Esav. As we know, they chose their different paths: Esav – the older twin, was a hunter, while Yaakov – the younger – happily stayed at home. However, in the biblical period it was the eldest son in the family who was to hold a leadership position, meaning that Esav would be given greater spiritual responsibilities than Yaakov. But for Rivkah, their mother – such a situation was intolerable. She was aware that Esav was not just a hunter of animals, but also someone who was involved in the most heinous of crimes, and she therefore encouraged Yaakov to dress up as Esav and receive the blessings from her blind husband Yitzchak.

As we know, Esav was not pleased – to say the least! – and he vowed to kill his twin brother. Because of this real threat, Rivkah instructs Yaakov to go to the city of Haran to live with her brother, the idol-worshipping, Lavan. The following verses then describe how the sun set unexpectedly and that Yaakov set down to rest. If you were reading the Torah text itself, it would appear that this occurred soon after Yaakov’s departure from Beer Sheva. However, the Sages calculated that this was not the case. Instead, they explain that the journey from Beer Sheva to Haran actually took 14 years and it was during this period that Yaakov studied with Ever, the great-grandson of Noach.

According to the Sages, Shem the son of Noach and his grandson Ever, were ‘gedolim’ and prophets, and at some stage, they established a Yeshiva of sorts. Sadly we don’t know what the curriculum was in the yeshiva. However, I have a hunch that much of what was taught there was the difference between being frum and being wise, and the understanding that while people like Yitzchak only needed to be frum, people like Shem, Ever & Yaakov who did to interact with secular society needed to be both frum and wise.

And what qualified Shem & Ever to convey this lesson? Because Shem & Ever were ‘spiritual survivors’. Shem had survived the Dor Hamabul – the Generation of the flood, and Ever survived the Dor Haflagah – the generation that built the Tower of Babel. Both men had mixed with the most deviant and destructive forces, yet they were able to maintain their moral clarity and their religious identity.

So Yaakov went to study with Ever – as Shem had by now passed away. However, he did not ‘just’ study. Commenting on the verse where we are told that Yaakov ‘laid down in the place’, Rashi notes that ‘Only in that place did he lie down, but during the fourteen years that he served in the house of Eber, he did not lie down at night, because he was engaged in Torah study’, meaning that throughout this period, Yaakov did not rest and he did not take a break.

To understand the importance of this period in the life of Yaakov, we now turn to R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky, who begins by asking the following question:

When Yaakov left Beer Sheva, he was already 63 years old. He had studied Torah with his grandfather Avraham until he was 15 years old, and since then he had studied with his father Yitzchak. So why was it so necessary for Yaakov, at this stage, to spend an additional 14 years studying in the Yeshiva [of Shem] as opposed to listening to the instructions of his parents and travelling to the house of Lavan?

And it is in response to this question that he writes as follows:

In order to explain the urgency and necessity for Yaakov to go at this point to the Yeshiva of Shem & Ever, we need to first identify the unique strain of Torah that was taught in the Beit Midrash of Shem & Ever which was completely different from the Torah that Yaakov had learnt from Avraham & Yitzchak. The patriarchs would sit in their academy and spread Torah to all those who came to them and sought to learn from them. In the Beit Midrash of the patriarchs, they studied Torah with the highest levels of faith and divine service, and they were completely isolated from the societal influences. This is the reason why, when Sarah saw that Yishmael was playing with Yitzchak and was having an influence on him, she immediately instructed Avraham to cast out Hagar and Yishmael (see Bereishit 21:10), because there is no place for people like Yishmael in an environment of completely righteous people, and God agreed with her! However, this was not the case with Shem & Ever. Shem, the son of Noach who was a remnant of the generation of the food, was saved not only from the floodwaters, but also from the people of the generation of the flood and from their destructive tendencies. Ever was born and lived during the generation of the Tower of Babel… but he did not associate with them and he remained righteous. Only Shem & Ever, remnants from previous generations and from destructive societies, and not Avraham & Yitzchak, could teach Yaakov the Torah that he needed in order to maintain his innocence while living with Lavan… Therefore, Yaakov needed to learn the different tools concerning how to live in a deceptive and evil environment while maintaining his innocence and integrity, and it is for this reason that he needed to go to the Beit Midrash of Shem & Ever.

Let me explain this idea by contrasting pure and applied mathematics.  A pure mathematician will assert that what they do is authentic mathematics and that pure mathematics is the truest expression of the beauty that is maths. Yet while it would be correct to say that pure mathematics is the undiluted version of mathematics at its best, it would also be true to say that survival in the modern world can only occur through applied mathematics.

In our case, Yitzchak represents pure spirituality, while Shem & Ever represent applied spirituality. Without pure spirituality, we are ignorant, but without applied spirituality we are doomed. Just like pure mathematicians, there are the Yitzchak’s in this world who can live their lives being immersed in pure spirituality. But the majority of us are not like Yitzchak, and the majority of us need to have learnt how to apply spiritual concepts to our modern world.

They tell a story of the Dubno Maggid, the famous preacher of the east European ghettos who was once asked by the Vilna Gaon to tell him his faults. The Maggid at first declined. When the Gaon pressed him, he said the following: ‘Very well. You are the most pious man of our age. You study night and day, retired from the world, surrounded by the rows of your books, the Holy Ark, the faces of devout scholars. You have reached high holiness. How have you achieved it? Go down in the market-place, Gaon, with the rest of the Jews. Endure their work, their strains, their distractions. Mingle in the world, hear the scepticism and irreligion they hear, take the blows they take. Submit to the ordinary trials of the ordinary Jew. Let us see then if you will remain the Vilna Gaon!’. They say that the Gaon broke down and wept.

We are living in an age in which we confront scepticism and irreligion on a daily basis, and every day involves numerous spiritual trials. Some people are like Yitzchak and the Vilna Gaon who aren’t forced to grapple with the challenges of modern society.  But most of us are not, and we are failing to train ourselves and our children to be spiritual survivors like Shem & Ever, and overcome the strains and distractions of the modern market-place. Yes, without pure spirituality we are ignorant; but without applied spirituality we are doomed. Yes, we need to know how to perform mitzvot, but we also need to know how to avoid spiritual distractions. Yes we need to be frum, but to maintain our religious identity in our secular society, we also need to be wise.

Earlier on I noted that we are not told what Yaakov learnt from Shem & Ever. However, what I would like to show is that by studying the verses that describe the period during which Yaakov lived with Lavan, we may be able to identify some of the things that Yaakov learnt from his mentors Shem & Ever during those 14 years of study and consequently, the secret of being a spiritual survivor.

  1. To begin with, Yaakov’s initial encounter en route to the house of Lavan involves meeting Rachel and expressing an interest to marry her. Now you may think that getting married must have been something that Yitzchak told Yaakov to do. However, according to the Italian Torah commentary R’ Ovadia Sforno, this was not the case.

Earlier on in the Torah we read that when Esav was 40 years old, he took two Hittite wives – something you would have expected Yitzchak to oppose. Yet we do not find any such opposition. According to the Sforno, unlike Avraham who took the initiative to find a wife for Yitzchak to marry, Yitzchak – the private retiring person – did not concern himself with who Yaakov and Esav would marry. As we see from the story involving Yaakov & Esav, Yitzchak is someone who believes in the power of blessings. As a youngster, Yitzchak was bound on an altar and was prepared to be slaughtered by his father, and his wife, Rivkah, was identified because of the miracles that she performed. Yitzchak believes that whatever God decides is for the good and that all you need to have is pure faith. Of course, such a policy may work for Yitzchak. But if you are Shem & Ever, and if you deal with deception and destruction, then you need to apply yourself. You cannot just wait for miracles. Instead, you need to actively seek the right marriage partner, which is why I believe that the initiative taken by Yaakov to marry Rachel was inspired not by his father Yitzchak, but by Shem & Ever.

But there is a further reason why I believe Shem & Ever encouraged Yaakov to marry. Marriage helps a person crystalise their values; it forces someone to evaluate not just who they are in that moment, but also who they want to be. As Rabbi Sacks has said, “Marriage is a journey across an unknown land with nothing to protect you from the elements except one another”. If you live in an alien environment like Shem & Ever, then one of the first things to do is to establish a home with a partner because your partner will act as an anchor and ensure that there is at least one place in the world where you can maintain your religious identity.

However, as we know, we are living in an age when the people are finding it more difficult to marry, or are choosing to marry at a later date. This year’s statistics in Israel state that 63% of Jewish men aged 25-29 in Israel are single, up from 28% in 1970. Similarly, 46% of Jewish women aged 25-29 in Israel are single, up from 13% in 1970. In the UK, statistics from 2010 state that the average age of Jewish marriage, where known, was 33 years for men and 31 for women. Of course, the reasons for this are varied. Some people prioritise their professions while others wish to wait until they meet Mr or Mrs Right. But what I think we can say is that when Jews are alone for longer, they carry a greater risk of making questionable spiritual decisions. However, we learn from this story that if you are immersed in an irreligious environment, try to avoid being alone.

  1. Let us now move on to the period when Yaakov is working for Lavan. The Torah begins by informing us that Yaakov worked for a month without pay. Commenting on this, Rav Hirsch notes that it is from here that we learn that one of the character traits of Yaakov was his industriousness and that the reason why Yaakov initially worked without a wage because he did not want to accept charity. Despite moving into his uncle’s home, Yaakov did not feel a sense of entitlement, that he should get things for nothing. Instead, he worked – initially without a wage – for room and board. But how do I know that this was a trait learnt from Shem & Ever?

You will recall Rashi’s comment that when Yaakov studied with Shem & Ever, he did not rest. Meaning that during those 14 years, Yaakov learnt that to be a spiritual survivor you have to be a hard worker. Thomas Jefferson once said that “I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” From here we learn that hard work, and the absence of any sense of entitlement, helps a person maintain their religious identity. In a similar vein, Pirkei Avot 2:2 teaches that it is the combination of Torah study and an occupation which helps people avoid sin. So the second lesson we learn from here is that it takes hard work to maintain your religious identity in a secular society, that while living in a secular society, you should work hard rather than have too much spare time on your hands. Despite the existence of the hebrew phrase ‘Magia Li’, Jews don’t presume, and should not presume, a sense of entitlement.

  1. The third lesson follows Lavan’s deception which led Yaakov to marry Leah instead of Rachel. Yet, as Rashi notes, that even after Yaakov was deceived by Lavan, he kept to his word and worked with the same ethic as before, and later on, he tells Lavan ‘let my integrity testify for me in the future’. Yaakov practiced Jewish Business Ethics, and balanced the need to protect himself with the commitments that he had made to others. Unfortunately, we often think of religion in terms of ritual, and relegate our work life to being a secondary identity from which the occasional religious quandary arises. However, by compartmentalising our lives in this way, we allow ourselves to separate our religious identity with our work identity. Mishlei 3:6 teaches us that: ‘in all your ways know Him, and He will straighten your paths’. This verse, which the Gemara says ‘encapsulates all the main ideas of Torah’, teaches us that the enemy to maintaining our religious identity in secular society is compartmentalisation, and that we should view our work as a religious activity, as a way of understanding and connecting with God.

In commenting on the verse ‘and Enoch walked with God’, the Midrash Talpiot explained that Enoch was a cobbler and that with each stitch, he thought about God. In seeking to explain this teaching, Rav Yisrael Salanter noted that it cannot be that Enoch diverted his thoughts to God while engaged in work that he had been paid to do. Rather, his devotion to God was indicated by his sincere intention that every stich in the shoe would be to the customers satisfaction. Thus, Enoch was careful to avoid cheating his customers which itself is a Godly act.

From here we learn that we must see God in everything we do, and instil everything we do with a sense of religious purposefulness and Godliness.

  1. We now read about Yaakov’s children with Leah, Bilhah, Zilpah and Rachel and there is no doubt that having children is one of the greatest ways to help someone remind themselves of their religious identity as they live in a secular society. As Rabbi Sacks explains, “to be a parent is to be willing to take one’s child and walk, hand in hand, part-way on the Jewish journey, showing that we are prepared to live by the faith we want him or her to continue.” But how do children help us maintain our religious identity? I believe it is because with children comes responsibility, and because children force us to be teachers and a parent who regards themselves as being spiritually responsible for their children will take greater responsibility for their own spiritual choices, and so we see that

Yet we can extend this idea further, which is that to a key way to survive in a secular environment is to have responsibilities. One of the metaphors that the Rabbis use for a spiritual survivor is the phrase, taken from Shir Hashirim, of being a lily among thorns. Yaakov was a lily among the thorns, and as our Sages point out, so too was Rivka as she grew up in a home filled with idolatry and deception. But let me now share with you what the Rabbis regard as being the way of remaining a lily among the thorns. They write:

As a rule, ten people enter the home of a mourner, and not even one will venture to recite the blessing over bereavement. [At last], someone recites it. To what can he be compared? To a lily among the thorns. As a rule, ten people enter a [wedding hall] and not even one will venture to recite the marriage blessing over seeing a bridegroom. [Suddenly] someone appears and recites it. To what can he be compared? To a lily among the thorns. Ten people enter a synagogue and not even one ventures to mount the pulpit [in order to leader the congregation in prayer. Suddenly] someone appears and begins to lead the congregation in prayer. To what can he be compared? To a lily among the thorns.

What we learn from this Midrash is to be a lily among the thorns is to take responsibility and to be a leader. When Yaakov had children – in fact, when anyone has children – they become responsible, and they become a leader, and by doing so, they are reminded of why it is important to maintain their religious identity even while living in a secular society.

Let me share a stunning story involving Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, a Chabad shaliach, which was related by Rabbi Sacks at the Chabad Shluchim conference in 2012 which explains just this point: For three summers in the mid-1990s Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz and a friend went to Alaska, particularly to its more remote parts, to seek out Jews. On one occasion, they came to a small city in the northwest part of the state. The mayor told them that he knew of no Jews in the city, but invited them to give a talk to the students at the local school.  The men shared with the fourth through eighth-grade students some teachings about Judaism. The students in turn performed a few Eskimo dances for them, and the Chabadniks performed a Chasidic dance for them.

Knowing that the Rebbe wanted them to find Jews if they could, Reb Avraham asked the students, “Did any of you ever meet a Jew?”

“Who ever did you meet?” Avraham asked her.

“My mother,” the girl answered. “She’s right there.” She pointed to the school’s fifth grade teacher.

After the class, the mother was visibly moved and thanked him for coming. She had always loved nature and years earlier, she had come to Alaska, and fallen in love with a native man. “I must tell you that living here I don’t know if my daughter will ever meet another rabbi again. I ask you to give my daughter a message so that she will always be proud of her Jewish identity.”

Berkowitz’s mind was racing.  He knew he only had these few minutes, but what should he say? Thinking back to the Rebbe’s talks, he realized that one of the Rebbe’s great strengths was his ability to personalize a mitzvah, to empower the individual. He started to speak to the girl about the holiness of the Sabbath, the day which Jews dedicate to God: “And who ushers in Shabbat? It is mothers and daughters who light the Shabbat candles. They bring peace and light into the world”

He then asked her:  “Where is the first place in the world where the sun sets?” The girl knew geography, and she said, ‘Probably New Zealand or Australia.’”

And Reb Avraham told her: “That’s right. Jewish mothers in New Zealand and Australia are the first to usher in Shabbat. And then Shabbat is ushered in with lit candles in Asia, in Israel, in Europe, and then New York, Chicago, Seattle, Anchorage. And even then, there is one part of the world where the sun has not yet set. Here in the Yupik territory of Alaska. When mothers and daughters around the globe have welcomed the Shabbat, God and the Jewish people are still waiting for you, the last Jewish girl in the world, to light the Shabbat candles.”

What this beautiful story teaches is that even in the Yupik territory in Alaska, a young girl can be inspired to take the lead and she can be encouraged to take responsibility because ‘the Jewish people are still waiting for you to light’.

  1. Finally, as Yaakov prepares to leave Lavan’s home, he makes a deal that he will be paid with the speckled and spotted lambs and goats. As we know, Lavan then changes this agreement no less than 10 times to the disadvantage of Yaakov, and Yaakov then employs creative solutions to avoid being cheated again. From here we learn that when living in a place like the house of Lavan, you must not be naïve.

It is noteworthy that the word for speckled is ‘Nakod’. In his commentary to the Torah, Rav Hirsch writes that ‘Nakdanim’ are punctilious people and therefore, in this case, a Noked is a person who devotes special attention to every detail.

To maintain our religious identity in our secular society, we need to be ‘Nakdanim’. We must not be naïve. Instead, we must be aware of the speckles and spots in our society and just because things are done in a particular way does not mean that this is how it should be.


  1. Don’t be alone. The best way to maintain our religious identity is not to be alone. Have friends who encourage you religiously, and marry someone who will be a daily reminder of not just who you are, but who you want to be.


  1. Work hard. The concept of Magia Li and the idea of entitlement is not a religious idea. Instead, the best way to maintain your identity is to work hard while also making time for Torah study.


  1. Don’t compartmentalise your life. Instead, ‘in all your ways know Him’ and make sure that God is no less a presence in your workplace than your home.


  1. Take responsibility both at home and work. Be a teacher to your children and realise that the world relies on you to bring more light to the world.


  1. Be a Noked. Be punctilious, be particular, and don’t be naïve. There are speckles and spots in our society and things that Jews must keep away from.

Let me now end by reflecting on Yaakov’s spiritual survival.

We are told at the beginning of Parshat Vayishlach that when Yaakov sent angels to Esav, his message contained the statement that ‘he had lived with Lavan and lingered until now’.  Commenting on this, Rashi quotes the Midrash which notes that the hebrew word that Yaakov uses in the phrase, ‘Garti’, has the numerical value of Taryag which is 613, as if to say that even though Yaakov lived in the house of Lavan ‘he still kept the 613 commandments and did not learn from his evil actions’. But, as Rav Yaakov Ruderman notes, isn’t that the same thing? If Yaakov kept all the mitzvot then he certainly didn’t learn from his evil ways!

To this Rav Ruderman replied that it is clear from here that a person can keep the entire Torah, to fulfil every mitzvah meticulously, and still emulate the lifestyle of Lavan.

Returning back to where we started and to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s quip that ‘you were always frummer but I was always wiser’, being frum doesn’t keep you ‘On the Derech’ if you live in a secular environment. Instead, you need to be both frum and wise. You don’t just need to keep the mitzvot, you also need to make sure that you don’t adopt values that run contrary to Torah thinking. Without pure spirituality, we are ignorant, but without applied spirituality we will be unable to navigate this complex world.

So let us take the lesson of Yaakov, and the lesson of Rivkah. Let us ensure that we remain lilies among the thorns that surround us, so that we maintain our religious identity even when living in a secular society.

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