By: Ben Atwood  | 

Make Orthodoxy Great Again




It was early Wednesday morning on November ninth, and the American people had elected Donald Trump into office. Cheers, singing, simkhah (joyous) dancing could be seen and heard in the streets and hallways of Yeshiva University’s Wilf campus by students who had either waited out the night or were stirred awake in their rooms by the festivities. The atmosphere was joyous and triumphant, as a victory for the ages was being celebrated.

Earlier that night, a friend and I stood in the back of the YU Morgenstern Lounge election watch-party, disoriented by what we were witnessing. We were stunned, speechless. I suddenly turned to my friend, looked him in the eye and painfully confessed “these are the moments I question my Orthodox identity.”

What caused our bewilderment and my unfortunate admission was not the unexpected results of the election but the reactions of our peers around us. Even more, our unsettlement continued past that night. During tefillah (prayer services) on Wednesday morning, a rabbi who teaches at YU proudly joked that we omit tahanun, the emotional prayer often omitted on joyous occasions. Similarly, a student in a later minyan recommended saying hallel, a celebratory prayer reserved for festivals. In YU’s Stern College for Women, a rabbi burst into his classroom with a glowing expression, excited to explain to his students the halakhic debate he had underwent that morning to conclude whether or not his congregation should indeed say hallel. In the greater Orthodox community, children were sent to our day schools proudly donning Trump yarmulkas, and synagogue members pushed for Shabbat kiddushim in the president-elect’s honor.

Interestingly, one of the central moments in the hallel service is the singing of the phrase “zeh hayom asah HaShem, nagila venismehah vo,” “this is the day God has made, let us rejoice and be glad on it” (Tehillim 118: 24). A yarmulke is a traditional symbol of a Jew’s fear of God. A kiddush is an intimate recognition of God’s creation of the world. As an Orthodox Jew who cares deeply for God’s Torah and its underlying principles, my stomach churns at the mere thought of using these precious, sacred words and symbols to commemorate the election of a man like Donald Trump.

I wish to clarify that I am in no sense condemning voting for Mr. Trump. One is permitted, and perhaps encouraged, to be satisfied with the election results if Mr. Trump is whom one thinks will be the best president of the United States. What I consider disturbing, however, is the excessive celebration and display of pride in Mr. Trump’s victory that has been expressed by many members of our Orthodox community over the last several weeks.

Throughout my Jewish education, I have been consistently taught that along with a passionate love for and steadfast observance of halakhah comes a commitment to its underlying principles: “derekh eretz kadma laTorah,” “courtesy comes before Torah” (Mishnah Avot 3: 17). In other words, religious practice severed from its larger, moral values is a corrupted enterprise. As a result, when Hillel the Sage was asked to describe the entire Torah on one foot, he responded not with the laws of keeping the Shabbat or eating kosher, rather with the ethical imperative “de’alakh seni, lehavrakh lo ta’aveid,” “whatever is repulsive to you, do not do to someone else” (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a). The backbone of the Torah and our religiously observant lifestyle is basic ethics and morality, doing “that which is good and straight” (Devarim 6: 18).

To excessively celebrate Mr. Trump’s victory is antithetical to these fundamental principles of the Torah. "Tzedakah and acts of kindness are the equivalent of all the commandments of the Torah" (Jerusalem Talmud Pe’ah 1: 1)—Mr. Trump’s private foundation has stolen from multiple charities and refused to fulfill pledges, including those to the familiar Friends of the IDF organization. "On this day you should give [your worker] his wages, the sun should not set on it" (Deuteronomy 24: 15)—Mr. Trump has admitted on several occasions to stiffing many of his contractors.  “You shall not cause emotional pain to a stranger, nor shall you oppress him” (Exodus 22:10), a commandment the Talmud Bavli (Bava Metzia 59b) notes appears thirty-six or forty-six times in the Torah—Mr. Trump has verbally abused several minorities consistently since the beginning of his campaign. He has bragged, using vile language, about sexually pursuing married women. He has publicly attacked women accusing him of assault as unattractive. When several women accused him of sexual assault, he insulted them publically and called them too unattractive to have been assaulted. The list goes on and on.

Can a rabbi jest about reciting hallel for such an individual? Can one even conceive of making a Shabbat Kiddush, a sanctification of God's name, in Mr. Trump’s honor, as many in our community have asked our synagogues to do? Being pleased with the results is one’s personal business, but do we dare sing songs of simkhah, reserved for moments of true religious joy and happiness, at the victor of this month’s election?

The lack of moral clarity in our Orthodox community runs deeper than celebrating Mr. Trump’s victory. As the topics of politics have arisen recently, I have heard many disturbing comments from my peers, including “people in this country need to stop playing the race card,” “if the immigrants are illegal, I do not need to care about their families,” “the command to judge others favorably has no application to gentiles.” More importantly, the sentiment is not limited to students; I have heard many alarmingly similar comments from parents, teachers, and rabbis.  Have we forgotten our mission to imitate God, who, as we say thrice daily, “has compassion on all of his creations” (Psalm 145: 9)? Woe, how our community has fallen!

Some may argue that these cases I mention are merely exceptional, while I would retort that in a nation that is meant to be “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 49: 6), even a few outstanding cases stain our entire community: “kol Yisrael areivim ze bazeh,” “all of Israel is responsible for [the wrongful behavior of] one another” (Talmud Bavli Shavuot 39a). The burden of responsibility falls not solely on the shoulders of the members of our community, but on its leadership, as well. The lack of compassion and ethics in our community presents a clear and immediate danger that must be addressed through our spokespeople, our rabbis, our teachers. Without such guidance, I, as well as many of my peers, have been left confused, questioning whether our Orthodox community truly shares what seems to be the principles of the Torah, tradition, and our Sages. In fact, many are not only discomforted by the shunning of religious values expressed by others, but have begun considering the behavior as sanctioned by our leaders: “since the rabbis were sitting there and did not object to it, it can be inferred that they agreed” (Talmud Bavli Gittin 56a). Indeed, some, such as Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, have bravely spoken out for true Torah principles, but they unfortunately remain of the few to do so. We need the leaders of our community to raise their voices and provide ethical clarity—otherwise, as Yoni Brander wrote in a Facebook post, “if moral silence is Orthodox Judaism, count me out.”

As a caring, compassionate Torah Jew who is not alone in feeling that his religious principles are being increasingly marginalized in his Orthodox society, I implore our leadership to preach not only strict adherence to the Shulhan Arukh but concern for the world beyond our Jewish community; not only commitment to daf yomi but devotion to universal empathy and derekh eretz. I call upon all of our teachers, be it at the next Shabbat sermon or mussar schmooze in the Yeshiva University Beit Midrash, to expand their message beyond maintaining consistent Torah study and kindness to other Jews to reminding their students and synagogue members to be disturbed by the plight of all who are created “betzelem Elokim,” “in the image of God.” Please open our eyes to the surrounding world and teach us how to practically become the “kingdom of priests and sanctified nation” (Shemot 19: 6) we should be striving to be.

The United States may currently be bitterly divided, but our Orthodox community need not be. We have the ability to be stronger together and to make Orthodoxy great again, but we need clear guidance to do so. Rabbi Tarfon taught “it is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either" (Avot 2:16). No one person has to take on the whole burden of changing the status quo, but it must begin somewhere.

Until then, I will be questioning my Orthodox identity. And I will not be alone.