I recently attended the funeral of a major rabbi and educator from the Haredi, "black hat" sector of our community. The street was closed to traffic due to the impressive turnout, and a diverse succession of leading rabbis delivered emotional eulogy after eulogy.
Eulogy after eulogy repeated the same two memes. First, this was a man completely devoted to ensuring the transmission of Torah Judaism. Second, he was even more remarkable in his unwavering determination to oppose any change, hewing rather to the rigid traditions of previous generations. This can be a true strength, and we will always need teachers and guides who do not waver, but we also need leaders who can empower us to engage the world and repair it, and assimilate it -- not to assimilate INTO it.
"Assimilation" can refer to what we as Jews glean from the outside world -- language and literary meter, reasoning, science, manners, history. The dangerous side of assimilation has been the hemorrhaging of Jews and the dilution of Jewish identity. Our mission in this world is to assimilate, in the BEST meaning of the word: To integrate the richness of all knowledge into our dynamic and constantly evolving sense of identity and choices, as we face the ever-changing and constant challenges of life and the universe; and to get our questions and conclusions out to the widest possible audience, Jewish and otherwise, in order to make a positive impact on humanity.
The destructive form of assimilation is very real, but it should not eclipse what has always been one of our strengths -- engaging the world in a constructive way, running the risks of diminution in order to remain relevant in the cause of expanding holiness where it would otherwise be lacking or undiscovered.
Every society and culture needs an ivory tower, and there are sectors of yeshiva life that should focus on what is immutable and unchanging. But an equally real test and mission of Judaism, as I see it, is to walk humbly with the Lord -- to walk, not just to sit.
There will always be a facile case for demonizing and even banning interaction with the world beyond our own four cubits -- how can I get hit by a car if I stay in bed all day? The reaction to Internet is only the latest example. But effectively shutting off the Internet is also a control mechanism. And discouraging proper enforcement against sex-abusers can "protect" the community only in some perverse way, an example of how rigid control can harm the community and its members.
Anyone who's driven a car or steered a boat knows you can't keep the wheel or the tiller in one position and expect to continue going forward. But being Jewish can't only be about ensuring Jewish survival, as obviously necessary as that is especially in light of our centuries of persecution and other challenges. Survival is the vehicle, but it's not our purpose or our destiny.
God chose the Jewish people not just so we could continue generation after generation re-learning the same lessons in ever greater detail and elaboration and restrictiveness, any more than He chose us only so we could defend ourselves against anti-Semitism throughout most of our history.
But we cannot change the world if we are afraid to change ourselves, and we cannot grow if we flinch from venturing outside our own gates. The princes of Israel who scouted out the Land of Israel returned with a pessimistic report, because they knew that upon leaving the wilderness they would lose their monopoly on knowledge and power. So the Children of Israel spent four decades in the desert, until that whole generation died out.
Will we be as worthy?
I don't expect the tight hasidic communities to evolve anytime soon. Their path seems to work for them, and it can also enrich the whole community. The rest of us can draw our own lessons from their experience, both positive and negative, and from our other influences within and outside the Jewish community, and we should not all have to become more insular and less autonomous in order to succeed as Jews. But is our brand of Jewish struggle as vibrant or rigorous as theirs? It had better be.
To fulfill our destiny as Jews, we will require a sense of commitment to lasting principles and an unending sense of wonder at the universe and at God's creation, especially humanity.
It bothers me to see so many Jews cutting themselves off from what I consider the real world, but we all draw lines in one place or another and we each choose or suffer our own limitations. I still have my own work to do, and that should be my main concern.