This is part one of two posts about Fall 2018’s experience engaging with speakers representing different approaches to Jewish life. Read part two.
by Talia R., Cincinnati, OH
With the promise of breakfast in the Zula (student lounge) due to Israel’s municipal election day, and Jewish History class in the Belmont lecture hall, we all got up excited and interested to see how class that day would go. As we all got seated in the Belmont (lobby of Tzuba Hotel), we discussed our expectations for the day. Was the Haredi speaker going to be nice, or stony and serious? What would be the difference between him and the Conservative movement speaker? Soon, our teacher David came up to the front and started to explain the outline for the day: Rav Yehoshua would be our Haredi speaker, Rabbi Noa would be our Reform movement speaker, and Rabbi Ari would be our Conservative movement speaker. We were reminded that we would hear viewpoints that are different from our own and that we should keep an open mind as well as ask questions. Our school principal Rabbi Loren reminded us how important it was to hear different views to gain a better understanding of the Jewish political climate in Israel as well as an understanding of the differences between the modern streams of Judaism. With that, Rabbi Loren welcomed up Rav Yehoshua.
The Haredi Community
Rav Yehoshua had a very long beard, and wore a long black coat and a kippah. He tucked his payot behind his ears. He looked like a very serious man, but from the minute he opened his mouth he had our groups attention. He cracked many jokes and created a comfortable atmosphere in the room. He began to talk about his childhood and parents. Born to two orthodox, Holocaust survivors, religion has always been an integral part of Rav Yehoshua’s life. When he grew up he went to work in what was then the Soviet Union, and then made aliyah to Israel in 1991. Moving to Israel allowed him to be a part of an even more vibrant Hasidic community.
“I do not like the term ultra-orthodox,” he explained. “It has negative associations.”
“What about ‘super-duper’ orthodox?” asked my classmate Dani, smiling.
“Sure, I like that term.”
He continued on by explaining what a regular day is like for him. He gets up at 5:15 in order to study Talmud at 5:45. During the day he teaches and lectures at a yeshiva in Jerusalem with his wife, who he talked lovingly about throughout his entire speech. He gets home around 4 or 5 pm in order to go to synagogue at night to pray and study. He goes to sleep at 11 in order to get sleep for his early morning the next day. On Shabbat, however, the day is tranquil and he spends the day with his community, eating and singing.
He then opened the floor to questions. We asked many difficult but important questions, the first being “Who is God to you?”
He responded that, to him, God is “whoever you want him to be. God introduced himself at Sinai,” and the books that he gave the Jewish people tells us how to communicate with him. The Torah contains our instructions and we are obligated to follow them. This was the response that I had expected, given what I know about the Hasidic community. They believe that the Tanakh is “torah m’sinai”, it is all to be taken literally, every word.
The next question asked was about his view on the Palestinian conflict. The room got noticeably tenser, as this is a touchy subject in which at least one person will end up offended.
“It would be great to live side by side in peace,” he responded. However, he continued, [the Palestinians] have proven to be untrustworthy. We tried to create a peace treaty and they did not wish to comply. He remembers being scared on buses when the terror attacks of the second Intifada were occurring, “it was living hell”. He thinks all the different plans for resolving the conflict are total chaos because not everyone recognizes every treaty and the Palestinians themselves are not ready to make any compromises.
The next question was a lighter, easier one: how he met his wife. He smiled and began to tell us the Hasidic customs for boys and girls. From the beginning they go to separate schools and are not permitted to touch. They only meet each other to see if marriage seems like an amicable arrangement between the boy and the girl. Parents ask their children about their preferences for a partner, and once two families have been connected, both sides ask questions about the other. Rav Yehoshua met his wife only four times before he knew that was who he wanted to marry. He believes that the system works, he is extremely happy and loves his wife.
The next question was about what he considered the most important aspect of Judaism. He smiled and responded that this was a very difficult and layered questions. To him, of course, being Jewish is the most important to him. He continued that a connection to God and the Jewish people is extremely important along with the Torah and all of the Mitzvot.
Then came a troublesome and upsetting question that was also asked when we visited a mosque: what were his views on the LGBTQ+ community? He responded that his personal opinion is irrelevant, Nobody knows if their opinions are right or wrong so they are inconsequential. God has given an answer to these questions and that is all that matters. Personally, he continued, he believes that anyone should be able to do anything they want, a man and a man, a mother and son, a human and an animal, they are all the same to him. However God is the only one who can decide and God deemed all of these acts unacceptable.
With an awkward break our group continued onto the next question: What happens if there are problems in a marriage? He responded that, as in most communities, divorce is regarded as a tragedy, especially if children are involved. The couple should do everything in their power to save the marriage as both sides are required to go to counseling before marriage. God says that divorce is allowed, if all other measures have been taken to try to save the marriage.
The next and last question was more personal to our group: What were his views on Reform Judaism? He believed that Reform Judaism and Reform Jews are two separate groups. Anyone born to a Jewish mother or converted by an orthodox rabbi is Jewish. His issue is not with Reform Jews but with Reform Judaism, which he sees as a completely separate religion. The Reform movement, he continued, is not working, it is shrinking.
And with that his portion of the morning was over. He was an interesting man who gave us all many different glances into the Hasidic world and their views of the rest of the world.
This entry continues in a second part.