Rabbi Herschel Shachter
Rabbi Hershel Schachter

Preserving Orthodoxy, Then and Now

In the Al Hanisim prayer which we recite on Chanukah, we thank Hakodosh Boruch Hu for delivering the "many in the hands of the few". This refers to the fact that the Chanukah battle was between the small Orthodox minority and the Misyavnim (Hellenist Jews). The Chumash tells us (Devarim 7:7-8) that the Jewish people were chosen as the Am Hanivchar not because we are great in number; on the contrary, we are a very small nation - Jews make up much less than one percent of the world population.

The possuk towards the end of Doniel speaks of the fact that over the many years of galus Jews will be influenced by outside society and the number of Orthodox Jews will shrink one generation after another. While it is true that there are so many kiruv success stories and so many wonderful prominent ba'alei teshuva, there are still too many who are leaving the ranks of Orthodoxy. However, we mustn't despair over this reality - the prophecies which foretell the eventual victory and ascendance of those who cling to Hakodosh Boruch Hu and keep His Torah are every bit as true and reliable as that prophecy of Doniel.

We certainly should try to do whatever we can to help and encourage every Jew to remain or become Orthodox. In halachah we have a principle that sha'as ha'dchak k'dieved domi, i.e. that in difficult situations we are permitted to act l'chatchila in a fashion that under normal circumstances would only be acceptable b'dieved. Many of the leniencies of hagaon v'ha'tzaddik Rav Moshe Feinstein were based on this principle that b'shas ha'dchak we allow l'chatchila what under normal circumstances would only be acceptable b'dieved. Even so, even in a sh'as ha'dchak situation we cannot do something which is not acceptable even b'dieved!

Over the centuries there have always been some Jewish leaders who had noble intentions to save and conserve the Jewish people but, under the stress of a sha'as ha'dchack, made the mistake of taking positions that were so out of line as to not even be acceptable b'dieved. The Conservative movement started years ago with the noble intention of saving and conserving the Jewish people, but unfortunately we all read in the Pew report what has become of their movement. At one of the Yeshiva's chagaei ha'smicha, Rav Soloveitchik gave the charge to the young musmachim that they should be careful not to develop a "messiah complex", i.e. they should not convince themselves that they are "saving the whole world" and therefore are allowed to cut corners[1]. We have to be careful even b'shas ha'dchak not to cross the Torah's red lines - there are rules and regulations for sh'as ha'dchak as well!

History repeats itself, and time and time again we see well-meaning Jewish leaders who are out to "save" the Jewish world, and because of their youth (i.e. they were just "born yesterday", so to speak) they don't understand that their ideas and courses of action have already been discussed and rejected in the past by our greatest leaders.

Guidelines have been developed over the generations regarding conversions and regarding easing the plight of agunos, and these guidelines have gained a consensus among qualified poskim. In davening we have the phrase "osei chadoshos, ba'al milchomos". The Chasam Sofer points out that very often one who considers himself somehow more qualified than others will not be concerned about gaining a consensus and will simply be "oseh chadoshos", i.e. introduce and/or act on his original ideas. This, of course, will rightfully evoke "ba'al milchomos", i.e. cause a reaction from talmidei chachomim. Instead of accomplishing the intended goal of "saving" Judaism, the ideas and milchomos will bring about the weakening of Judaism.

The Jewish people was always a tiny minority - "ki atem ha'miat mi'kol ha'amim" - and the Chasmonoim were a tiny minority among the Jews of their time, but it was their unwavering and complete commitment to unadulterated Torah observance that preserved Orthodoxy and proved to be much more powerful than the superior numbers of those who compromised and/or assimilated. Our focus must be on accurately and truthfully teaching and observing Torah, and we must be careful not to water down Orthodoxy or misrepresent it in an attempt to gain or retain numbers.


[1] See The Messiah Complex for more discussion from Rav Schachter on this point -Ed.

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