“I’m Still Orthodox”

On June 12, 2011, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin led a conversation with Reb Zalman, (a’h), and Rabbi David Ingber at New York’s Romemu. Here’s a transcription of Rabbi Telushkin’s first question and Reb Zalman’s answer:

Rabbi Telushkin:
I want to start out with a question that’s something that’s interesting to me about the two of you and which is well-known: Both of you come from Orthodox backgrounds. And both of you lived many years of your life as Orthodox Jews in the community.

What do you carry with it; what are the lessons that have continued to affect you in a positive way that you carry with it from the Orthodox world, what does it have, in your perspectives, to still teach you? And yet, what were also reasons that you chose, ultimately, to live your lives outside of that world?

I’ll start with you Reb Zalman.

Reb Zalman:
First I want to say I’m so glad, Reb Dovid, that I see the junge meluchah / young work, to see the shul where you do it and to hear Reb Shir Yaakov and the music and the enthusiasm that’s here!

Because so many synagogue and churches have become mere life-cycle-celebration places and no longer is there real prayer going on; no longer is there real celebration going on.

And to see just how easy it was to get everybody to sing into joy was fabulous.

So if you ever were to do a Skype geschaeft so that I could watch you on a Friday, I’d like that. Because it is really wonderful. And wherever there is light, wherever there is energy, people come to it. And when people say what are we going to do if we want to revitalize our synagogue, our church, the answer is make sure there is light, that there is energy there. Having said that, I’m going to go and give you a response:

I still think I’m Orthodox, but I’m Orthodox as you have to be in the year 2011. A lot of people are Orthodox as if they had to be like in 1835. And that distinction is very important.


Because when Korzybski was telling us about semantics, he was saying you have to do time-binding.

When you say, e.g., liberty, if you’re saying liberty some two thousand four hundred years ago, then you mean going out of Egypt, but if you say liberty in 1776, it’s another kind of liberty.

So I want to say that in any time, Orthodoxy is to be able to say what you have to say, i.e. the right kind of teaching, and to say it straight.

And the teaching that has to be for this time is what we’re talking about in Renewal. And that teaching really comes straight.

So to answer the second part of your question, what was it about the Orthodoxy of 1835 that first inspired me?

I would have never gone to another Yeshivah but the Lubavitch Yeshivah. The reason was because in Lubavitch, the legacy of that is that when Reb Schneur Zalman was asked whether he would go to Vilna or to Mezeritch to study, “In Vilna”, he said, “I would learn Torah, but in Mezeritch I would learn from the Torah”. It was another way of saying, “In Vilna, I’ll learn how to learn, but in Mezeritch I’ll learn how to pray,” in the sense of “What do I need all the paraphernalia if I can’t be close to God; I have to be close to God.”

And so, having the opportunity, as I did, to be in the presence of my Rebbe Yosef Yitchak of blessed memory, to hear how he prayed and the sense I had that I was present in a real encounter with the Divine as would happen with such a person as he.

What did I learn from him? It wasn’t the ideas, so much, (though, the ideas were wonderful: I learned about the miraculous order of things and how to understand the universe in a larger way). But the most important thing was tuning into his vibe which meant that I, too, could davven afterwards, when I wasn’t still in his presence.

Now what did I have to reject? Well, there is something there that I did have to reject. The words that speak to me these days are a distinction between the normative and the illustrative:

I study the Torah and there are certain things in the Torah that normatively don’t apply. E.g. this Passover, I didn’t take a lamb and slaughter it and do all this stuff with it. But after all, it’s written in the Torah that I should do it. And everybody says, “Yeah, but it doesn’t apply today.”

Once you say that: “AHA! It doesn’t apply today?” then we have to start looking at the other things that don’t apply today such as not counting women to a minyan.

And these were the things, the dissatisfying things that I felt with the given order of things. But at the same time knowing that I can’t reject it because if I reject that I would also be rejecting the closeness with God (and that closeness was vitally important).

So there was this way, (and it didn’t happen abruptly.. it happened little by little), that I made a shift as I felt, when I heard questions from people, when I would meet holy people who came from outside of our community and I would see that they also honored and served the living God. And that was a very important part for me.

So the ecumenism that was the contrary to the triumphalism in which I was brought up in orthodoxy was an important influence on me.

Triumphalism means that moshiach will come and all those goyim will find out that they were wrong. The others were returning the compliment saying that in the Second Coming, then Jesus will say, “Why didn’t you listen to me the first time?” And you can go on to all of the other religions and you’ll find a similar situation.

So I realized that, “No. Triumphalism is not what’s going on. What’s going on is, chaver ani l’chol asher yira-ucha / I can only be a friend to all those who respect you God. (Psalm 119)”

And that’s how it started for me.

Rabbi Telushkin:
T: It’s interesting. My friend, Dennis Prager, has made the point that one of the most important days in the life of any person who has a passionate religious or political view is when they meet somebody who has a different religious or political view and the person is someone they recognize as both intelligent and good. Because it is such a standard thing in many movements either to demonize your opponents as not being good or to dismiss them as being unintelligent. But you must have had a N’tiyyah, a leaning in that direction because of your openness to seeking out wisdom in a variety of places.

[To view the whole event, click here]

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