Saturday, August 11, 2012

What Does Modern Orthodoxy Mean?

What. A. Shabbat.

I don't know what it was about this Shabbat, but it felt good. I felt uplifted and in-step with myself. Despite the noise of the random visitors there for simchas of people I've never met or seen at shul, despite the wind and a bit of rain, this Shabbat was a bright spot on my Shabbatot here in Denver. I got invited out for lunch (mad props to Mr. and Mrs. L who also are of the vegetarian variety) and got to listen to the illustrious and hilarious Rabbi Dani Rapp talk.

If you've never experienced Rabbi Rapp, he's in the NY area and you need to find some time to go and listen to him. He provides humor with depth, and during his time here in Colorado for the YU Summer of Learning, I've found myself waking up more and more.

Tonight, for example, at seudat shlishit (third meal), he was discussing Modern Orthodoxy (subtitled "The Final Frontier"). He used three classic biblical narratives to give depth and understanding to what exactly it means to be Modern and Orthodox, the Tower of Babel and Yosef and his brothers among them. (I know, I should remember the third, but it's escaping me.)

Regarding the Tower of Babel, I heard a take on the narrative that -- despite my vast education on the topic both religiously and academically -- I hadn't considered. Rabbi Rapp cited Nehama Leibowitz when saying that we sometimes need to learn Torah like Rashi did -- without Rashi. (*giggle snarfle giggle*) The common narrative that we know isn't what's really in the text. That being said, Rabbi Rapp told a story of a people who built a tower as high as the sky in order to watch over the community -- to make sure no one left. This people gathered in a valley, speaking one language, and realized that they had a good thing going: homogeneity. They decided it was a good way of life, so they built the tower to keep people in, to keep them in line. HaShem said, whoa, folks, this isn't how the world was meant to work! Spread to the corners of the earth, inhabit my creation! Thus, bavel -- confusion, multiple languages, and a people spread out. A people living among other people.

Now the story of Yosef and his brothers also had a quirk that I hadn't noticed before. It goes something like this: Yosef had a dream. He wanted to go out, to be as he was but to show the world, to spread HaShem and their way of life around. To be a light unto the nations. His brothers, on the other hand, thought things were good, that Yosef was nuts, that the internal culture they had was solid. So they sold Yosef, bid him good luck in living in the "outside world" and maintaining who he was. And guess what? Yosef proved them so wrong. When the brothers come to Yosef, their shame is from knowing that his philosophy was right -- not that they'd sold him. Yosef knew something his brothers didn't: We're meant to be out in the world, living with other nations and growing in Yiddishkeit.

So what does this all mean? How did Rabbi Rapp amazingly tie it back into what Modern Orthodoxy means for us today? These narratives are two examples where HaShem was proving to the Israelites/Jewish people that we're meant to be a people among the nations. A light unto the nations, if you will. To that point, "Modern" in Modern Orthodoxy doesn't mean less or leniency or even that a Modern Orthodox Jew is living in the modern, outside world. No, it means MORE. Why? Because, like Yosef, when you are put in a position where the world is not homogenous, you must try harder and be more committed to living a Torah-observant life. It takes more strength to live among the nations and not to become one of them, but rather to hold your head high and serve as an example -- a light -- unto the nations of the world of what determination and commitment look like.

Wow. Right?

In the process of the day, Rabbi Rapp was able to make passing mentions of the ASIFA, Whole Foods, 14'ers, the Xbox, and so very much more. That's a talent -- engaging Torah with pop culture woven in. Some rabbis try really hard to make it happen. Rabbi Rapp did it, and it's left a lasting impact on me. After his shiur this evening I told him that he's very "Tweetable," so it's hard to listen to him on Shabbat. That's the sign of a good rabbi, folks.

If you're jonesing for a bit of learning, check out YU Torah and search for Rabbi Rapp there to hear some of his shiurim from his summer here in Denver -- many of which are on conversion, believe it or not. (Oh, did I mention he's an RCA Beth Din member?)