Tonight I had the privilege of being part of an intimate conversation with the Chief Ashkenaki Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi David Lau (with gratitude to Mizrachi and the Pertman family for bringing this group together). I asked the Rav a question, and loved his answer, which I wanted to share.
Some months ago, I told him, I’d come across a series of lectures given by Rav Amital in the 1990s (you can find one of them here) about a new challenge he saw emerging. Young religious people were not approaching Torah life from a sense of obligation, commitment and responsibility, but choice, autonomy and personal preference. He lamented this change, both for the challenges it presented, but also the way it was dissonant with the Torah approach in which he’d been raised and educated.
I told Rabbi Lau that I see a similar reality in our community, and asked how we can re-instill that sense of obligation. He gave two suggestions, both of which were so thoughtful.
The first is the importance of having a relationship with a Rabbi. A Rabbi creates a natural sense of obligation, the awareness that there’s someone to whom I defer, someone whose guidance I follow, who maintains a loftier position in my life. Of course, he says, this relationship comes with a reciprocal obligation of the Rav towards his talmid, thus creating an intimacy in the context of obligation. But at its root it creates a sense of obligation, that can ultimately extend upward to Torah and Hashem.
The second is our modeling as parents. If we stand around after shul and shmooze, and speak lashon hara about the people in our community, we’re modeling for our children how they should behave, and what’s acceptable. And it’s not just that we shouldn’t model bad behavior. We should choose a small number of ways to ‘obligate’ ourselves and model that obligation – to go to a shiur, minyan, a chabura in the beit midrash, a tehilim group. When we do this, and we tell our children, “It’s Monday night and I have to go out tonight, because I’ve committed myself,” we are modeling a life of obligation for our children.
Torah, like the mountain held over the heads of the Jewish people, comes with an obligation that precedes and transcends us. Modernity presents the gift of autonomy. Learning to live with and educate towards both is a challenge we continue to face.