The Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness

Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness
Jewish Bookstore in Venice

For someone living in a very sheltered and homogeneous religious community in Israel there’s something really special about visiting Italy. It’s not only the fact that one hardly sees Jews in the street or that everywhere you go there are churches and religious symbols (which is an issue worth discussing it itself). For me it’s the reality that there is hardly any Jewish infrastructure to depend on. I’m on my own. Of course in the main cities there are small Jewish communities and one can find a few Shuls spread around and even a Kosher restaurant here and there. The point is that I need to actively seek Jewish resources. They won’t automatically fall into my lap.

A Religious Greenhouse

In the town I live there are many Shuls on every street and of every Orthodox tradition and Nusach. There are countless religious schools, Seminaries and Yeshivas in the city. Every grocery and supermarket is not only Kosher but Glatt Kosher (and you can choose which Kashrut you’d like to bring in your home). Every male inhabitant wears a Kippa (and most wear hats and jackets too) and every women and girl is dressed modestly. There are a few exceptions here and there, but they are an anomaly. If you want to study Torah there are hundreds of different Shiurim (classes) a day in the city and if you seek a study partner there are organizations to match you up. One is totally immersed in Judaism whether you ask for it or not.

Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness
Kosher Bakery in Venice

That is why I get a kick from occasionally going to a place like Italy. After a few days abroad where nothing remotely Jewish can be taken for granted, I learn to appreciate a bit more the spiritual luxury of living in a religious town in Israel. We had to bring our own Kosher food and finding a Minyan to Daven was a major challenge. I didn’t feel comfortable walking around with my Tzitzit hanging out of my pants. Walking around Venice and Florence with all the christian symbols made me feel far more Jewish than when I’m at home. Being immersed in a Torah environment can cause you to “forget” what being Jewish means because there is no “them” vs. “us” to remind us who we really  are.

The Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness

Over 20 years ago I studied in the Kollel in Amsterdam (the ONLY Kollel and not one of the Kollels 🙂 ). Rabbonim from Israel would arrive in the city to collect money for their institutions and most of them came to visit the Kollel. One of them was Rav Moshe Aharon Stern zt”l the Mashgiach of the Kaminetz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He’d give us a pep-talk and I remember one of them distinctly.

Remembering Rav Moshe Aharon Stern

Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness
Rav Moshe Aharon Stern zt”l

In order to give us some encouragement for our decision to study in Europe, Rav Stern told us that there are advantages to living in Kiryat Mattersdorf in Jerusalem but also advantages to living in Amsterdam. Equally so, there are disadvantages in living in either place.

Living in the strictly religious neighborhood of Kiryat Mattersdorf (where Rav Chaim Pinchus Scheinberg zt”l resided) meant that all your religious needs are met and there are very few temptations. On the other hand one might not have any “antibodies” to face spiritually damaging situations because you have no opportunities to develop an immune system. A child who grew up there could easily fall when he or she is confronted with religious challenges.

Developing an Immune System

Living in Amsterdam meant you had to struggle with many aspects of daily Jewish living. We used to drive every six weeks to Antwerp, Belgium (a 300 km round trip) to get Glatt Kosher supplies. If you missed the regular Minyan there generally wasn’t a second chance. I know people who avoided putting a Mezuzah on their doorway as a result of the Holocaust when 80% of the Jewish population was murdered.

When you have to struggle with your Jewish identity and face challenges every day, you develop a clear sense of right and wrong, “them” and “us” and one is a bit more “vaccinated” to some extent to overcome temptations.

Rav Stern remarked that this didn’t mean he was encouraging people to live in a spiritual wilderness because not everyone is built for the challenge, but if you do live in a place like Amsterdam. there are long-term benefits for the soul.

With Rav Stern’s words still ringing in my ears, it was nice being in the “wilderness” of the Roman Empire last month. For a few short days I felt so much more Jewish 🙂

3 thoughts on “The Advantages of a Spiritual Wilderness”

  1. Thank you, David. I’ll try to explain the gray area:

    When a child of chareidi parents wants to join the Israeli army, he’s NOT off the derech. When he does not care about which hechsher as long as it is reliable, he’s not left the fold. We have chosen our Rabeim. If a child want a different one (Rav Kook, Rav Shach) should be a free choice – as long as it is not just RavKav.

    There is a world of difference between kosher and kosher style, and that is black and white. But within the Torah way there are so many options. To set as ideal one type of Judaism with one level of stringency for all kids is short-selling some of them. Some might want to be more stringent on some things; others might not care so much.

    Chareidi is not always better – unfortunately. I was at a chareidi wedding where almost all the berachot were said with mispronounced sheim haSheims (I deny, I donno, etc.) and the whole crowd in black said omein (if they were not chatting). We may find excellence everywhere. To teach all our kids that there is only one way does not help.

    I’ve been at chareidi minyanim where they pray with fervor but don’t see you. They have no tefila betzibur because they only see themselves. If you ask them what of Judaism they would do if there would be no s’char in olam haba, they look at you in horror,

    And then I’ve been in such nice social minyanim but non of them seem to really pray. The Let’s Get It Over With attitude, so that they can socialize later. If these two groups would only learn a bit from each other.

    When we insist on our extreme choice, some kids might also insist on extremely throwing it all out.

    Being overly normative comes from hidden insecurities. Especially us baalei teshuva should practice tolerance for what is considered less frum. Less sometimes is more.

    However, I don’t think that it came out well. It’s too long. Maybe you can say it better.

  2. Thank you for this sweet historic report. That’s how I remember it too.

    However, let us not kid ourselves – the situation for our children has drastically changed. Temptation now is everywhere (mouth: cigarettes, eyes: I-phone, ears: Modernity), at every street corner, going from kid to kid, without the parents knowing.

    One of the causes, I believe, is that extreme devotion does not fit not every child. If we give no other options than All or Nothing (not a Jewish principle), they too easily go to Nothing. What a waste. One Betar Elite rabbi told me that there 30% of the youth is off the derech.

    The middle road is the old Jewish way. Let’s not mess with Tradition and teach kosher gray options, before it’s too late.

    1. Dear MM,
      I agree with you entirely. Without going into details there’s enough temptation at home today. The Rabbonim succeeded in keeping TV out of nearly all Chareidi homes but they haven’t succeeded with smartphones and internet. Especially when it’s nearly impossible to do business or have a profession without internet. So “Mattersdorf” (the general concept, not the specific location) ) isn’t like it was 25 years ago.
      I’m not so sure about what you refer as “grey options”. My late father z”l used to differentiate between a Shomer Shabbos Jew and a non-Shomer Shabbos Jew. That was the black and white. Today the black & white have moved very far from where they were in the past to differentiate between eating X Kashrut or Y Kashrut, between if a lady wears a Tichel or wig and how long. In truth the black & white is the same. It’s called Shulchan Oruch. But people have created artificial blacks and whites since they are used to a luxury standard of Yiddishkeit. A few days in the wilderness puts things in perspective.

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