Ask the Rabbi, Part 9

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at

Here is the ninth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

If Albert Einstein were frum, should he have become a rosh yeshiva rather than a scientist?

Oh, would that Einstein have been frum! It is not as farfetched as it sounds. Although raised by parents who were diehard secularists, a young, rebellious Albert kept kosher and observed Shabbat as a nine-year old, to the consternation of his parents (“Einstein,” Walter Isaacson, Page 16). But he soon gave it up, and much else.

Einstein believed in G-d as the Creator but, alas, rejected the notion of a Providential G-d who is involved in history and transmitted a moral code to mankind. Perhaps if he had learned a little more, with the right teachers, he would have understood better that not everything in life can be explained by science.

A frum Einstein, who would have embraced all those ideas, could have engendered an even greater revolution in our understanding of the universe than he did. It certainly would have been more meaningful. A “godless” world leaves man empty and searching aimlessly, without a moral compass, and is ultimately despondent and hopeless. An Einstein who understood not only the grandeur of the universe but the majesty of the G-d who created and governs it could have effected a sea change in mankind and hastened the Messianic era when the world will be “filled with knowledge of G-d.” He could have had a greater impact than do most Roshei Yeshiva.

Our objective in life is to cleave to Hashem and use all of our talents to promote knowledge of G-d and His morality. One need not be a Rosh Yeshiva to accomplish that, and arguably frum educated laymen – lawyers, doctors, businessmen, scientists and others – can succeed in arenas where Roshei Yeshiva do not enter. Like the rest of us, Einstein should have followed his heart and mind into the path of his own choosing – and served Hashem faithfully in that capacity.

Is following sports a waste of time or harmless pleasure?

It would be quite facile to assert that sports are an utter waste of time, although obsessing over who wins or loses and suffering mood swings accordingly is both excessive and foolish.

Interestingly, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook contended that not everything that isn’t pure talmud Torah should be construed as bittul Torah (Ein Aya, Berachot 1:30). It’s impossible to prescribe in precise terms how assiduous each individual person has to be in his Torah study as every person is different.

People have to work, shop, and become involved in life’s affairs, each person to a different degree. Torah, though, is the barometer by which everything is measured and the lodestar that both guides us and refines our character.

Certainly “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam” (Peah 1:1) – Torah study is the equivalent of all the mitzvot and must be one’s primary pursuit in life. But the Rambam notes (perek 5 of Shemona Perakim) that our essential purpose in life – to seek knowledge of G-d – must characterize all our life’s endeavors.

Even indulging in physical or psychological pleasures must be rooted in the desire to be better divine servants: “May all your deeds be for the sake of Heaven” (Avot 2:12). “All your deeds” includes even things we do to relax, boost our spirits, or give our minds a temporary respite from the rigors of Torah study.

That, the Rambam says, includes music, hiking, exercise, and even “looking at pleasant images.” To live and die based on a particular score – or to be “kove’a ittim” for sports – is ultimately vacuous. But as long as the right balance is kept and priorities remain straight, and sports are seen as just an amusing, fleeting distraction, it is indeed a harmless pleasure.

Is it okay for a young man to leave his parents’ mesorah and join another (e.g., for a chassid to become yeshivish, for a dati le’umi/Modern Orthodox Jew to become black-hat, etc.)?

      We are adjured “do not forsake the Torah of your mother” (Mishlei 1:8), which is often explained as an admonition not to discard the customs of our parents. That is admirable – but this question relates to deviating from a particular Mesorah that is not halachic or even necessarily behavioral.

      The notion that there is only one acceptable Mesorah or only one path that truly conforms to G-d’s will is a prevalent error in the Jewish world. There are various approaches in the Torah world that obey halacha, are rooted in the Mesorah and are invaluable to the integrity of the Jewish people. To assume that we all have to think or look the same way does not enhance but rather denigrates, even trivializes, our divine service. It promotes a robotic form of observance that is difficult to transmit to children.

     One great canard always circulated about Orthodoxy is that it is monolithic. The opposite is true! There is greater diversity in Orthodoxy than in non-Orthodoxy. The Gemara (Taanit 31a) states: “Rabbi Elazar said in the future, G-d will arrange a circle dance of the righteous, and He will be sitting among them, and each and every one of the righteous will point with his finger, as it says, ‘Behold, this, is our G-d…’”

      Rabbi Akiva Eiger commented that in a circle, everyone is equidistant from the center where, in this parable, G-d “sits.” In the future, the righteous will realize that each might have had different approaches – Chasidic, yeshivish, Modern (in the sense of being shomer mitzvot in a Western milieu), religious Zionist, etc. – but each one intended to serve G-d sincerely, and each was equidistant from the Center.

     As long as everyone observes the mitzvot, we need not wait for the “future” to realize this.

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