Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
Rabbi Steven PruzanskyCourtesy

Torahphobia is real, prevalent and sweeping across significant parts of the Jewish world. In particular, it is threatening to collapse Modern Orthodoxy, but fortunately, its antidote is at hand. What is Torahphobia? An example will suffice.

A few days ago, the venerable Israeli radio presenter Aryeh Golan was interviewing (actually, as is his style, castigating) a Member of Knesset running for reelection for the Religious Zionist Party. His questions, such as they were, ran along the lines of: How can you be on the same list with so-and-so who years ago called for a “halakhic state”? How can you be on the same list with so-and-so who is a “known homophobe”? The interviewee hesitated, stammered and didn’t offer a cogent answer.

In fairness to him, these were not really questions as much as they were readings of counts in an indictment so no answer would have satisfied the interviewer. But this is what the MK could have said:

“Aryeh, you know it is wrong to cherry pick quotations in order to besmirch someone’s reputation, and it is repugnant to characterize a person’s entire life with the tendentious snapshot of “known homophobe.” The latter individual was an activist for Soviet Jewry, instrumental in gaining Natan Sharansky’s release from the gulag, a dedicated public servant for decades and possesses a host of other accomplishments. He is not a “known homophobe” but simply a faithful Jew who wants to strengthen the traditional Jewish family and thereby the Jewish state.”

"But you, Aryeh, present yourself consistently as a Torahphobe. You are afraid of the Torah and its value system. You are afraid that the Torah is true, that God gave the Torah and the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and the implications thereof. You are afraid that God exists, that He bequeathed His moral notions to the Jewish people for our benefit and the benefit of world, afraid that there are mitzvot (commandments, and not merely suggestions of pleasant pieties), afraid that there is such a thing as sin. You are afraid that it is all too real. You are a Torahphobe.”

A “Pride” club subsidized by Yeshiva University is as sensible as a “Chilul Shabbat Club” that demands public activities on Shabbat or an “intermarriage dating club” that wants to expand the romantic options for the student body.
There is no more grating insult that is lodged against traditional Jews today than that we are homophobes. Besides being false (I have never met anyone who actually fears homosexuals), the accusation is intended to stifle any reasonable discussion of the consequences of implementing the homosexual agenda. Anyone who opposes, for example, the legalization of same-sex marriage (or for that matter, a “pride” club at Yeshiva University) is a “homophobe” who should be scorned, if not tarred and feathered.

These accusers are Torahphobes and we should not ever hesitate to call them out on it, and repeatedly. Torahphobia is the fear of taking Torah seriously, the fear of perceiving its values as divine, eternal and superior to human values. Torahphobes do not really take the Torah seriously, or better said, they only take seriously the parts of Torah that appeal to them. They may observe some mitzvot but not the ones that challenge their secular based value system. They only observe those mitzvot that accord with secular progressive nostrums or the nice, ceremonial and cultural mitzvot that most Jews enjoy.

In any clash between their values and Torah values, they fear that embracing the Torah will cause the progressive elites to reject them and so they jettison the Torah. They might sincerely believe that their modern values are the Torah’s values, even more pitiable. They fear that the Torah “might” be true, so they are trying to craft a new Torah for themselves that eliminates certain mitzvot and fabricates new ones, based on pleasant and cherished notions such as equality, inclusiveness, compassion, and the like, all esteemed ideas that nonetheless occasionally conflict with true Torah values.

Certainly, not everyone who holds these opinions is Torahphobic. Some simply do not know any better and assume this is the Torah but many, especially in the Modern Orthodox world do or should know better. We have reached the stage today when, sadly, in any conflict between Modern and Orthodox, the laity opt for modern and renounce or, better, try to re-define Orthodox. The proponents rationalize these deviations from tradition by declaring that they are trying to prevent violence against certain vulnerable groups, suicides within the group (which itself obviously implicates a range of mental health that transcend clubs or societal approbation) or simply to show support for the family that is expressing its distress by staging elaborate same sex weddings and demanding their friends and family join the festivities.

Whatever these contentions have to say, all are psychological manipulations and emotional blackmail. But for Modern Orthodoxy treading down this path is a short term formula for self-destruction.
The laity is faltering and could use some sensitive but determined rabbinic guidance. Yet, Modern Orthodox institutions, to their credit, are still holding firm. Witness YU’s ongoing litigation amid the pressure opprobrium it is receiving from some of its own alumni and others. But their commitment is under relentless assault and they require public support to remain steadfast.

A “Pride” club subsidized by Yeshiva University is as sensible as a “Chilul Shabbat Club” that demands public activities on Shabbat or an “intermarriage dating club” that wants to expand the romantic options for the student body. We must have compassion for people’s personal plights and assist them in observing the Torah despite the hardships they feel. But we should reject the notion that they must be accommodated or that support for traditional family values is somehow hateful. YU does not have to cater to or endorse every sin that people bring with them to college. Indeed, those who want to flaunt and celebrate their sins, whatever they are, can choose any other college in the United States. To want to be “Orthodox” on their terms is quite modern, even understandable, but is also a clear symptom of Torahphobia.

To be sure, we are all guilty of Torahphobia on some level. We are all somewhat afraid of letting go of our practices or beliefs that conflict with the Torah but which we mostly enjoy and sometimes perceive as our self-definition. Everyone has challenges in life. It is axiomatic that we cannot judge another person because we do not stand in their place (Avot 2:4). It is also axiomatic that another person’s challenges seem like a trifle to those who are not challenged in that area, leaving us to wonder why they cannot overcome them (see Masechet Succah 52a). Some are challenged in the realm of arayot in all forms, others in the realm of money, lashon hara, aggression, anger, haughtiness, kindness, love of all Jews and a host of other possibilities. Some people are naturally blessed with no temptation in one area but succumb in other areas.

But we all struggle in some vein and it is self-defeating to seek a pass, a license, or public approval of our surrender. And we were all given by God the gift of repentance that first requires recognition of sin, wrongdoing or shortcomings.

The other day, I was sitting in the Me’arat Hamachpelah (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, and my mind wandered to Avraham and how he would relate to these modern imbroglios. After all, Avraham lived in most decadent and depraved times and as an Ivri, he stood against the world, its cultural onslaught and moral depredation. He tried to pray for Sodom, or at least comprehend God’s justice in dealing with Sodom, but he didn’t live there, was disappointed when Lot moved there and did not endorse or subsidize their lifestyle because those were the modern mores in his era and the local custom.

We are his heirs and descendants. Avraham possessed not only a deep and abiding faith in God but also an indomitable strength of character that enabled him to stand against the tide of his times even when he was alone and without any public support. His genes – physical and spiritual – give us our foundation, direction and purpose in life. As we enter the Yerach Ha’eitanim, the “month of the mighty” in which our forefathers were born, it behooves us to recapture Avraham’s spirit and animate this generation. Then we will heal ourselves of the rampant, infectious Torahphobia and become passionate Torahphiles, faithful servants of Hashem, and hasten the redemption.

Ktiva va’chatima tova to all!

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is Israel Regional Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a pulpit rabbi in the United States for 35 years, and author of “Repentance for Life” (Kodesh Press).