By Ian חנן Matthews

I don’t want this article to be a catalyst for people to talk negatively about people in the Orthodox community who they feel judge them negatively or to lead to discussions about Hashkafa (worldview) they disagree with that other people believe strongly in. I mainly want to relate to all the people who have been hurt by other Orthodox Jews’ Hashkafic beliefs that I have been too and to give Mussar (reproach) to the people who express these beliefs that what they say is not only emotionally hurtful, but has real repercussions in the lives of their fellow Orthodox Jews, non-Orthodox Jews, and non-Jews.

So what is a Ben Torah (Son of Torah)? I’ve heard many Orthodox Jews say a Ben Torah does or doesn’t do certain things. Every time I have heard someone say this it is followed by a certain behavior that is neither D’Oraita (from the written Torah) nor D’Rabbanan (Rabbinic law.) It is a usually Hashkafa, Minhag (custom,) or Middot Chassidut (character trait of a saintly person.) At best it is a Shita in Halacha (position in Jewish law) that is not universally followed by all Orthodox Jews that other Orthodox rabbis disagree with or interpret differently. While some rabbis have pronounced certain Middot Chassidut as Halacha, and they may have been very saintly people, someone who follows these positions – which are primarily Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and G-d) – but neglects Bein Adam L’Chavero (between man and his fellow) and does not treat others kindly, or has Gaiva (arrogance) because they follow these principles is missing the point and is certainly far away from being a saintly person.

The bottom line is that any Jew who says a Ben Torah, Frum (pious) person, or any other word that expresses a higher level of religious observance does something that another Jew who has committed to following the 613 Mitzvot (commandments) doesn’t do is implying that they are a better Jew because of that. It is hurtful, comes off as very judgmental, and creates divisions between Orthodox Jews. If you want to follow what a certain rabbi says or adhere to the cultural norms of your community that have nothing to do with Torah, I do not judge you, but if you think that you are closer to Hashem (G-d) than another Orthodox Jew because of it, in my opinion you lack Anavah (humility.) And even if you have good intentions and feel you are helping a fellow Jew to become more observant or follow Middot Chassidut, you may very well be pushing that person away from observance in your zeal to get them to be more like you. It is said there are Shivim Panim L’Torah (70 faces to the Torah,) we are all individuals, and Hashem is the true judge. As Hillel said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:5: “…do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place…”

While I can’t speak for all Orthodox Jews who have been hurt by this kind of behavior, I can say I do not have a problem with those who are more Machmir (stringent) than I am when it comes to Halacha, but anyone who would say I am Maikel (lenient) when I follow the Mitzvot al pi Halacha (by the fundamental interpretation of Jewish law) and have a rabbi who I ask Halachic questions shows they do not truly understand Halacha. I would advise such a person to have a competent rabbi who can interpret Halacha for them and to refrain from telling other Jews how they should follow Halacha. If you are not my rabbi or someone very close to me you should not concern yourself with the details of my Orthodox observance. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter said “Yennem’s Gashmius is ba meir Ruchnius (Another’s material concern is my spiritual concern)”, Yehoshua ben Perachyah said in Pirkei Avot 1:6: “…judge everyone L’Chaf Zhut (favorably)” and Hillel said in 1:12: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, love peace and pursue peace, LOVE PEOPLE, and bring them CLOSER to Torah.” Giving unwarranted Mussar to people you barely know accomplishes none of this, will most likely push a non-observant Jew or newly Orthodox Jew further from Torah, and could be a Chillul Hashem (desecration of the divine name) if you as an Orthodox Jew reflect negatively on the Torah because of it.

Unfortunately there are also people of power in the Orthodox world who seemingly violate Hillel’s admonition in 1:13 that “he who exploits the crown of Torah shall fade away” and 1:14: “…am for myself…” These people are often the instigators of negative remarks about other Orthodox Jews’ observance that become perpetuated by their followers, cause untold emotional damage, destroy Shidduchim (potential engagements) and marriages, and create Machloket (dispute) rather than bring peace between man and his fellow as Aaron did. I would not consider these people among the disciples of Aaron, and I would advise my fellow Orthodox Jews to have as little to do with these individuals as possible, for while they may be well-versed in the words of Torah, it seemingly has not penetrated their hearts, or at the very least as my rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer says they are guilty of Rabbinic malpractice. And at the worst they have become the Rashut (authority,) and as Rabban Gamliel said in 2:3: “Beware of Rashut, for they bring someone close only for their own benefit…and they don’t stand up for someone in their time of Dahako (pressing need.)” I would advise these problematic leaders to listen to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who said in 2:9: “If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, for that is why you were created.”

While I could list numerous examples where myself and others have been hurt by this behavior, I will simply say that what bothers me the most is when someone says that something I am highly passionate about, such as my athletic and musical endeavors, is something that a certain type of Orthodox Jew does not do. My athletic endeavors are extremely important for my physical and emotional health, and taking care of my health is a critical Mitzvah, thus far more important to me than a closed-minded cultural interpretation of what an Orthodox Jew should do, as well as exactly what I believe Hashem would want me to pursue rather than trying to fit into a certain community I will never fit into anyway since I was not raised to be a fearful, insular Jew, but rather to pursue my passions and inspire people. While I was not raised as an Orthodox Jew, my parents were loving, supportive, and raised me as a Jew based on what they were taught about Judaism in a sincere and honest way. I would recommend that anyone who has told me or desires to tell me how they think I should live my life as an Orthodox Jew learn Pirkei Avot and take it to heart. And we should certainly learn Shmirat Halashon (Guarding the Tongue/Ethics of Speech) so we can restrain ourselves from Onat Devarim (hurtful speech) as King David said in Bava Metzia 59a: “One who embarrasses his fellow in public has no share in Olam Haba (the world to come)” and as the rabbis later said: “It is better for someone to cast himself into a fiery furnace rather than embarrass his fellow in public.”

-Ian Matthews is an alumnus of Ohr Somayach Monsey and holds a masters degree in computer engineering from NJIT. Ian grew up in Tampa, FL and currently resides in Livingston, NJ.

One thought on “What is a Ben Torah?”

  1. David Kantor says:

    Decades before becoming a Baal tshuvah I would walk down the street on shabbat passing frumies coming from schul with never a gut shabos. One greeting and invitation for a meal could have started my return much sooner. Great article, keep up the good work.

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