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Rabbi Jeremy Wieder: Is There a Torah Approach to our Social Responsibility?

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we sit down with Rabbi Jeremy Wieder – rosh yeshiva, PhD, Bible professor, and passionate Orthodox moral voice – to discuss what the Torah has to say about social justice.

The Torah serves as a moral guidebook for many, with some citing the avos as exemplifying generosity, even towards those they didn’t know. One might therefore expect that those most engrossed in Torah learning would fight on the front lines for social justice issues, but many make the opposite association. It seems that there may be more to morality than studying Halakhah alone.

  • What kind of morality does Halakhah espouse?
  • Why is the Beit Midrash not typically associated with social justice if the Torah is our moral guidebook?
  • Is Halakhah the only element to the picture the Torah paints of morality, or is there more?
  • And as Halakhah is mostly immutable, to what degree, and in what fashion, can the Torah evolve in response to the times?

Tune in to hear Rabbi Jeremy Wieder share his ideas about the Torah’s view on social justice.

References:
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks interview with Tim Ferriss – https://tim.blog/2020/08/26/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks-2/
Rabbi Sacks interviews with David Bashevkin – https://ncsy.org/remembering-rabbi-sacks/
To Heal a Fractured World by Rabbi Sacks
Social Vision by Philip Wexler
There Shall Be No Needy by Rabbi Jill Jacobs

David Bashevkin:

Hi friends, David Bashevkin here. Normally before we start a subject I add in some context and drone on a little bit providing some of the ideas that animate the topic that we’re going to explore that month. We’re going to do that, I know a lot of people have been complaining that they’re a little bit too long, so I’m not going to make any friends with this, but I did want to mention a little bit specifically about Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. This is not a eulogy, it is not an overview of his life, I actually want to talk about two brief stories of how he intersected with this podcast, that you’re listening to right now, specifically this subject of social justice and social action.

In July of this past year, I actually emailed his office, Joanna, who, those of you who know and interact with, she’s so incredibly lovely and so sweet, and her son was in my class, and I actually wanted a date to interview Rabbi Sacks for this very subject, believe it or not. And she was so incredibly gracious and got back to me right away and had such wonderful and warm things to say about 18Forty. We actually scheduled a date to do it. We were going to sit down, and I was going to get this amazing interview with Rabbi Sacks, which I was so excited about. I have interviewed Rabbi Sacks on two other occasions, which you can actually find on the NCSY website, maybe we’ll throw up a link. I interviewed him once about his teenage years. And then right when the pandemic was starting, I had interviewed him again.

But this was in July, and it was going to be for the 18Forty audience, a different tone, a different direction, very focused, and we had the date scheduled, and believe it or not, I got bumped. I got bumped. But here’s the wonderful thing, it’s really a two-parter of why it’s so wonderful why I got bumped. And that is, who did I get bumped for? I got bumped because Rabbi Sacks got booked for the Tim Ferriss Show. I got this email, I can actually pull up the exact date. I got this email over here, this was actually already in August. “I’m not sure that the 21st,” that’s when we had it scheduled, “is going to work. We have just had Tim Ferriss ask to interview Rabbi Sacks that afternoon and he wants two hours,” for those of you who know about Tim Ferriss interviews.

And my response was beyond zero worries, I was just so smitten, it’s a privilege to get bumped by Tim Ferriss, whose podcast reaches millions. It’s really, really remarkable. But it was something else, and that is, that very summer, almost that very day in August, for those who’ve been listening to this for a while know that I got into a little bit of hot water this summer over one of our interviews, and it caused a whole big stir, and it weighed on me a great, great deal. I was really broken up by it. It affected me a great deal because the whole reason why we do 18Forty is to uplift in a sophisticated way, in a substantive way. And many people who I respect and admire, and some people who I don’t, but many people who I do, took serious issue. And I agreed with much of what they were saying, with an interview that we had recorded. For a moment, I thought my whole life, my whole career, it was over. We’re finished, pack it up, find a job in some other industry, some other area, I thought the whole tower came down, and probably that’s more of a product of my own type of mental health thinking, which is not all that healthy.

But as this was all happening, maybe this is a couple of weeks later, everything’s crashing down, I’m about to close up shop on everything, and somebody, a former guest, actually, of the 18Forty Podcast, I don’t know that I’m going to mention his name, but a rosh yeshiva who was on. So those who are listening can figure out who it was. I was talking to him about what I was going through, and he actually said, “You know what you need to listen to you? You need to listen to Rabbi Sacks and the Tim Ferriss Podcast.” In my head I don’t even… I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s who I got bumped for.” And I got bumped for Tim Ferriss, but it was his conversation with Tim Ferriss that spoke about cancel culture and spoke about how to… because Rabbi Sacks himself had an incident with that, I found so deeply moving, and was really a comfort for myself of what I was going through. So as I thought things weren’t working out and my guess wasn’t going to work, all of this was the very thing that he was booked for ended up providing me, on a personal level, a great deal of comfort.

We ended up rescheduling, and those of you who know, he announced very shortly after that he was sick and we weren’t going to be able to record it, and unfortunately, just about a month ago from when I’m recording this, 31 days ago to be exact, Rabbi Sacks passed away. I am not going to share a eulogy, there are just such amazing things to go to his website. I did not have an extraordinarily personal relationship with him and didn’t want to really speak in depth about that. But it seems strange to go into a topic like social justice, where Rabbi Sacks was number one on my list of people who I wanted to talk and refine our responsibility about, it felt strange to go into that without just providing a brief note why he isn’t on that list. And we do have a list of incredible guests, but there is a very notable absence, and it was Rabbi sacks who played an incredible, incredible role in my thinking, and really the person who gave me the confidence, in a way, to share ideas in the way that he did about faith, about Judaism, about Yiddishkeit, and did that in that incredible way.

So we were not able to have Rabbi Sacks, unfortunately, as a part of this discussion, but if you want to get a little bit of ideas, the book that I would recommend is To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, which was published by Schocken, which those of you may or may not know is run by my sort of cousin, Altie Karper. I shared online some wonderful memories she had of being Rabbi Sacks’ editor. She’s one of the few people, and I shared this online, who, she lives on the Lower East Side, she’s going to kill me for saying this on this introduction. Rabbi Sacks and Rav Dovid Feinstein both died very close to each other, and Altie, who grew up on the Lower East Side and was Rabbi Sacks’ editor, was one of the few people in the world who had quite a bit to share about both of them. And maybe one day she’d make an incredible guest, to bring her on and talk about her life in the world of high-end publishing for the Jewish world.

But for now, allow me to just say this note. We’re going to go into this topic, we have amazing, amazing guests and amazing ideas, and I’m so excited for what we put together. But the absence of Rabbi Sacks, not only on this topic and on this podcast, but for the world, is definitely felt and definitely noticed, and thank God we have his words to continue his legacy in our own lives. So without further ado, here is our approach to social justice.

Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring social justice. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy topics in Judaism and Jewish life and religion, so be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y dot org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

It’s always a little tricky when we’re picking out a new topic that we deal with on 18Forty, how do we pick these topics? I was just talking earlier today with my dear friend, Mitch Eichen, who’s the partner throughout this project. And I kind of laid out the three topics, the three areas that we deal with, and why. I think we’re trying to do something very specific, and that is: when you grow up and you go through Jewish institutions, whether it’s Modern Orthodox, Yeshiva, to the right, to the left, wherever you’re growing up, you get certain stories and ideas, which are really important and they’re doing a great job of it. But then at some point you graduate and you go into the world, whether it’s a secular college campus, whether it is your local community, and you start growing up, and very often you have these big questions on how the world that you live in today coheres with the education, ideas, community, that brought you up and that raised you. And I think there are three areas where this really comes to light.

Number one, there are theological questions, there are sociological questions, and there are emotional questions. Theological questions, we’ve dealt with, you were told X Y and Z about the development of Halakha, about the integrity of the Torah, all of these things. And then it’s very easy, you grow up, you poke around, you get lost when you’re blogging or looking online somewhere, you turn a wrong corner and all of a sudden you have 1,001 questions about these foundational theological ideas that you’ve been given, and you’re like, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble. How do I make the theological commitments cohere with all of this information and books and articles that I am reading now?”

There’s a second category, which is sociological, which is, when we’re raised in these wonderful, warm, vibrant Jewish communities, and then you go out, and you start becoming an adult and a grownup, and you go into the world, you may have sociological questions about, why is it that the community that I adhered to, and I was a part of for so much of my life, and now I’m looking at the way that they’re practicing, the way that the values of the community don’t cohere, aren’t really in sync with the world that I am living in today. I think the big issues with this are for sure the role of women in Judaism, LGBT issues come up. These are sociological.

Now of course, and I’ll get to the last one in a second, theological and sociological issues, they often intermingle, they’re often related to one another. I don’t like cutting them off and saying, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” I think that the way that we practice and live our values needs to be connected to some sort of theological principles, or whatever it is.

And the final category, which we probably speak about the least but it’s probably the most important, are emotional. The world that we live in today, issues like dating, romance, mental health, all of these things serve as lenses through which we interpret theology and the sociological fabric of our communities.

So these three issues that bubble up, I think when people graduate from Jewish institutional life and are trying to look to find a way for how their communities cohere and their theology coheres with who they are today and how they were raised, I think of these three categories: theological issues, sociological issues, and emotional issues. And whenever someone comes and has problems or issues that they’re discussing, you always have to ask, “Who’s in the driver’s seat?” There’s no doubt that all three of these issues are in the car, but who’s driving the car? Was this a theological problem, and emotional and sociological issues are maybe in the back seat, maybe in the trunk, maybe they’re strapped on top of the car? Or maybe no, this is primarily a sociological issue, and I’m trying to figure out how this relates to the larger theology.

And I’m giving this introduction because I think with social justice there are different ways to tackle this issue. There are theological questions about, what is the imperative of social justice? How does the movement, the social justice movement that we’re seeing today throughout the world, especially with college students and millennials, how does that integrate? How does that connect and relate to the actual theological principles of Judaism?

But I actually think that it’s not theology in the driver’s seat when we start to think about social justice, and we are going to talk about a great deal, but I think a lot of it is sociological. And I would phrase the question as such: Why is it that a community dedicated to values, dedicated to bringing Torah and Torah values into the world, this really rich type of living – and I don’t mean rich financially, I mean rich that we grow up soaked in these important values of responsibility and commitment, and we pray for ourselves as a part of the world, as a part of the Jewish people, all of these things very often doesn’t necessarily translate into this social justice mentality.

And I think a lot of people are left wondering, why is there such a disconnect between the personality that emerges, particularly from Orthodox yeshivas and schools, and those that are drawn into social justice? Is it an emotional difference? Is it sociologically? Why is it? And so often people condemn Orthodoxy, I think very wrongfully so, for being too insular, we’re raising kids that only care about themselves. But is that in fact true? Why is it that our graduates, the people who are leaving, they’re not front in line, locked arms thinking about world poverty, global hunger, racial justice, economic justice? They’re rarely in the front lines. And I think phrasing it as a sociological issue, and we’re going to come at it from all of these angles, I think is a helpful way because for a lot of people, it’s disheartening for many, not for all, but it’s certainly disheartening for many, that issues that they see as central to the world, they see almost being ignored, or reticence, or silence altogether within the Jewish world, they’re not interested. So why is that the case?

Now, I’m not going to go through all the in-depths on this, but there are two large frameworks that I want to state out from the introduction. One is interesting, and this historically has been the case with many other issues. I think it was the rosh yeshiva of Telz, so Telze Rosh Yeshiva named Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, who may have said this – I think I’ve heard it quoted in others, I think I’ve heard this quoted from Rabbi Hershel Schachter – that there are some values that are very much a part of Judaism, very much, but because it’s been championed by people who seek to undermine Torah values and the perpetuation of Jewish living and Jewish life, many people at the center of Torah-committed communities have moved away from them.

What are some examples? Speaking Hebrew. When Hebrew was first rolled out by secular Zionists and Ben-Yehuda, a lot of the Jewish community was very reticent to adopt Hebrew, they looked at it as part of a larger battle to uproot that Yiddish mentality, and they fought against it. And they said, “No, we’re not taking on this new language. We read Hebrew, we write Hebrew, and we can speak Hebrew, but it’s not going to become our conversational language.” I think this is partially true largely with Zionism, that I think secular Zionism, for a lot in the Torah community, were like, “Yes, we love Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. Yes, we’re excited about this. But, no thank you, we don’t want to partner with this community.”

And I think another area, and this happened during the enlightenment, was the championing of learning Tanakh, the later books – not the Torah, the five books of Moses, of Moshe, but the later books, Nevi’im, Kesuvim, all the books of the profits and the later writings. During the enlightenment, it was championed by many of the enlightened, so to speak, Jews, who didn’t always have Judaism’s best interests in mind. Sometimes they did, but not always. And people saw that they were championing learning these things, they were like, “No thank you. We’re going to stick to Talmud, we’re not getting involved in this stuff.”

Now, that may be a caricature, but it’s certainly been true throughout history, and I think in some ways it’s true with social justice. I think there are many people who see the people who are championing the causes of social justice, and they’re looking and they’re saying, “Uh oh, a lot of the people who are at the front of these lines are the very people who are looking to undermine different areas of our commitment to Judaism.” Now, whether that’s a fair perception or an unfair perception is something that we will talk about, but I think that some of that is certainly at play. When you see people championing a certain cause or a certain idea, it can oftentimes make you second guess, “Well, I don’t want to get to the front of this line.” But however you relate to social justice, I think in the year 2020, in the modern world, developing a relationship to it that is not purely reactionary is something that is healthy and important.

And I’ll be honest, people who I consider friends, people who I consider wonderful, have taken a bit of a reactionary approach to this, that because there’s a certain type of person who champions causes and uses terms like “tikkun olam” and “social justice” and “racial justice” and “economic justice,” because I see who else is in this party, who else is involved in this, I’m not going to get involved. That’s very reactionary. And I think it’s important to look on its own terms and to figure out, well, what is the place of this, and what’s the best way to cultivate that larger sense of connection and responsibility to the larger world? What is the right way to cultivate that? What’s a healthy way to do that? I think that is really the question that we need to be asking. And I am so excited this month to be talking about this on the 18Forty Podcast because we have three amazing guests from three very different perspectives who are each talking about this.

Our first guest is a rosh yeshiva who I did not know personally until he so graciously agreed to come on this, and that is Rabbi Jeremy Wieder. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder is a rosh yeshiva in Yeshiva University who on several different occasions has spoken out about this issue. And I talked to him about, why do you keep speaking out about this issue? Maybe his own concerns about his position and the way he’s perceived within Yeshiva University, which I think is something important and something that we discussed, but most importantly, what are the actual groundings in Torah ideas and Torah thoughts about our responsibility to the global community? Does that mean that we have to be in the front lines with a megaphone locked arm in arm screaming “no justice no peace,” or is it something different? Where should we be focusing our efforts in the Jewish world? What does the Halakha, Jewish law, demand of us in terms of our larger sensitivity to the Jewish world?

Secondly, we have a wonderful conversation with my dear friend, and this is actually a dear friend, we go back a ways, with Dr. Rivka Press Schwartz, who is an administrator and teacher at SAR and deals with this all the time, and writes about this all the time, about what the products, specifically within Modern Orthodoxy, what are we producing? Are we producing the same insular student that you would normally attribute in some negative way to some really cloistered Hasidic community, or maybe they’re both wrong, maybe the Hasidic world and SAR are both doing something very right. But I think she has the perspective of both, she was raised in a far more yeshivish community, her mother famously is a very storied educator in that world, and we talk about both. “Both” meaning her position in SAR and her more yeshivish upbringing, and who has it right? What’s the right level of insularity and more global responsibility that you should have? And I’m so excited and grateful for that conversation.

And finally, a wonderful friend who I only really know through Twitter. I met him once at a breakfast place in the five towns, he turned around, and we were only reasonably familiar with one another at the time, his name is Rabbi Eli Rubin. And anybody who you meet only once at a breakfast place you know is somebody who you’re going to have a warm affinity to. I close my eyes and I think of croissants and eggs and delicious omelets when I think of him. Though his writings was actually quite sophisticated, theologically-dense. And Rabbi Eli Rubin is a contributor and a major, major force behind chabad.org. He’s a Chabad chassid who wrote an absolutely amazing book called Social Vision along with Phillip Wexler. And you want to check out that book, a lot of our interview is about it, and it’s about the vision, specifically of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, towards issues like social justice, social action, and all of the related issues. All this and more, we’re so excited for this conversation this month on 18Forty dealing with social justice.

And I am so excited for our next guest, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva university, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder. And as I may have mentioned, I was never in his particular shiur, I didn’t have a relationship with him when I was in Yeshiva University, but it’s really a testament to his graciousness and kindness at the moment I reached out to him, he said absolutely. And I’m so excited by his insights and all that he’s done for the Orthodox community, in bringing these values to light. So it’s without further ado and my great pleasure to introduce rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder.

Welcome all to the 18Forty podcast. It is my absolute privilege and pleasure to be speaking today with Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, who’s a rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, known as RIETS, in Yeshiva University. Rabbi Wieder, thank you so much for joining us today.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

It’s a pleasure to be here, thank you so much for inviting me.

David Bashevkin:

So we’re talking today about a fairly complex topic, because there are a lot of pieces to it, and I was hoping that you could help us unwind some of them, and that is, the general topic that we’re talking about is social justice. And related to that on each side is the question of the Am HaNivchar, the chosenness of the Jewish people, that we are in fact different from the rest of the world in whatever way. And on the other side of it is our relationship in general to people who look differently than us, who are not Jewish, who are from a different background, country, culture, race, all of those things, and they all kind of meld together in this pot where, when we talk about social justice and the topic of tikkun olam, connecting and rectifying the rest of the world, a lot of them could become befuddled. So maybe we could start with the question of, when you think about the Jewish responsibility for social justice, how do you define that?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I think that my definition, and I think the Torah’s definition, of social justice, is a little bit different, it certainly has a lot of overlap with the contemporary discussion, but I think that the Torah’s definition of social justice might be best summed up by “hatzilu gazul miyad hashok,” to protect the vulnerable, to protect the oppressed, to protect the marginal. That’s an issue that I think is not limited to broader American society and how we relate to them, but I think that’s an issue within our community as well. We tend, certainly in America, I would say that the Jewish community is a fairly prosperous – at least on average, not everybody – but certainly a prosperous community and not a marginal community.

But the issues of social justice, I would say, are, how do you construct, what is a just community in the eyes of the Torah? And I think that, certainly, it’s part of the discussion in broader America, but it’s not the only part, but for us, I think the major part is economic justice. And that’s an issue that I think affects our community also, even if it’s on a different level that affects, let’s say, minority communities in the United States. And when you create a society that is socially just, that is really economically just, then it solves a lot of problems.

I would even say that in the broader American community and the discussion of social justice, everything is focused on the racial issues – well mostly racial issues, I’d say the most prominent issue. And I think that’s a serious significant issue, that’s not something to be minimized, but I think that there’s a much broader economic injustice which is affecting a much larger part of this country. And if you address that particular issue, I think it is a rising tide which lifts all boats. There’s no question in my mind that there are certain communities that have suffered much, much more, African-American community first and foremost, but part of addressing the issues that affect that community, I think, are addressing social justice on a broader level.

David Bashevkin:

So in that overlap, and I think that’s extraordinarily well said, can you parse a little bit, stepping away from racial justice and talking about economic justice. When you think about the Torah approach to economic justice and the way that it’s approached politically in our country, where do you see agreement, and where do you see disagreement in the approach?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I think the best way to present this is to think about what the Torah’s vision of an economically just society is. And the Torah obviously doesn’t present that as a philosophical statement, but once we outline that, I think then it’s easier to talk about what that means in a broader Western society in American society. I think there are three mitzvos in the Torah that capture, or place a tremendous amount of economic limitations. The Torah, it’s very clear to me, is capitalist, the Torah believes in private property, but there are three mitzvos that greatly constrain certain aspects of capitalism. The first is shmitas kesafim, the fact that loans dissolve in the Shmita year. And along with that, I think related – I mean, they’re not connected, technically speaking – is the prohibition of taking interest. The effect of both of those mitzvos is preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, it prevents people who’ve fallen on hard times from falling into even a deeper hole. If you fall into debt in the Torah’s world – and that’s part of the difficulty, you have to translate… The Torah was given in an agricultural world, how does that translate into a society that’s much more based upon capital? But at least in terms of understanding within the Torah’s world and its worldview, loans dissolve in the Shmita year, interest is prohibited, and fields, which were the primary source of wealth, fields go back in the Yovel year.

David Bashevkin:

Every 50 years.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

What that effectively does is two things: it prevents the impoverishment of the many – people who have fallen on hard times, maybe even they made bad decisions – it prevents them from falling into eternal lower class status, and the second thing that it does, which I think is often overlooked, is that it prevents the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small number of people. Whatever one’s views on taxation are in general, I think one of the things that we’ve seen in the United States, and I think unfortunately it’s becoming true also in Medinat Yisrael, is that the concentration of large amounts of wealth in the hands of a few people has a tendency to corrupt the political system. And as opposed to, we are both, Medinat Israel and the United States, are democracies where theoretically every citizen is supposed to have an equal voice, but the reality is that isn’t so, and as you have greater disparities in wealth, you have greater disparities in power as well. So I think, in the Torah’s world, you have three mitzvos that are very clearly designed to prevent the concentration of wealth and to prevent the impoverishment of a large part of society. The challenge is to translate that into a society which is based upon capital.

Clearly the Jewish people, you may speak about the Jewish people, the Am HaNivchar, we’ve never been very good at those mitzvos. Ribis, we work around today with a heter iska, and Shmita, much to their chagrin as Chazal describe it, as Shmuel describes it, the pruzbul as an ulbina d’daynai, the pruzbul is an embarrassment, the Achilles’ heel of dayanim. He didn’t like it, if he could have done away with it, he would have done away with it. It was done because the pruzbul to prevent the loans dissolving Shmita was created because the alternative was worse. And Yovel clearly we never observed properly because we were thrown off the land the first time in the destruction of the first Beis HaMikdash. But how we translate that into an American capitalist society is a challenge, but I think that the broader contours are supposed to be there. It means a system of taxation that is designed to prevent the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, a system of laws that are designed to make sure, I would say, that if a person is willing to work an honest day’s labor, that they should be able to support their family. So I think, in its broadest sense, how you implement that in the most specific terms is not always easy, but I think those are the broader messages that emerge.

David Bashevkin:

So this is a hard question, and I think anytime you deal with a controversial or more ignored topic in religious life and particularly in Jewish life, there are different forms of contradictions that they take. We spent a long time talking about science and Torah, so that’s a contradiction in disciplines. There’s a scientific discipline in outcomes, and there is Torah-based methodology and approach for how the age of the universe and all these other things. There’s a different contradiction that I grapple with when it comes to your presentation – and maybe you’re not even equipped to weigh on it, but I wanted to speak it out with you – and that is that, sociologically, the community that is immersed in Torah by and large very often doesn’t necessarily embody, or even support, the values that you’re describing. And I’m trying to figure out the way that I want to ask the question. I think there are two different ways to ask it.

I think there’s one way that’s almost asking a question on, phenomenologically, why doesn’t the experience of learning Torah result in people who feel this way, or like, when you close your eyes and think about a march, and the people who have that intuitive feeling to connect and fight for economic justice, your eyes don’t usually close and think of people who are spending most of their time studying Torah. So that’s a question phrasing it phenomenologically, why doesn’t it cultivate those values? But there’s also a sociological question, which is, how do you reconcile, how do you diagnose the fact that, sociologically, so much of the – what I would broadly speak – maybe the Orthodox community, you might want to call it the Beis Medrish community, people who are dedicating themselves to studying Torah. Why are so many of these causes make us cringe, or make us suspicious, maybe that’s the right word, cautious? We don’t throw ourselves into this as if they’re fundamental values related to Judaism.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Your question is a superb question, it’s something that I think about a lot, and I think that there are at least several reasons. But before I respond to that, one thing that I think that you will see is that when you read teshuvos of poskim, when they have to address issues, you read teshuvas of many of the poskim in the 20th century talking about –

David Bashevkin:

And let me just jump in, “teshuvos” meaning responsa of major halachic leaders?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Responsa, yeah, major figures, writing about issues of labor law and unions and things of that nature, I think that if people would look at those teshuvos, you would discern a very, I’ll call it, progressive agenda. In other words –

David Bashevkin:

Do you have any specific ones in mind? I’m just curious.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I think Rav Uziel has a number of teshuvos that deal with union issues, but I think that you would find this broadly. In other words, when poskim are writing, you will see what I would describe as the Torah values coming through. In other words, if one were to look at any real, classic Torah being written when it touches upon these issues, I think you would see Torah values, describing it more broadly, coming through. The question is why in the communities, why in a communal sense, are these things not spoken about more, and why, your question was specifically, why people of the Beis Medrish don’t seem to be talking about these questions? And I think that there are probably, there at least two reasons that I can think of.

Number one, some of this issues, I’ll use the term “tikkun olam,” and I think sometimes this can be very much distorted. There are many aspects of tikkun olam that should be near and dear to us, but because these are causes that have become so central to non-Orthodox denominations, and in certain cases almost becomes the entirety. I mean, I don’t mean this to be a critique of the reform movement, but one would sense that for many reform Jews, the totality of Judaism is tikkun olam in the way it’s used today. So there’s a sense of, well, maybe that’s not really our set of values. And even if it is, maybe we don’t want to be involved in it, because then we’re becoming bedfellows with people that we so fundamentally disagree with on other issues. That’s one issue.

I think that the other issue might be a very strong critique of the Beis Medrish culture, but it’s not a new one. If you think about the mussar movement. There is a tendency of people who sit and study Gemara all day to have a narrow vision outside of Torah. And what I mean by that is, when you spend your day… And remember, this is what I do.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah, I was about to say, this is true.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Most of my day is spent in the havayos of Abaye and Rava. But there’s a danger that when you get so focused on the technical, you can lose, I’ll call it the Ramban’s “kedoshim tihiyu” and “ve’asisa hayashar vehatov”.

David Bashevkin:

To translate, meaning, the Ramban’s idea…

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

In other words, the idea that there’s both a law, but there’s a spirit of the law. And there are many times where the law may allow X, but the spirit of the law says, “How could you possibly even consider doing something like that?” And so I think that when you spend your days and nights engrossed in the minutiae of law, Torah law, which I’m not minimizing – as I said, that’s what I do – there is a danger that you can fail to see the forest for the trees. And I don’t think that’s true for everybody, but I think that is a natural outcome.

If I were to think of a classic source, he doesn’t identify this per se as the cause, but I think this is certainly a manifestation, when the Semag excoriates Jews who would keep the lost objects of non-Jews, because according to the Gemara you’re not obligated to return aveidas akum, so the Semag says, “Yes, I know the Halakha, but that’s the reason why the Jewish people are still in exile, because if God were to come and redeem the Jewish people, the nations of the world would say to God, ‘This is the nation you’re redeeming, a bunch of dishonest thieves?’” So you can see how someone would sit in the world or the Beis Medrish, and could tell you, “Well, this is the Halakha,” and it’s true, it might be absolutely correct, but doesn’t internalize a broader ethos. If you even wanted to see this in one characteristic of the classic Beis Medrish study is that most shiurim skip the Aggadah, most shiurim skip Aggadah. And when you think about the difference between Halakha and Aggadah –

David Bashevkin:

The narrative parts of the Talmud.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Right. In other words, the midrash, and the stories, that’s where you learn how to live life. Moshe Rabbeinu gave us 613 mitzvos, each one of which is an intimate value and must be observed, but we learn probably more of our mussar when we’re reading Sefer Bereishis than we learn about the Avos. We learn about, what the Netziv terms in his introduction, Sefer HaYashar, because the Avos were yesharim. That’s how you learn how to interact with other people, especially people who are different than you. I think part of the reason in the world of the Beis Medrish we’re so focused on what is most near and dear to us, for good reason, but then there’s a tendency to neglect the study of the other areas, and you can miss the message.

David Bashevkin:

So I want to ask this question extraordinarily delicately and with a great deal of respect to you, but I do want to get a little bit personal to talk about the way that this unfolds both in your life and in your willingness to talk about these issues. The same way that a focus on Torah, on exclusively what you call the havayos of Abaye v’Rava, the give and take of the Talmud, can obscure your vision of being able to see the wider world, I’m curious for you if you ever think, in your work and the ideas that you emphasize, and the people who sometimes you attract to your shiur and your class in Yeshiva University, it seems to me that both sides, there’s a partisanship. I’m trying to phrase it delicately because I’m not attributing, God forbid, any of the blame because we need to talk about these issues. But my question is, what goes through your mind when you are the person who gets up in YU constantly talking about these issues? Do you ever do ever have a concern that, “I’m just going to be the tikkun olam person,” so to speak? I’m trying to phrase this incredibly… Because whatever time you get up, it resonates so much to me, but I also notice the fact, who else is not speaking about and coming back to these issues?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

It’s a fair question. I would say, sometimes I’m actually disappointed that very few people are talking about these issues. When you hear me speak publicly often, these will be the issues that come up. I would say that I usually give a sichas mussar, I get the platform once or twice a year, usually once – it’s been very rare twice, not because anybody’s discriminating against me but because we rotate around – and to me, the preaching to the choir is pointless. When I stand in front of the Beis Medrish, and that’s where most of these sichot have been delivered, not to my students specifically but to the – I mean, my students are part of the Beis Medrish, but certainly to a very broad cross-section. My feeling is that when you’re given that opportunity, you have to speak to the things that people need to hear. I don’t need to stand up in front of the Beis Medrish and say that we need to learn more and we need to have more kavanah in our tefillos. I think it’s important to talk about the things that aren’t being spoken about and that talmidim are not going to hear.

Certainly, many of these messages, in a piece here and a piece there, I learned from my rebbeim because I heard these things. I would say that I spent, I’m a talmud of Rav Schachter, and Rav Schachter doesn’t skip the Aggadah, and when you hang around in the presence of Rav Schachter, he talks, he talks about learning, but you get a very broad picture. And I learned a lot of things, and certainly many things made an impression upon me, about a way of looking at the world, and I don’t know why some people don’t feel the need to speak about these things more publicly, and I think, by the way, it’s a tragedy. I think that there are many times that people perceive us, the roshei yeshiva collectively, as not being in touch with the world because of stances that many of us take. And some of the issues all of us agree on, and I think it’s unfortunate that more people don’t talk about these issues, because if you talk about these issues then people can’t dismiss you as easily. In other words, they have to recognize that Torah isn’t just these issues, and by no means is it, I don’t want to say I’m not going to weigh primary and not primary, but I think that if people spoke more about these issues, it would engage the community on these issues and all the issues that we talk about. But I don’t know why, I don’t know why people don’t, why I’m one of, you would describe it that I’m one of the few voices that is choosing to talk about these issues.

David Bashevkin:

So I was wondering to talk a little bit, because you spoke about – and you should know, just for the record, I did a little bit of my research and I’m a student of Yeshiva University and I learned there and I got my semicha from there. I did not know that you were a student in Rav Schachter’s shiur, I think that’s an interesting fact, I had no idea. If I had to guess, I’m sure people would not have pegged you there, and that is absolutely wonderful to hear, I was in his shiur as well. My question is, what do you do in your classroom to make these values come alive when you are teaching Gemara, and how do you balance that emphasis with the more traditional emphasis on the classic learning of Gemara that oftentimes results in that deep commitment to long-term Torah study that I’m sure everybody wants?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Usually, once a week at the end of the week I give something on the parsha – some years I do it more consistently than others, this year I’ve been pretty consistent – where I will address a range of issues I’ll call classic mussar. I would say even rarely is it really about, I’ll call it “social justice issues”. Today I spoke about the importance of respecting people you completely disagree with and whose value systems are totally different than yours. If you would’ve listened to probably most of those sichos mussar they have nothing to do with this particular issue, what I’ll call “social justice issues,” but I think that I do from my vantage point that’s more important is that, when I learn Gemara, when I teach Gemara, I’ll say I will sometimes go on a tangent, or when I pass a Gemara where something is embodied, an ethical issue, any kind of values issues, I just point it out. In other words, when I teach a sugya, some people are more sugya oriented, or more conceptually oriented.

David Bashevkin:

Topically.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I am very textually oriented. I still do, if you were to look at my maare mekomos I do topics as well, but we read all the texts, and I feel it necessary when we’re reading a Gemara, we don’t skip Gemara, and I feel it necessary to point out what the implications of this Gemara are in a particular context. So if there’s some mussar to be derived, I’m just going to point it out. And that to me is essential. I understand that if you’re only focused on, I’ll call it the “classic lomdus,” it can be a little bit of a distraction. You want to focus your mind only on the one thing, and I understand the benefits of that, so I try to do that most of the time, but I feel that passing by a Gemara, whether it’s an Aggadah or whether it’s even in Halakha, because I think Halakha is a very, very powerful source of Torah values, I think it’s a tragedy not to take the opportunity to do so. And that’s something that I think I saw all the time with Rav Schachter. I mean, his style in particular, because he’s very much, I would say, textually oriented, you read continuously. He sees something and he’s just going to make some observations, some insight into life, some insight into ethics, or something like that. He’s just going to say it in passing, because it’s there in front of you, why not take that opportunity.

David Bashevkin:

Allow me to ask, and a lot of this, I’ve had disagreements I’ve spoken about with some of our other guests on this topic about the resolution and the way that we should approach tikkun olam, is that by political activism on the institutional level or the kind of educational level focusing on the home? And I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about what these issues, again, I’m going back to grouping some together, economic justice, tikkun olam. What does that look like in your home? Is it about educating your children in the way that they think about non-Jews? Is it about educating your children about problems in the larger world? Is it about campaigning for Darfur or going on marches? I’m curious how your approach philosophically translates into the actual education that you impart in your own household.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

So I have to admit that, I don’t know if I’d call this a weakness of mine. I’ve occasionally given a sichas mussar, and students came to me and say, “Well, what should we do?” And my response is, I want to be honest, I’m not an activist by temperament. I’m not a person who gets up, goes to a march, and grabs a megaphone and gives that rah-rah speech, riling people up for the cause. There are people who are very good at being activists. I see my job as to try to project Torah values as best as I can. So in my home, what I think the message that has come through to my children certainly is, I and my wife, what we see as, what the Torah wants from us in terms of how we construct a community. As I said, it’s a weakness of mine, I’m not the person who gets up, “Okay, now I see a problem, let me fix it.” There are people who are by temperament so much better equipped than I am, and in many cases, people will come to talk to me about it, and I’ll encourage them in that. But I’m really a teacher, not only by profession but by temperament, and I don’t know the best way of doing things in terms of moving that agenda forward. I don’t know if that answers the question.

David Bashevkin:

Well, let me phrase it differently and maybe even a drop more controversially. I think there were two books, there was an article and a book, where you served as footnotes and foils about critiques in the Orthodox community. I believe one was an article that was written by a professor in Harvard Law School, Noah Feldman, when he was critiquing the Modern Orthodox community. And you were in there, because I think you either came in first place or second place in the –

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I came in second place here behind him, but you go to Israel you get a fresh start.

David Bashevkin:

You get a fresh start, and then you won in Israel?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I tied in Israel.

David Bashevkin:

You tied in Israel. And I think there was another, I’m trying to remember if it was Shalom Auslander.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Yes, I love that, I mean, I haven’t seen the book in a very long time, Foreskin’s Lament. Theoretically, we were classmates from K through 12 except for one year when he switched schools earlier than I did, although I think I’m incidental there, and I’m pretty sure the quote I remember from the book demonstrates that when authors write they take a little bit of a liberty with history. I think that one, I just happened to appear there.

David Bashevkin:

We can clear the record. No one’s blaming you or accusing you of anything, I always got a kick out of the fact that you have these two very notable cameos in stories that are very viciously critiquing the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

We’re the two Modern Orthodox bad boys, as I would call it.

David Bashevkin:

So I always got a kick out of that, and just know that I noticed it and appreciated it and you shouldn’t be to any blame of any of the critiques in there, but I did enjoy it. But in that original article, which caused quite a storm in the Orthodox community, and he does so much for the Orthodox community, I’m not looking to rehash or criticize him in any way, but the substance of what he was saying is that much of your typical Modern Orthodox education creates and cultivates a sense of otherness to anybody who is not a part of your world, because of prohibitions, obviously of intermarriage, because of different Halakhas that come up about the way that we treat non-Jews on Shabbos. You had mentioned about the Semag, about returning a lost object to a non-Jew. How do you square the theology of the Jews being a chosen nation with the contemporary sense of being a citizen of the world and our responsibility to the larger world when in Jewish law it’s reflected in so many places that there are very real divisions? How does that not cultivate a sense of otherness and that lack of empathy that we see?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

That is a very difficult issue, it’s a very difficult balance. The question is, how does one respond to the idea of Am HaNivchar? Some people would say it’s apologetic.

David Bashevkin:

Am HaNivchar, I mentioned it first so I’m the one to blame, I just want to translate, meaning the chosen nation.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Some would say it’s apologetics, I don’t think it’s apologetics. There are some people who look at that concept as being the chosen nation and say, “Yeah, we’re a chosen nation and we can do whatever we want and we’re better than everybody else.” I don’t think it’s apologetics when people say that being the chosen nation doesn’t mean we’re better than everybody else, it means we have responsibilities. But it’s not hard to understand, I would say number one, just taking… In fact, I would even say that when you look in Parshas Va’eschanan, where we’re described as such, it’s not because we deserve to be chosen, that’s what the Torah tells us explicitly. It’s not because we’re better than everybody else, we’re more than everybody else, but rather because I would say of God’s love and his promise to the avos. So it’s not necessarily earned, but I think it’s a responsibility. Some people would say, “That’s apologetics.” I actually believe that that is the case. But obviously you’re correct that there’s a real danger when you have such a sense, and when we do we most certainly want to maintain our separateness. There is a danger that spills over and creates a broader attitude. I mean, that’s not a small thing. I think that we fail if we don’t educate our children properly in this regard.

I think the critique may be overdone. I would suggest that a not-insignificant part of some of this arises, not because of any message from the Torah, but just because we actually live separately. I spoke about, I think a week ago Motzei Shabbos, a week and a half ago. So I spoke about the issue of racism, I was asked to address the issue. And someone asked me, “What can we do practically?” And once again, you’re asking my take, I’m not an activist. But one of the things that I observed, and this is unfortunate, because I don’t advocate students attending other colleges other than those which have a Torah environment such as YU, but a friend of mine has claimed, and I suspect that it’s hard to know whether it’s selection bias but I suspect it’s more than that, that when students attend secular colleges and they sit in classes and interact with students of other backgrounds and other races, naturally people who you know and you know as human beings, it’s much harder to demonize them or to treat them as other.

Now, I’m not advocating, I think that on the whole, on average, the loss is greater than the gain even if that’s true, the question is, how can we somehow bring that into our community, would be a good thing. I don’t really believe that people in our community, those who are racist or those who have a very negative attitude towards the outside world, I don’t believe it’s primarily because they opened up the Chumash and they saw that we are the chosen nation. I think it’s more the socioeconomic part of society in which we reside in and our isolation. I think every community to some extent is isolated. Some people are more broadly exposed, but I think that it’s common, in this country in general, societies tend to have, they may be permeable somewhat –

David Bashevkin:

Jewish or non-Jewish, meaning it’s the nature of community.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Correct. So I think that we would benefit by figuring out how to gain some exposure, because it’s much harder to denigrate and demonize people when you know them, when you recognize them as real people. But I think it is a serious concern. I would be fooling myself and trying to fool everybody else to say that we don’t sometimes fall short as a community in terms of the attitude that we cultivate towards those who aren’t us. And again, it’s tricky because, yes, intermarriage is not a small thing. And it’s not just intermarriage, it’s that we do have a different value system. There may be some overlap with Western culture, but there is a broad gap in values between a Torah society and what modern secular Western society is. So how do we preserve our values without having such a negative view towards people who are not from our world is a real challenge.

David Bashevkin:

So allow me to push a drop more on the issue that I just raised, and maybe you could clarify it. When you impart to, whether students or family members, or even to yourself, because you’re somebody who really grapples with these issues, when you look at the laws of Shabbos and distinctions that are made between saving Jews and non-Jews, when you look at distinctions that are made in Halakhah about the sense of responsibility that you may have to Jews or non-Jews, how do you as a Jew respond to that?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

So, to be honest with you, I have found from a very young age some of this very challenging. Some of the specific issues that come up are less challenging when you actually, dig down, but if I were to take the question of, take one of the examples you cited of desecrating Shabbos in order to save a Jewish life and a non-Jewish life. There are many ways of addressing the issue. It’s not so much a practical question, because poskim have dealt with it in various ways and so on, but if one accepts the mainstream approach of the Chasam Sofer, that we do it because it would be dangerous to the Jewish community not to do so, which is not a very satisfactory answer. What I often say to people is that I take comfort in the fact that Gedolei Yisrael much, much greater than I were so deeply troubled by the issue. It means to me that they perceived also some kind of a conflict within Torah. And I’ll give you a couple of examples in different ways, these were not people who were modern, secular, Western Jews who happened to study in the Beis Medrish, these were Gedolei Yisrael.

And if I were to take two examples on that specific issue, on the one hand the Rav, at some point when it became a whole public brouhaha with the Shahak affair in Israel, I think that was the time, it was in the early ’70s or late ’60s, and Rav Unterman wrote, the chief rabbi wrote an entire piece explaining –

David Bashevkin:

Can you give our listeners a one-sentence of what was at the center of that?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Apparently, a secular Israeli professor wrote into the newspapers, he made up a lie. His lie was that in some very haredi neighborhood, some non-Jew had crashed on Shabbos and nobody would pick up the phone to call for an ambulance. He made up the entire thing. The challenge, of course, was that, it’s not so far fetched from a technical halakhic perspective that you wouldn’t, that how could you be mechallel Shabbos to save the life of a non-Jew? Because that’s what the Halakhah seemingly says that you don’t. So Rav Unterman, who was the Chief Rabbi, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, wrote a very long piece trying to explain certain things, and apparently, I think that was the time when the rav was asked about this, and the rav didn’t understand what the big fuss was. He said he’s been permitting doctors to be mechallel Shabbos to save non-Jewish lives for a long time. But then when the rav was pressed about the reason, which was the reason of the Chasam Sofer, that it’s really a danger to Jewish lives if we don’t save non-Jews, so the rav was asked, and he acknowledged that he wasn’t comfortable with it.

Now, it’s not a practical issue because the Halakhah has dealt with it in the way that it’s dealt with it, but the fact that the rav was uncomfortable with that as the answer in itself gives me, it’s a miktzas nechama, it gives me a little degree of comfort that he was bothered by the issue. On the other end of the spectrum was his brother, Rav Ahron Soloveichik zichrono livracha, who adopted a position that was adopted I think by Rav Kook and by Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg which was the position of the Me’iri. The Me’iri believes are that all of those laws in the Gemara, virtually all of them, that distinguish between Jew and non-Jew only apply to uncivilized Jews. And the Me’iri was distinguished in that let’s say from his contemporary Christians –

David Bashevkin:

Uncivilized non-Jews, you mean.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Uncivilized non-Jews, correct. What he describes goyim who are not gedurim b’darchei hadasos, they are not fenced in with religion. So the Me’iri’s position undoubtedly is an outlier, he’s really a singular, the opinion of das yachid, and he’s typically only unearthed when you need to protect from censorship. But Rav Ahron Soloveichik and I believe Rav Kook and Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the Seridei Eish, they all paskened like the Mi’erie. And I heard this personally from Rav Ahron. And what’s striking to me is that from the Mi’erie’s position is obviously a much more morally satisfying, it removes a lot of the discomfort, but if I’m going to be a serious halakhist, I know that this is not in the normal bounds of how we pasken Halakhah, unearthing a minority shita that’s been buried for so long, even if I think that the Mi’erie is right and I find it very appealing. But the fact that these gedolim saw fit and felt compelled to adopt the position of the Me’iri in itself makes me sleep better at night. Again, as a practical matter, it doesn’t really matter. When someone comes and asks me the shayla, “Am I mechallel Shabbos to save a non-Jew’s life,” the answer is, of course you are. And the only question is, why?

And I follow Rabv Ahron Soloveichik in this particular fashion, I will tell you as a matter of principle, not as a matter of concession. But even at the same time that I know in my heart of hearts that this isn’t… And I wouldn’t have the gumption to do this on my own, I’m following the footsteps of giants, but I’m also aware of the fact that this is not the normal way psak Halakhah has worked. But the mere fact that these gedolim deemed it necessary to adopt such a position in itself, I would say, a miktzas nechama. It tells me that my moral compass here is not necessarily one, be influenced by the Western world ,and foreign to Torah, but it’s actually internal to Torah. We have a lot of questions that we struggle with that are internal to Torah, so this is one more question.

David Bashevkin:

And it’s their very discomfort that brings you comfort, which is an irony of sorts.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Yes.

David Bashevkin:

But that’s quite well said. I was wondering if I could ask you one final question. I always wrap up with some rapid questions, but one more final question before we get to that. So much of tikkun olam, social justice, is wrapped up, and this comes back to institutional solutions to this, is wrapped up into political activism and political means. And you’ve spoken about this quite eloquently, but I was wondering if you could weigh in on it again, because it came up again like a nuclear bomb in this last election. There were a lot of discussions about how politically vocal religious leaders should be. On the one end, there were many very prestigious, venerated Orthodox rabbis, Hasidic leaders, who were very vocal about who they should support. It happens to be that their support was to President Trump. There were others who were very troubled like this, Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote an open letter saying we should stay out of politics. I’m curious where you are on that ground, because you do weigh in on the issues that politics address. You do believe, clearly, that there is moral instruction that arises from the Torah. So where do you square your educational responsibility to your students vis-a-vis political parties, political candidates, and maybe more generally, political activism?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

So I would focus on the question of political parties. When it comes to political activism, I in principle would support it, it’s just not really my nature to do that. But political parties, I think, is more the question, and I would reiterate something that I spoke about in the Beis Medrish. I don’t believe as a general rule that Torah will tell you you should have voted for President Trump, or you should have voted for President-elect Biden. I don’t think that the Torah instructs you on the granular level. I think that each candidate potentially, and I’m not speaking specifically about this election, but in general, might have views that we would consider in line with Torah values, and might have positions that are not in line with Torah values. And the way we vote, that may factor into that decision, but every person is going to weigh what they see as wiser in a different way.

To take an issue that was not the issue de jure, where I could see someone voting for a candidate whose views are davka the opposite of Torah values because it’s to the benefit of the Jewish community. If you would take the the example – I don’t know this is written anywhere but I heard this I think from one of his family members – that Rav Moshe Feinstein, who was very stringent on abortion, he was opposed to having restrictions on abortion because he feared the Christianization of America. So even if he would have in principle supported prohibition on abortion, he was afraid that it would spill over to other things. So you might say, “I don’t necessarily want restrictions on it because I could see that the people pushing hardest might push for restrictions that might interfere with my Halakhic lifestyle.” And that’s point number one.

I mean, I think it’s rare that you can say that the Torah thinks you should vote for this party or that party or this candidate or that candidate. There is another consideration, and this I think different people see things differently, but I take my cue from something that I was told about the rav in comments that the rav made after the 1967 war. The rav’s position on trading land for peace was that it was… My sense is that, not only was the rav in favor, but he thought it would be absolutely obligatory to return land captured, if it would produce real peace. That’s a very big if, and I understand that. I’m sure the rav understood that. When the rav was asked his opinion, what in fact they should do in this context, I was told the rav refused to offer an opinion. And it wasn’t because the rav didn’t have his own opinions about Israeli politics and so on, but because the rav was afraid that people would take that opinion and see that it’s coming from the rav the gadol as opposed to the rav an ordinary citizen who has an opinion, we all have opinions about politics. So that’s the way I understand what happened, and I’ve always tried to adopt that position as best as I can.

I know that in a Halakhic society we don’t really have separation of church and state, but the world in which we live, we have separation of church and State. I don’t want to undermine my religious moral authority by adopting a political position which is my personal political position, and in doing so I would say undermine my ability to talk to people on what’s really important. To me it’s not really important that you voted for this party or that party. I have an opinion, I might see one party collectively doing more things in this area which outweigh the things they don’t do in that area, but that’s not my job. My job is to teach Torah, to try to communicate Torah values, to inspire people to live, that the Torah should be their companion and to live by it, not only in Halakhah, but in terms of their broader values. And if I adopt, positions that I adopt that will end up creating a wall or a barrier undermine my ability to perform my primary mission. And I will say, by the way, in defense of Hasidic rebbe who advocates A, he may advocate for a politician because there are direct immediate benefits to his community, and I say that not at all critically. And I understand why he would say “Vote for candidate A, because we have a connection, we deliver votes, and we’ll have issues that we need to be dealt with dealt with.” And I think in our community it’s a little bit less so, we don’t vote as a block –

David Bashevkin:

That will be the Modern Orthodox or YU community.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Right. We’re not going to vote monolothic that way, that’s not going to be on our agenda. So I understand why people in certain contexts do that, but from my vantage point, I think that the schar that you would get from pushing a particular way is far outweighed by the loss of religious and moral authority, and I think that’s why, for me personally, I do my best, I’m not perfect, but I try to keep, when I talk about issues publicly that are of political nature, I try to keep it only, not political in terms of the parties, but rather only through a Torah lens as best as I understand and can present it.

David Bashevkin:

I can’t thank you enough, just your moral clarity, the issues that you have, the confidence, and I think it takes a great deal of confidence to speak up on these issues. As we mentioned before, it’s very easy for people to characterize personalities who are willing to come up and take stands on issues that other people don’t feel comfortable being less vocal about, and I think it’s really moving how willing and confident you are to share this moral clarity and wisdom on these really complex issues.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Thank you for inviting me.

David Bashevkin:

I always end my interviews with a little bit of whimsy, so allow me to ask – It’s not all wild whimsy, it’s just not germane to the topic. Could you recommend, if somebody was coming to you, a college student, they want a book to help expose them to the ideas about that larger broader social responsibility. I’ll be honest with you, I’ve shared this with every guest. I struggled with finding the right guests for this subject, it’s not something that a lot of people are talking about front and center. What book would you recommend for somebody to appreciate the responsibility, and balancing this responsibility, to the broader society?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Unfortunately I don’t have a good recommendation. Now it may be, I have a tendency much more to lean towards primary literature than secondary literature, but when I taught a course on social justice with the prism of Halakhah, and I taught it in –

David Bashevkin:

Where did you teach it, at YU?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

In IBC, I taught it in IBC in YU several years ago. So when I taught it, the most useful book I could find was actually by a conservative rabbi, and that’s not something that obviously… The book was, I think, an honest attempt, I think it had some –

David Bashevkin:

What book, could you mind sharing the –

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

I know the author is Rabbi Jill Jacobs. I don’t remember the name of the book, but she had approached me after I had spoken I think about Eric Garner, whatever, five, six years ago, and she had actually sent me a copy of the book. Maybe if I had done better looking I could have found somewhere. I don’t know that there’s a single source book, might be it’s there and I just don’t know it, in the Orthodox community.

David Bashevkin:

You found that book to be very –

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

She grapples very honestly with the limitations, because the tikkun olam agenda, it’s not a focus topic in traditional, in Chazal, in traditional Halakhah. It’s a little piece here, a little piece there, and many of the issues, for example, criminal justice reform, there isn’t, in the penal system, you can pull out a Halakhah here a Halakhah there, but there isn’t so much to push. Or if you talk about another very important topic, which does play into issues of economics and poverty, is environmentalism. I believe very strongly in our responsibility but environmentalism is a very difficult topic to deal with in Halakhah, the sources are very, very limited for reasons I’m not going to go into now. So the shortcoming of the work, which is not her fault, is that there really isn’t so much, it requires a few sources and it requires a certain kind of ability, I would say, to construct and to push in the non-halakhic arena.

David Bashevkin:

So I know you have a PhD in Hebrew Judaic studies at NYU. I’m just curious, what was the topic of your PhD?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

The more technical narrow field was academic Talmud, I wrote my dissertation on Maseches Eduyos.

David Bashevkin:

It sounds like a page turner.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Yeah I don’t think so. It was very long, but I don’t think it has that many people who are interested. There are few people in the academy who are interested, but I think that would be about it.

David Bashevkin:

If somebody were to give you a great sum of money where you were able to take a two, three-year sabbatical, however long was necessary, to write another book, to write a PhD, what do you think the topic of that book would be?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

That’s really hard. I mean, you’ve almost set me up to say that I would want to write a book about economics and economic justice, with a Torah vision of an economically just society.

David Bashevkin:

We would read it.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

But I have to confess to being so bogged down in so many little smaller things that I haven’t really… I will tell you, if there’s one project that I want that I started and I had a student who did a little work, a high school student actually in the MTA mentoring program, would be to produce a full-fledged reader on hilchos tzedakah. I have the most rudimentary –

David Bashevkin:

The laws of charity.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

The laws of charity, starting with the work of the Tur and the Beis Yosef and Shulchan Aruch, and then everything around that. Something that would be designed that could be used on all educational levels, meant to be from elementary school, because I would say that we don’t start – you don’t have to use the words “tikkun olam” or “social justice”. Tzedakah is a major halakhic topic, it’s not simply one or two lines of Shulchan Aruch, it’s an entire section in Yore Deah, which is not generally taught or studied for the most part, and I don’t know why. We teach hilchos Pesach numerous times to our children, we might hopefully teach them hilchos Shabbos, we teach them brachos and krias shema. Why we don’t teach them hilchos tzedakah, I don’t know. If there was a project that I had the time on right now, that would be actually where I would go back and start with the material that the student who studied it with me and did some of the rudimentary work, and I would pull that together.

David Bashevkin:

I love that. It reminds me of, when I was in elementary school, I was in South Shore Elementary School, and there was a rabbi who I believe, I don’t know that he’s still alive anymore, named Rabbi Newman, who was a Chabad chassid, who, he didn’t teach us the laws, we were in second, third grade, but he would go around every day and give every student a penny to put into a pushka every morning – a little charity box – which I always found really, really remarkable. I’m always fascinated by people’s schedules, when they wake up, when they go to sleep in the morning. Rabbi Wieder, when do you usually go to sleep? When do you usually wake up?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Under normal circumstances, I’m usually asleep by 9:30 and I usually wake up at 4:00.

David Bashevkin:

You’re asleep by 9:30 to 4:00. Wow, that is a rare – So it’s a decent amount of sleep you get?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Yeah, I wouldn’t function on less than that. I usually get six and a half, seven hours of sleep.

David Bashevkin:

You’re up at 4:00 AM. And at 4:00 AM you’re…?

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

So my favorite activity is to be on the treadmill and doing daf yomi as well. I can’t show you, it’s in the next room –

David Bashevkin:

At the same time.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

But I have a large flat-screen television, and I have a laptop that I plug into it, and I have a Gemara and Rashi copied out, and I blow up the font, and I have a little remote control that I can easily switch windows and scroll up and down. So that’s when I usually, I do my daf yomi and other kinds of learning at that time.

David Bashevkin:

If I could ever imagine a Jewish approach to extracting information from a terrorist, it wouldn’t be waterboarding, it would be treadmilling while learning Maseches Eruvin. So the fact that you do that every morning is extraordinarily remarkable. Rabbi Wieder, thank you so much for your time and for this conversation, it means a great deal.

Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

Thank you very much for having me, it’s been a pleasure.

David Bashevkin:

I think for me, one of the takeaways, and this is a similar takeaway that I had in some of our earlier discussions, that once you have a principle in Judaism that is important, and let’s call it “social justice” for a second, a lot of the differences in how it is executed or how it is manifest in your life very often boils down to personality. I absolutely resonated with this. And I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong, but this is something that Rabbi Wieder mentioned, which is, he takes these issues extraordinarily importantly, and he talks about them and he writes about them. But, as he said, it’s just not in his personal constitution to pick up a megaphone and do that, it’s just not his personality. And sometimes we confuse personality types with theological position. It goes back to our introduction, where we talk about theology, sociology, and emotion, and sometimes they’re all mixed up in the same chulent and we don’t know what’s motivating what. But not every theological principle translates the same way, sociologically and emotionally, and I think with social justice, this is front-and-center quite obviously true, and Rabbi Wieder admits it himself despite his willingness and his emphasis on these issues when he talks to his students and the larger community.

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