My teacher (and exemplar) Nechama Leibowitz z”l was fond of telling the story of a cab driver who once asked her if she knew what the difference was between a melamed (one who teaches) and a moreh (a teacher). Nechama remarked that she thought they were essentially the same. The cab driver then said to her: How do you know whether drinking whiskey to excess is a healthy thing or not? The answer: Go to a bar and watch a guy drink too much and then see how he acts. That guy has been a melamed to you! [as opposed to a ‘teacher’ who would simply tell you not to drink too much.”]
What the cab driver was of course pointing to is that we learn from observing other people’s behaviors and not only by what other people tell us with their mouths. And, as we have noted, that is true in the spiritual domain as well.
Indeed, Robert Wuthnow, Chair of the Sociology Department at Princeton and Director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion, once noted that in the 1950’s there was a certain taken-for-granted quality about religion in America. For a variety of reasons, religion was just lived, very much centered around family and community, where children learned about what it meant to be religious and they themselves often became religious, almost by osmosis. There wasn’t a lot of need for articulation about what we believe and do or why we did it. Our lives were filled with spiritual exemplars. All of that changed in the 60’s.
As Orthodox Jews, we believe that our lives are still fairly self-contained and we would like to believe that our community is still filled with spiritual exemplars. But our kids now have more competing exemplars than ever before not so much from other faith communities but certainly in the secular world in which they are also firmly rooted. Like it or not, the latest pop star or music star, the sports figure who just signed a contract for megamillions, the movie star whose intimate secrets are revealed on a website, can all be exemplars for our kids too and, at times, in ways that are at odds with the values that our community holds dear. Being a Jewish spiritual exemplar these days, then, takes special effort and aforethought. It simply cannot be taken for granted in the same way as it was in the past.
And so perhaps we need to ask ourselves what does it mean to be a spiritual exemplar for our kids these days? Are we always the role models that we can and should be? What would it take? What changes do I have to make to my own life, to our family life, to my child’s life, in order for them to be better exposed to spiritual exemplars? Sometimes it requires real changes in one’s life; but other times I suspect it just means asking oneself the question more often than we might otherwise do.
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Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than thirty five years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.