May 2019

By Julian Biller

We recently met with Rav Shmuel Klitsner, a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, who currently teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. For many of us, however, he was better known for his involvement in the animated Chanukkah film, “Lights” (I hope it was for many of us, at least. It may be projecting my own excitement!). In addition to his regular teaching at the Seminary, he also oversees a small, intense program for the ordination of female Rabbis, ultimately administering the national Rabbanut exam, granting Smicha beyond doubt.

One of the most fascinating things about Rav Klitsner, in my eyes, is his handling of this Smicha program. It is fairly radical for the Orthodox world, ‘modern’ or not. When pushed, Rav Klitsner admitted that it was uncommon, and could be viewed as pushing boundaries. There was no personal sense of radicalism behind his actions, nor was there a sense of false humility or even a quiet pride. Rather, it was as ordinary to him as buying eggs, or teaching classes.

People often speak of the idea of ‘normalization’, whether in a political, religious, social, or another context. Normalization, for better and for worse, is the idea of accepting something as truly part of the world and considering ourselves a part of that world. Rav Klitsner’s actions stood out not because they were radical, nor because I was imbued with a sense of awe by his presence. It was the very absence of any of that, any pomp or flair, or even of well-deserved pride, which made him so remarkable. And most importantly, he demonstrated this not by what he said, but rather by who he was, living the path toward a world in which Halakha can be valued, learned, and held to while accepting and taking a full part in our modern reality.

The second aspect which stood out so strongly to me about Rav Klitsner was his understanding of interaction with Halakha. He is a Rabbi. He wears a Kippa and Tzitzit. He prays three times a day and has dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah. And he drives, and worries, and eats at (kosher) restaurants just like anyone else you would meet in America. He is deeply bound to Halakha, and explained his understanding of the Torah as source, the Liturgy as expanding upon it, and the community as necessary to accept, and sometimes even to shape the Halakha.

He spoke of Halakha as always present in his life. That is to say that it is beyond just saying a blessing before eating lunch, but when he is driving on a highway and sees a car broken down, he thinks of the Talmudic obligations to help one whose donkey has become injured. He admitted that, like many of us, he does not stop for every single vehicle. However, he continued, living a Halakhic life, in his eyes, is not about demanding that we stop every single time. Rather it is about demanding that we ask ourselves the question every time. That we think about the world around us always, and our role within it. For Rav Klitsner, Halakha is, above all, about living a life confronted.

All sorts of movements across the US strive for this: intentionality, meditation, radical-honesty. But at the end of the day, they’re all searching for what Rav Klitsner sees in Halakha. A way to be truly engaged in the world. A way to live a life, confronted.