Of Cave Dwellers and Insulation
Chapter 6, Law 1
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"It is the inherent nature of man (lit., 'it is the way of a person's
creation') to be drawn, both in his attitudes and deeds, after his friends
and associates, and to act in the manner of the inhabitants of his
country. Therefore, a person is obligated to befriend the righteous and to
constantly be in the presence of the wise in order that he learn from
their acts. He should [likewise] distance himself from the wicked who go
in darkness in order that he not learn from their ways. This is as Solomon
stated, '[One who] walks with the wise will become wise, and one who
befriends fools will suffer harm' (Proverbs 13:20). It also
states, 'Fortunate is the man who did not walk in the counsel of the
wicked, [and in the way of sins he did not stand, and in the sessions of
the scorners he did not sit]' (Psalms 1:1).
"So too if a person is in a country in which its practices are bad and its
inhabitants do not walk in the upright path, he should move to a place in
which its inhabitants are righteous and act properly. And if all the
countries that he knows of and has heard of act improperly -- as in our
times, or he is unable to travel to a country where its practices are good
because of bands of soldiers or [his own] ill health, he should dwell
alone, by himself, as it states, 'Let him sit in solitude and be silent'
(Lamentations 3:28). And if [his country's inhabitants] are evil and
sinful [so much so] that they do not allow him to live in the country
unless he is involved with them and acts in their bad ways, he should go
out to caves, brier patches and deserts and not accustom himself in sinful
ways, in the manner that it states, 'Who would give me in the wilderness a
guest lodge...' (Jeremiah 9:1).")
We are now beginning a new chapter of the Rambam. It deals with man's
relationship with his surroundings and with interpersonal relationships in
The overall theme this week is the extent to which man is influenced by
his environment and the consequent importance of living in a healthy one.
We are all familiar with the enormous pressure exerted by one's
neighborhood and society and the almost palpable pressure not to stand
out. (I discussed this once before in Pirkei Avos 2:14).) People will go to enormous lengths to hide their
Jewishness (or any other shortcoming) in an irreligious environment or to
demonstrate it in a religious one. Although such pressures are basically
superficial, they are very real -- and quite difficult to overcome. And
so, advises the Rambam, we must make every effort to live in a positive
environment and avoid the negative -- even to the extent of withdrawing
from society and finding a comfortable cave in which to dwell unmolested.
(As an interesting aside, much of Rambam's early life was spent in such
seclusion (or wandering from place to place), while his family was on the
run from the fanatical Almohad Muslims who conquered much of his native
Spain. During that time, while still in his twenties, the Rambam authored
his first great work, his commentary on the Mishna. Later in his life, in
his capacity of court and harem physician for the Sultan Saladin, the
Rambam obviously did not have the liberty to retire from public life
(though he himself wrote above "as in our times"), and so resigned himself
to residing in an environment he most certainly considered far from
conducive to a Torah lifestyle.
There's an obvious yet basic question on the Rambam's entire premise this
week, one which actually sheds great light on the true mechanics of this
law. I read the question posed by R. Zev Leff (www.rabbileff.net) of
Moshav Matisyahu, Israel (_Outlooks & Insights_ p. 175). If we are
supposed to live only in the company of the righteous, well then who are
the righteous supposed to live with? Why would they agree to live with
*us*? Shouldn't they be attempting to live with people more righteous than
they? And if so, why would they let us move in to their communities? They
should move out for a worthier place as soon as we arrive! (And of course,
those more righteous than *they* should be seeking a community yet *more*
religious!) If so, how can the Rambam's advice ever be put to practical
Thus, clearly, the Rambam's advice cannot be viewed as entirely practical.
For better or worse, it takes all kinds to make a community -- the
scholars, the ignoramuses, the rich, the poor, the nudniks, the yentas,
etc.. Although we should clearly opt to live in the best one we can find,
there is no escaping the rest of the world -- nor (for better or worse)
their escaping us.
As an aside, many small communities in Israel do have screening committees
to ensure prospective neighbors will not utterly compromise their
standards. But practically speaking, it is unrealistic to hermetically
seal off one's community, allowing only the "righteous" to live there. In
fact, from what I've seen and heard, communities which attempt to take
this to an extreme do not end off any better in terms of the spiritual
standing of their residents, nor do they lessen such prevalent problems as
teenage drop-outs. Some in fact suggest that such problems become
exacerbated in such places. In more mixed communities -- or living in the
Diaspora -- you and your children know what you stand for and with what
and whom you should and should not be involved. In completely homogeneous
communities, by contrast, life consists more of the unconsidered just
doing what everyone else does. And as we know, such religious behavior may
be a mile wide but an inch deep.
An equally important related point is that especially in today's times, it
is virtually impossible to keep away all outside influences. Certainly we
must attempt to maintain high community standards, but no amount of effort
will keep the entire outside world at bay. Attempting to ensure one's
children have never even heard of television, movies, Internet,
video games, (or girls for that matter) just isn't going to happen.
Rather, as I once heard esteemed educator and counselor R. Noach Orlowek
comment, you cannot raise children by keeping all alternatives away.
Bottom line we must convey to our children that what we offer them is the
best -- and they must really know it. They must feel good about who they
are and what they stand for. They must appreciate Judaism for what it is,
not because that's what everyone (except the goyim) do and because they've
never been exposed to anything else. Believe me, that exposure will come
sooner or later, and if they're not prepared, it'll hit them like a bolt
of seductive lightening.
A further opposing idea is one expressed by my teacher, R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu), and that is that it really depends on who you are.
Once while addressing budding rabbinical students and active community
members, he advised that they should live in a community in which they'll
make the most difference. Don't just cloister yourself in some "ultra-
Orthodox" community in the Holy Land, where you can study undisturbed for
the rest of your life. Rather, live where you can contribute, where you'll
make a significant impact on your neighbors and community at large. Of
course, such advice can only be offered to people strong enough in their
own faith to influence rather than be influenced themselves. But if
someone is such a person, my teacher considered it *selfishness* to retire
from public life to become (to use my own expression) a no one in a sea of
black, when he could have been the one to be the change.
As we all know further, some people absolutely thrive when they recognize
they're the best ones to make that difference -- say they're one of the
few religious students in a college campus or one of the few devoted
members of a far-flung community. They eagerly rise to the challenge --
and grow from it as well.
One final relevant point is that today as in past times, rabbis and
educators are needed to strengthen small, distant Jewish communities.
Often such selfless individuals spend their lives giving to those less
enriched than they -- and as a result, are compelled to raise their own
families in environments far weaker than they would consider ideal. Many
would be hesitant to leave the confines of the study hall and established
Jewish communities for such a life. However, I have heard that many great
rabbis -- including R. Aharon Kotler (one of the founders of the yeshiva
movement in America after the War), and my own teacher R. Yaakov Weinberg
OBM -- would promise such young rabbis that if they make so great a
sacrifice for G-d's children, He will surely watch over their own.
I know personally one case in which a young family years ago move out to
teach in a Jewish day school of such a community. The daughter of the
family told me that most of her years in school she was the only Orthodox
student in her class. All the others classmates hailed from only
moderately traditional families from the surrounding area who merely
considered a nominal Jewish education preferable to public school. And,
she continued, she would never want her own children exposed to the
type of frivolity and lewdness she was exposed to. Yet today all seven
children in that family grew up to be absolute gems, each one better than
the next (better so, in fact, than many of their New York City-raised
Thus, in conclusion, although the Rambam's advice is certainly relevant,
it must be weighed against many other equally significant considerations.
Certainly there are times in which the environment at large is so
deleterious that we can do nothing but withdraw into communities as
insulated as we can muster. Yet at the same time our goal must not only be
to flee from evil and save ourselves. We must equally attempt to
create such an environment ourselves, one which others will be
drawn to and inspired by. For ultimately we must remember that our purpose
as a nation is not to run from or ignore the world at large, but to
ourselves become an enduring light unto the nations (Isaiah 42:6).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org