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A dear friend and rabbinic colleague of mine casually mentioned to me that as a gift for his birthday his wife presented him with a new tallit - the kind that does not constantly slip off of one’s shoulders when in prayerful use. I was intrigued by this revelation on two counts. There are still spouses around who give each other birthday gifts?! And, secondly, is it possible that technology has finally achieved a solution to the millennia old problem of the discomfort of trying to maintain concentration on one’s prayers to God while one’s tallit keeps on slipping?

Assured by those who had purchased one of these non-slip talitot, that they are ninety percent effective (only old rabbis are one hundred percent effective) I took the plunge and purchased two of them to replace the constantly-slipping-off-my-shoulders type that I own. Though it is my personal policy not to endorse or disparage products or people in my writings (however every rule has an exception - sometimes) I do find that this non-slip tallit is a boon to mankind generally and to Jewish prayer concentration particularly. It is a practical achievement long overdue – at least in my case.
A tallit that constantly slips off of one’s shoulders during prayer is at first an annoyance but it gradually grows into a distraction and a disturbance. When one is addressing the congregation publicly, teaching and sermonizing, it is very counter-productive to holding the attention of one’s listeners when the speaker constantly has to readjust his tallit. It seems the audience is more fascinated by the slipping and often begins to ignore what the speaker has to say. So the non-slip tallit is a blessing in both respects.
All of this has set me thinking, in a symbolic way, about the story of the Jewish people over the past few centuries. There is no question that the talit has slipped off of the shoulders of millions of Jews during this latter period of time.  The reasons and causes for this are varied. But, the main background for all of these reasons is the confrontation with the ideas and social mores of modernity, democracy, technology, social mobility and educational and professional opportunity that the modern world brought and continues to bring with it.
The initial reaction of Eastern European Orthodoxy (unlike that of German Orthodoxy) was to either ignore or completely reject the existence and unstoppable influence of modernity on the Jewish street. The hallmark of Orthodoxy was, and in many of its circles today, still remains the rejection of constantly advancing communicative technology, secular studies, scientific fact and certainly the changing roles of individuals in a constantly evolving and more complex society.
While all of the other movements that swept the Jewish masses on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries offered responses to modernity, Orthodoxy did not. Tragically none of those responses has stood the test of time and they are all, more or less, now in the ash heap of history. Orthodoxy survived and has even prospered simply because of adherence to Torah and tradition and God’s covenant with the Torah and the Jewish people who would observe it.
The cost of that survival, however, has been great and painful. There are a lot of talitot that have slipped off of Jewish shoulders because of our inability to develop a reasonable, practical strategy regarding the challenges of modernity that face us.      
So, again, symbolically, we should try and develop for our society a non-slip talit. No matter what we devise, it, not unlike the physical non-slip talit itself, will only be ninety percent effective. There is no one-size-fits-all in matters of faith and belief and the Lord’s gift of free will remain constant in all times and circumstances. But such a non-slip talit, imperfect as it may be, will be a vast improvement over what is now the case.
We must begin to ask ourselves the hard questions that we always have avoided, questions that modernity has forced upon us?  How can we continue to preach poverty and charitable dependency in a world of obvious plenty and great opportunity? How do we expect our future generation to succeed and inspire themselves and others in an educationally advancing and complex technical world if that generation has, at best, only an inferior elementary school level of education and skills?
Why are there so many of our children at risk and off the derech, having let their talitot slip off of their shoulders for no apparent reason? Why does Orthodoxy have such a bad name and reputation amongst other Jews, when sixty years ago it was still admired? Why so much divorce and family dysfunction in our society today? These are only some of the questions that current modernity has thrust upon us. We need a non-slip talit to help address them.
Shabbat shalom

Berel Wein 

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