“This is what the Lord has commanded that you do,” says Moses, “that the presence of the Lord may appear to you” (Leviticus 9:6). What follows are the instructions for initiating Aaron and his sons into cultic service in the presence of the Israelites. Yet Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin (d. 1893) chooses to read this verse out of context, applying it to later Jewish life rather than to the priestly investiture.

 

To the NaTZIV, as he is known by his acronym, this verse so easily overlooked is key to understanding the practice of Judaism. “If you wish to try to attain God’s love,” he writes, “you must only follow the path that God commands and not seek other paths to approach God as you might understand it. Then and only then will the Lord’s presence appear to you.”

 

Living at the threshold of the twentieth century the NaTZIV was aware of many modern approaches to Judaism. And he was not averse to cooperating with different movements. So, for example, at the end of his responsum entitled “On the Right and the Left,” he advocates for unity rather than enmity in relations with the “Neologs” (Reform Jews) writing: “Israel has a mandate to be the “Rock of Israel” (“Even Yisrael”), that is, that they need to be bound up in one union, whatever the differences” (translations by Jerome Chanes). Thus, any deliberate retreat from the community by Orthodox Jews, for example, “is as painful as a knife in the body of the nation.”

Nevertheless, mutual tolerance and cooperation is not the same as acceptance. The NaTZIV held that anti-Semitism is attributable to one unfortunate by-product of modernity: assimilation. Anti-Semitism grows when Jews imitate non-Jews and begin to adopt the attitudes of the majority. Holding to the traditional values of Judaism is the only way to preserve Judaism, argues the NaTZIV, ascribing this view to the Torah itself.