A few weeks ago I sat down with a college student at a mid-western university to discuss his thoughts on Jewish life on campus, and how Judaism could be relevant to him. We spoke for some two hours, touching on many interesting ideas. We talked about how the Torah is a channel to finding meaning in life, no matter where life takes us. 

At the end of our conversation we hit the big question. If the Torah is so valuable and can make my life so meaningful, why doesn't everybody use it, learn it and follow it more?

Ahhh, the great question of all questions: "But what will the others say?"

Before dealing with this question, I'd like to go back to the origins of two great Jewish law books, by two great rabbis.

In the 1530's a rabbi named Yosef Caro arrived in Safed, in the north of the Land of Israel. He had been born far from that town, having been expelled - along with all Jews - from Spain at age 4, and from Portugal at age 9.  

He is renowned in the Jewish world for having authored the premier book of Jewish law, the "Shluchan Aruch" (or "Set Table"), which is followed by Jews around the word to this day.

While there are many books of Jewish law, Rabbi Caro's was chosen by nearly all Jewish communities across the globe as the final say. (Because Rabbi Caro was a Sefardi, an Ashkenazi rabbi from Poland, Rabbi Moshe Iserlis, later added notes to Rabbi Caro's Shulchan Aruch, inserting the Ashkenazi customs where they differed from the Sefardi ones.)

Since the Shulchan Aruch was written to be a clean, user friendly manual of Jewish practice, the author excluded any reasoning or explanation of the laws in his book. For this he felt we could look in the Talmud and its commentaries to see what lies behind all the laws he recorded. His book was intended simply to tell us what to do.

Some two hundred years passed, and another scholar, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the first Rebbe of Chabad), would write a similar but adjusted version of Rabbi Caro's work. The main goal of this new work would be to include basic reasoning for the law as well. 

Another interesting difference between this new code of law and Rabbi Caro's original is a short line that Rabbi Shneur Zalman inserted (quoting the Talmud), in the second line of the book: "Be bold as a leopard... do not be embarrassed by those who mock you". 

Rabbi Shneur Zalman lived at the early stages of what would become unparalleled freedoms for European Jews, from German emancipation in the 1700's to Napoleon's égalité in the 1800's, even for some Jews in the Russian Empire. This would herald a time, while filled with material freedoms, that would pose immense challenges to Jewish faith and practice. 

These freedoms, while bringing much needed blessings in the form of respite from severe persecution and oppression, would simultaneously bring on the greatest challenge ever to face the Jewish people, which can be summed up in one line: "What will the others say?"

That simple question sounds rather painless, but has been more challenging than some of the most harsh anti-Jewish violence we've ever faced. When the world is ready to accept us, see us as fellow human beings and treat us as equals, there is an intense internal pressure to conform.

This pressure can be very strong, so when we feel pressured not to be proudly Jewish and to hide our Jewishness, we shouldn't be ashamed of ourselves that we feel this way. For this is the greatest challenge to being Jewish that anyone could face, and I'd dare say even more difficult than staring down the Soviet KGB for practicing Judaism.

On the flip side, every time we can overcome this challenge, be proud of our heritage, and stand tall for who we are, we have hundreds of generation of ancestors looking down on us and being proud that we can stand up for the Jewish heritage which they gave so much for us to still have today.

Rabbi Avrohom