American Orthodoxy

The Role of Vulnerability in Jewish Life

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Akiva Garner


The centrality of personal growth in Judaism is unquestionable; from Pirkei Avot, to Hilkhot De’ot of Rambam, to the mussar movement of the nineteenth century, much ink has been spilled by our teachers in their attempt to craft a system of Torah values through which we may improve ourselves. Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer (the Vilna Gaon) is quoted as saying that “the entirety of [one’s] service of God is dependent on the rectification of character traits.”[1] One important but understudied trait in this regard is vulnerability. This article aims to assess this complex trait and its positive role within Judaism.

A surface-level probe of the technical meaning of the word “vulnerable” might provide most with a distaste for the attribute. Merriam-Webster defines the word as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded,” and its synonyms are “at risk” and “endangered.” This description seems unredeemable; perhaps we would be implored to remove such a trait from ourselves, concealing any remnant of it. However, there are other manifestations of vulnerability which allow aspects of Jewish daily life to actualize themselves in their idealized forms―in ways that wouldn’t have been accessible otherwise. Although most are inclined to hide their shortcomings, one’s willingness to express vulnerability, in one’s relationship with God as well as the community, may unlock more authentic Jewish experiences. These expressions are fundamental to the prayer experience, engender genuine interpersonal connection, and encourage individual growth.

The working definition of vulnerability we may begin with is as follows: the character trait in which a person admits, either to themselves or others, their own incompleteness or weakness. Vulnerability is not tantamount to one oversharing all their difficulties to the world; rather, it is more directly a person’s willingness to present themselves to others as someone aware of, and comfortable with, the fact that attempts to succeed are often inseparable from failures to get there.

Humanity and God
The role of vulnerability in Jewish life comes to the fore particularly when analyzed in the context of one’s personal relationship with God. Prayer, an unequivocal tenet of daily Jewish life, and the most identifiable meeting point between humanity and God, is perhaps the single most common demonstration of the trait in question. The entire institution of prayer is an admission of imperfection; in its most simple, technical sense, prayer is centered around a person requesting that which they do not have, that which is beyond their ability. Prayer is a meditation on humanity’s dependence on God, an admission of the petitioner’s weakness. It is, in some sense, about realizing that what we have comes from God and that what we hope to obtain is possible with the help of God. Expressions of this approach span the wide sea of Jewish thought, from the Kabbalists[2] to Rambam’s Moreh Nevukhim.[3] By the same token, many modern figures have emphasized the importance of this notion in one’s encounter with God. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein was fond of quoting Friedrich Schleiermacher, who understood the essence of piety as identifying “the consciousness of our absolute dependence… of our relation to God.”[4] Prayer can thus be understood in this context not as a method to receive something we could not have on our own but as a movement to better understand ourselves and our finitude, especially in the face of God’s infinitude.

In fact, this may not merely be a facet of the meaning and importance of prayer but an essential element, a sine qua non for employing authentic prayer. Rabbi Zadok Ha-kohen of Lublin enthusiastically espoused this idea, claiming that “fundamental prayer from the depth of the heart [is born] from the power of recognizing lack.”[5] According to R. Zadok, in order to pray from the depth of one’s heart, one must first understand that they are at risk, that they contain voids which they long to fill, and any subsequent prayer must flow from that understanding. Rabbi Menachem Froman, in one of his many tongue-in-cheek sayings, echoes this thought, expanding it to include even physical manifestations of prayer:

They once asked one of the Hasidic rebbes: Why do your Hasidim wave their hands and shake their bodies during prayer, in such unflattering movements? He answered: When a person is drowning and wants to be saved, he doesn’t take care to make sure that his swimming is particularly graceful. He wants to be saved.[6]

Rabbi Froman’s comment is jarring. He associates prayer with the desperate struggle one would undergo while drowning, fighting for their life, gasping for breath. One who prays realizes that they cannot live without the help of God, and that their abilities are not sourced in “their strength and the power of their own hand” (Deut. 8:17). This impassioned prayer is a person’s most intimate expression of pain and discomfort, and to experience this fervor, one must first be aware that they are “drowning.” In a similar vein, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik presented an understanding of the highest level of prayer as a petition of the vulnerable and needy:

Prayer as a personal experience, as a creative gesture, is possible only if and when man discovers himself in crisis or in need… Since prayer flows from a personality which finds itself in need, despondent and hopeless, its main theme is not praise or adoration, but rather request, demand, supplication. True prayer comes to expression in the act of begging and interceding.[7]                      

To participate and engage in prayer is of deep importance in daily Jewish life arguably in part because it is the most direct confrontation many have with their own imperfection and vulnerability. The significance attributed to prayer may flow from the profound necessity of recognizing our own humanity and understanding that we are not God, and that, as humans, we often fall short. To enter the covenant with God, one must pray, and to pray, one must first recognize that they are not whole. This is not negative or disparaging; it is to describe what it means to be human, to be a finite being striving to connect to that which is infinite.

In Our Communities
It is perhaps more challenging to determine the benefit of vulnerability when it comes to our relationships with families and communities. However, as I will argue, vulnerability can serve as a means to connect with others, may encourage individual betterment and communal contribution, and has inherent value from a halakhic standpoint. An overarching potential role for vulnerability in our communal discourse stems directly from the above discussion regarding one’s relationship with God: it can impact the way we talk about the human-divine relationship amongst each other, specifically in the narrative surrounding our responsibility and capacity to serve God.

Judaism is a religion of commandment, brimming with expectation and idealism; individuals are called upon to put their best effort forward on a daily basis to better themselves and their surrounding environment. However, these objectives may run the risk of individuals becoming ashamed of themselves when high standards are not met. Accordingly, when we perpetuate the myth that every person is expected to be perfect in their precise fulfillment of every detail of Jewish life, it may devastate those who struggle with some of these details. Creating such a culture―where struggle and failure are intolerable―is grossly negligent in our ethical duty.

It is, however, difficult to admit that we fall short with the precise fulfillment of certain aspects of halakhic life; are we willing to expose ourselves as being vulnerable in this way? Rabbi Isaac Hutner understood the importance of this very tension, and he depicted his attitude toward it strongly in a celebrated letter to one of his students:

It is a terrible problem that when we discuss the greatness of our Torah giants (gedolim), we actually deal only with the end of their stories. We tell about their perfection, but we omit any mention of the inner battles which raged in their souls. The impression one gets is that they were created with their full stature. For example, everyone is impressed by the purity of Hofetz Hayyim’s speech. However, who knows about all the wars, the battles, the impediments, the downfalls, and the retreats that Hofetz Hayyim experienced in his fight with the evil inclination?! As a result, when a young man who is imbued with a [holy] spirit and with ambition experiences impediments and downfalls, he believes that he is not planted in the house of Hashem.[8]

In responding to a student distressed by his spiritual shortcomings, Rabbi Hutner does not guarantee that if the student simply works harder things will turn out well, nor does he merely encourage the student to keep trying. Rather, R. Hutner instills within him the comfort that his trial and error will be worthwhile. He ensures the student that his struggles are normal and that authentic achievement does not come without failure along the way. In such an instance, vulnerability is thus not only the modality of being a struggling person but also the courage to expose oneself to others as being as such, allowing oneself to be seen as imperfect in an effort to affirm the normalcy of life’s difficulties and comfort those around us.

The truth is, however, that R. Hutner was not the first Jewish figure to illustrate such a conviction. Those as early as the psalmists, and King David in particular, publicly portrayed their deeply personal struggle with their relationship with God and the world around them. Themes of distress, anguish, and despair fill the pages of the Book of Psalms,[9] a work which has become a place of refuge for many throughout history. This may be because its readers feel as if they can find themselves within the text, they can empathize with King David who was grappling with the same issues as they are. Why must the psalmists simply be role models of our past? We may have room to learn from their approach to admitting their vulnerabilities.

This level of vulnerability ultimately opens the possibility of more genuine interpersonal relationships with those around us. It turns out to be a psychological truth that this is often best accomplished through first exposing oneself as vulnerable. Professor Brené Brown explains that what hinders connection is actually the fear that one is not worthy of connection, of being cared for.[10] People believe that they deserve to be lonely because of their imperfections, she explains, and thus they feel the need to hide them. On the flip side, we are intimidated by those who disguise themselves with the appearance of perfection; we cannot relate to or develop a true emotional connection with them. This vulnerability to admit personal struggle closes the boundless gap and reveals common ground; it opens the gates for mutual sensitivity. This posture makes people feel less alone, and that they are worthy of human connection. Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef Leiner beautifully illustrates the redemptive quality of this vulnerability:

…those individuals whose hearts are worried within them, murmuring, yearning for God to heal the blemishes of their heart…When they meet each other, they will say to one another with great joy: “My friend, you wouldn’t believe the lack I struggled with, that I was forced to burden, and now I am finally finding redemption.” And their friend will respond to them: “I also experienced redemption from the particular lack that I struggled with, that I was forced to burden in this world.” Then together they shall sing…[11]

Rabbi Leiner sees a messianic quality to a society in which individuals will be able to admit to others that they have stumbled through life, that things have not been easy for them, that they have fallen and made mistakes. Once they feel comfortable exposing a level of vulnerability, setting the stage for empathy and authentic connection, then “together they shall sing.” Without the ability to feel vulnerable, we’d find ourselves alone, stationed in darkened corners of our own withdrawn, imperceptible world.

In addition to developing more meaningful empathetic relationships with others, vulnerability can encourage the individual effort to grow in both personal and communal settings. Judaism is a religion in which the aggregate ethos is one of “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 19:2), and in which, as Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has remarked, “Even though aspiration takes one beyond the bounds of the legal requirement—lifnim mi-shurat ha-din—the extra-legal is itself commanded.”[12] It is therefore imperative that we work to create communities in which aspiration is encouraged, and that any person who attempts to improve themselves within the framework of Judaism not be disheartened in the slightest.

It is helpful to utilize the definition popularized by the aforementioned professor Brown: she describes vulnerability as the “courage to be imperfect.” We must be cultivating a culture where vulnerability is not laughable, but rather it allows a person to be at ease with the possibility of failure—a culture which avoids that which is described by Alexei Karamazov: “Nowadays, almost all capable people are terribly afraid of being ridiculous, and are miserable because of it.”[13] If we expect leaders and aspirational thinkers to emerge from among us, we must first instill within them the understanding that struggles and mistakes are not indicative of incapacity and that only those who first fail may eventually succeed.[14] That is to say, this culture must be one that acknowledges that we specifically become great through our willingness to attempt to be great.

This goal leaves the burden not only on the individual in their everyday interactions with others but on the collective community as well, especially in the hands of its leaders. If a young boy is concerned that if he gets up to be the shaliah tzibbur for prayer and mispronounces a word, he might be seen as less than impressive, what are the chances that he would be willing to do so? Similarly, a young girl too worried to answer a question in class because of how she’d be seen if she responds incorrectly is more likely to eventually stop paying attention in class entirely. How willing might this student be to share her ideas in the future? Here again, R. Hutner’s previously mentioned letter becomes all the more relevant and powerful. Vulnerability thus does not only provide us with a method for connecting to others, but it also in a very practical sense encourages individual growth, creativity, and leadership within our communities.

All of the themes which have been explored thus far may even be inherent in the very institution of law which animates Jewish daily life. Halakhah itself values humanity even more so than perfection, and one of the strongest expressions of this can be found in a Talmudic dictum. On several occasions, when the Sages are tasked with understanding unrealistic demands that Halakhah seems to impose, they proclaim that “the Torah was not given to the ministering angels.”[15] Fascinatingly, this is not just an admittance of limitation, but it is accompanied by a change in the Halakhah. In doing this, the Talmud is teaching us that a prerequisite for the halakhic system to function properly is to first recognize the limits of humanity; even though some supernal standards might seem to indicate the law be one way, Hazal had an acute awareness of that it is simply inconceivable for the Divine mandate to be beyond human capability.

For the Sages, our humanity in relation to law is not a bediavad situation. Masekhet Shabbat offers a riveting discussion which occurred as Moses arose to receive the Torah:

The ministering angels said before God: “Master of the Universe, what is one born of a woman doing here among us?” [God] said to them: “He came to receive the Torah.” The angels said before Him: “The Torah is a hidden treasure… and you seek to give it to flesh and blood?”… Moses said before Him: “Master of the Universe, the Torah that You are giving me―what is written in it?” God said to him: “I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of Egypt.” Moses said to the angels: “Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours?”… Again, Moses asked: “What else is written in it?” God said to him: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal.” Moses asked the angels: “Is there jealousy among you, or is there an evil inclination within you (that would render these commandments relevant)?” Immediately they agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He.[16]

This entire discussion between Moses, God, and the angels serves as an irrefutable testament to the intended ideal of the Torah being given to humans, not only despite our fundamental fallibility and imperfections but perhaps precisely because of them. In light of this, the statement that “the Torah was not given to the ministering angels” is by no means one of disdain or embarrassment but rather a sentiment of unflinching self-awareness and a fact necessary for crafting the consummate halakhic system.

Against this background, we can see that Torah and Halakhah, in their ideal forms, are open to expressing a sort of vulnerability. Another midrash states that the concept of teshuvah, repentance, was created before the universe itself;[17] the possibility of failure and sin was always already embedded into creation, rather than being symptomatic of a human mistake which caused sin.[18] Most importantly, what we can take from here is that donning counterfeit masks of perfection, refusing to come to terms with our shortcomings, or simply being invulnerable is not only antithetical to the spirit of Halakhah and our unique connection to Torah itself, but it also effectively removes us from humanity, to whom the Torah was exclusively given.

When we are comfortable exposing ourselves as being at risk, as being sensitive, as being human, we broaden our purposeful existence as Jews. Vulnerability enables us to engage more meaningfully with prayer, cultivate growth-oriented communities, and perhaps most effectively, create deeper connections with those around us.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to point out that vulnerability, like most traits, has its hazards as well. Firstly, one might be vulnerable simply with the hope that others should resolve his problems on his behalf―with the assumption that the pity he receives from others might exempt him from contributing to his own efforts to overcome his difficulty. This must be avoided for vulnerability to remain a healthy trait. While Judaism does not expect each individual “to finish the work” without the help of others, we are “neither free to desist from it.”[19] Vulnerability should create compassionate symbiotic relationships which reinforce effort; however, ultimately it should be understood that, as Milton remarked, each of us are created “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,”[20] and individual responsibility remains of paramount importance.

Furthermore, the argument that has been made here is not that we should be vulnerable in order that we become complacent with our difficulties and collectively give up on them. There lies a tremendous distinction between being comfortable failing and being satisfied with failure; the former encourages effort in the face of potential shortcoming, while the latter removes the possibility of success and progress entirely.

Lastly, embracing vulnerability should be done with the value of tzniut in mind. Sharing personal, emotional experiences must be done in a context which is comfortable for all parties; artificially attempting to accelerate a relationship by leaping immediately to sensitive information can wind up doing more harm than good. An appropriate level of transparency should inspire mutual personal growth and not sensationalize or romanticize shortcomings.

The discussion of character traits can be a volatile, sensitive one, so it seems fitting to close with a relevant Talmudic teaching.[21] While discussing the possible influences that the constellations at the time of one’s birth may play on that person’s eventual character traits, the Gemara mentions that one born under the influence of Mars will be a spiller of blood. Rav Ashi swiftly qualifies this statement, noting that this person can either be a blood-letter, or a mohel, one who performs circumcisions. Rav Ashi has done something significant here: he ensures that traits originate inherently neutral, and whether they manifest as beneficial or destructive will depend on how we choose to employ them. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook, perhaps influenced by this very Gemara, spells this point out:

Every positive trait has inherent deficiencies that come along with it. And this is the complete service [of God]: to extract these positive traits to the light of the world, cleansed of all of their deficiencies.[22]

Rabbi Kook believes that it is our responsibility to identify the latent good within all traits and to utilize them in their proper time. It follows that it is incumbent upon us to do the same for our ability to be vulnerable, for when done appropriately, the sensitivity it creates can immeasurably impact lives―and communities―for the better.

[1] Even Shlemah 1:1.

[2] Zohar 1:31a: In kabbalistic thought, earthly reality is the manifestation of God known as malkhut. This level has “nothing of its own,” and all of its vitality comes from above. This reflects the way in which prayer is depicted, as the one who prays comes to recognize that they have nothing of their own.

[3] Guide for the Perplexed III:44.

[4] Aharon Lichtenstein, Return and Renewal: Reflections on Teshuva and Spiritual Growth, eds. Michael S. Berger and Reuven Ziegler (Jerusalem: Maggid, 2018), 31.

[5] Resisei Laylah §6. See further Tzidkat Ha-Tzadik §211 where R. Zadok emphasizes the importance of a Jew engaging in both Torah and prayer. He says that this is because the Torah on its own can make a person feel as if they are complete and whole. The problem is, however, that the Torah was only given to those who lack (see Shabbat 88b-89a). Thus, through prayer―whose whole concern is recognizing lack and requesting from God that it be fulfilled―one is able to balance out this contradictory sense of wholeness that the Torah offers.

[6] Hasidim Tzohakim Mi-Zeh §59. Thanks to Rav Levi Morrow for the translation.

[7] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind: Essays on Mourning, Suffering and the Human Condition, eds. David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Zieger (New York: KTAV, 2003), 161.

[8] Pahad Yitzhak, Iggrot U-Ketavim §128. Thanks to R. Shlomo Katz for the translation.

[9] One does not need to search far for such themes, but in particular, see chapters 88 and 143.

[10] Brené Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” filmed June 2010 in Houston, Texas, TED video, 20:03,

[11] Mei Ha-Shiloah, Volume II, Isaiah 52:1. Thanks to Joey Rosenfeld for the translation.

[12] Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “Of Love, Holiness, and the Other,” Tradition Online (April 18, 2021). See further Sefer Mitzvot Katan, 49.

[13] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (Mineloa, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 590.

[14] On vulnerability and leadership, see Brené Brown, Dare To Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. (New York: Random House, 2018).

[15] See Yoma 30a, Meilah 14b, Berakhot 25b.

[16] Shabbat 88b-89a. See further Bekhorot 17b where there is a fascinating discussion regarding whether we can be tasked with following precise measurements. The Gemara suggests that even though one may not succeed, they are nonetheless expected to make their best effort, and this too finds favor in God’s eyes.

[17] Bereshit Rabbah 1:4; see also Eccl. 7:20.

[18] Similarly, many―especially the Hasidic masters of Ishbitz―have pointed out that the Talmud regularly depicts the “sin” at the Garden of Eden as occurring on day six of creation, implying that the episode was just that: an intended creative act of God, rather than an accidental occurrence which humanity ideally should have avoided.

[19] Pirkei Avot 2:16.

[20] John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. John Leonard (London: Penguin Books, 2003), III.99.

[21] Shabbat 156a.

[22] Middot Ha-Rayah, El Ha-Middot §2.

Akiva Garner is an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University, studying Jewish Philosophy and English. He can be reached at