EDITOR'S NOTE: The article that follows originally appeared in Mishpacha, a weekly glossy magazine with an international readership and produced in multiple foreign-language translations, on Feb. 12, 2020. Mr. Limbaugh passed on Feb. 17, 2021.
Many within American Orthodox Judaism, particularly within its most fervent circles, took the revelation by talk radio great Rush Limbaugh that he has advanced lung cancer particularly hard.
But for me, it was personal.
Indeed, I'm indebted to the possessor of infotainment's most famous — and, arguably, most influential — mouth. And always will be.
Though we only interacted virtually, Mr. Limbaugh impacted my life in real time both professionally and profoundly. The proudly Christian Rush Limbaugh helped me solidify how I relate to the world as a fervently Orthodox Jew. And I'm certain that I'm far from alone.
"El Rushbo," as his legions of fans call him, awakened me politically when I was an early 20-something. Several years later he helped build crucial, foundational readership for my then-fledgling website, JewishWorldReview.com. He did so by mentioning the site on-air to his tens of millions of listeners.
After every "plug," our subscription numbers and influence grew exponentially. And in return for his help? He asked for . . . nothing. Ever.
Thanks to Rush, my readership went from Average Joe Americans, both Jewish and gentile, to include Capitol Hill pols and their staff; activists on the left and right; newspaper editors and columnists; cable TV producers and hosts; and clergy of all faiths seeking an uncompromised Torah view on life and the world we live in.
But that's the end of the story. Here's the beginning, which I've never told Mr. Limbaugh.
In January 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, I was forced home stateside from my Jerusalem yeshivah. As a yeshivah "refugee," I, with many others, wound up at Brooklyn's Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. For the duration of that fraught period, YTV kindly hosted and fed any displaced rabbinic student in need, providing both spiritual and material sustenance.
During lunch breaks, several rabbinic candidates would head to the dorm and listen to Rush Limbaugh as we ate. I had never heard of him before.
"You'll become addicted," a fellow refugee warned me with certainty. He was right (on the political spectrum), but also correct.
At a time when the Middle East's only democracy was under attack, Mr. Limbaugh was one of the few media voices passionately defending the Jewish state we'd just been forced to flee.
In a corner dorm room out of earshot of the busy lunchroom, a "ghetto blaster" — remember those? — was placed on a chipped, repurposed breakfast table. We budding bearded boys would sit on cold metal chairs and listen as Rush dissected, analyzed, and expounded — and entertained.
Life in serious yeshivos (rabbinic seminaries) is all about ideas — philosophical, legal, theoretical, and real-world. But unlike university libraries, where even study groups are quiet, a yeshivah's beis medrash (study hall) is characteristically abuzz with passionate debate. And in the yeshivah milieu, it's hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalize scholastic approaches to mastering subject material.
During commercials, we would-be scholars applied our well-honed skills to "Rabbi Limbaugh's" discourses. In our search for truth, we tried to find flaws in his logic and arguments. We rarely succeeded.
Day in and day out, before heading back to our Talmud tomes, we'd — only half in jest — pronounce Rush's beliefs "kosher" and our "idling" productive.
We "refugees" never evangelized our lucky find. We didn't have to. Over the years, friends would later report similar goings-on at other "brand-name" yeshivos. (Yes, Virginia, the world of the yeshivah has its Ivies, too).
Even today, I'm told, many yeshivah dorms have, at lunch, an unofficially assigned room where those living in the World of Ideas can — should they be so inclined — sit a spell to "visit" the World of Reality, with Mr. Limbaugh's normally booming voice faintly heard but well-listened to.
Having caught the Limbaugh "bug" during the Gulf War, afterward I continued listening devotedly. Life in yeshivah was, particularly by New York standards, idyllic, elevated, and proper, and we focused on bettering ourselves, our communities, and the world at large.
But complicating the latter goal was that, in nearly all decent fervently Orthodox rabbinical seminaries, there is limited access to secular newspapers. Mr. Limbaugh's daily broadcasts kept us updated not just on the nitty-gritty of political mechanics, but also on how America was changing socially. And, he would thunder, not in a positive way.
Rush's worldview reflected a traditionalist perspective that resonated with fervently religious Jews. (After all, the "Judeo" part of the value system refers to unadulterated Judaism.)
Mr. Limbaugh was a "woke" initiator for people of faith decades before modern progressives made similar moves for their causes. His call to arms not only informed his fans and followers of what was happening to our supposedly G-d-centered society, it psychologically empowered tens of millions who had been led to believe, based on mainstream media conditioning, that it was we traditional thinkers who were the statistical outliers. Mr. Limbaugh restored our belief that we could — and must — regain our voice.
For me, mastery of the issues Mr. Limbaugh raised was preparation for the real world, particularly against those who claimed to speak in the name of Judaism yet advocated behavior at odds with our millennia-old teachings.
Unlike some of my fellow students, I wasn't embarrassed to admit to listening to Mr. Limbaugh. Just the opposite. I would actually delve into the principles he advanced with my religious mentors and spiritual guides, allowing Rush's spark to be refined through the blowtorch of hashkafic clarity.
My rebbeim and roshei yeshivah were nearly always in agreement with him. In fact, they empowered me with the intellectualism needed to combat the ever-increasing attacks on the Torah-centered value system. Those attacks cropped up at college (when I pursued a journalism degree), at work, and most importantly, in my outreach interactions. Ideas initiated by Mr. Limbaugh and later "rabbi refined" filled my articles and columns. Thanks to the clarity he inspired, I never needed to utter the words: "Can I get back to you on that?"
Unlike some groups within Orthodox Judaism, my mentors — along with Mr. Limbaugh — inspired me to stand strong against the tendency of many organized religions to cave in to internal tensions and revise what they ostensibly believe is the Revealed Word of the Divine. All of this stems from the pathetic — if gutless — notion that in order for religion and faith to survive (and have legitimacy) today, we must adapt the sacred to contemporary mores, instead of the opposite.
I've been quoted many a time saying that politics is the mechanism that enables lofty ideas and ideals to find practical application. That belief's genesis came from my lunchtime sessions listening to Mr. Limbaugh.
There are those who lead lives of consequence, who have the courage to take positions that are currently unpopular — even if they're time-tested and millennia-weathered.
I, for one, say thank you to Rush for airing those views all these many years with his "talent on loan from G-d," with the hope that it remains "on loan" for many more years to come.