BET MIDRASH VIRTUALI
of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel
HASHKAFAH STUDY GROUP
Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism
Originally published: October 1st 2002 / Tishri 25th 5763
A Masorti (Conservative) Theology
Rabbi Simchah Roth
I N T R O D U C T O R Y N O T I C E
This series of essays does not claim to be an "official" theology of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism. It is one rabbi's personal viewpoint, and this should always be borne in mind by the reader. Nevertheless, I do hope that even those points with which the reader might disagree will afford him or her an opportunity for thought and evaluation.
As the last vestiges of the middle ages disappeared, certain revolutionary events in the western world signaled the transition to a new age, to what we now call modern times. There were essentially three revolutions: the scientific, the technological and the social revolution. The first was the scientific revolution. Beginning with Nicholas Copernicus [1473-1543] and Galileo Galilei [1564-1642] and continuing with Isaac Newton [1642-1727], Charles Darwin [1809-1882], Sigmund Freud [1856-1939] and Albert Einstein [1879-1955], man's knowledge of the physical universe and of himself became revolutionized, and all his previously held concepts about man, the world and their place in the scheme of things were undergoing drastic (and traumatic) revision.
This scientific revolution begat a second revolution which began around the middle of the 18th century in Great Britain. What was originally called the industrial revolution can now, in retrospect, be seen to be the first stages of the much greater technological revolution.
Thirdly, the American revolution in the New World was the first indication of new formulations of human political and social relationships, followed barely thirteen years later by its 'Old World' counterpart, the French revolution.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century western man was well embarked upon the path of our modern age. The scientific revolution was a revolution in what we know and how we get to know it; the technological revolution was revolution in how we relate to the universe in which we exist and what we are capable of doing in it; the social revolution was a revolution in how we relate to the people with whom we live and how we govern our society.
One of the most obvious consequences of the coming of the new age for the Jewish people was the end of the Jew's isolation from non-Jewish society, the end of the ghetto-Jew: emancipation. From now on, in the western world, the Jew was a citizen like all the others - more or less! - with the same duties and the same privileges - more or less! For Judaism this was a blessing in disguise.
During all the preceding centuries the Jew had been governed by his own law, halakhah. Living in closed communities, isolated by enmity and disdain, the Jew lived in his own world of Torah. Each community, however isolated from the others, maintained its own 'state' institutions and 'governmental' departments - Social Welfare, Justice, Education, Health, and so on; except that they were called Kuppat Tzedakah, Bet Din, Ĥeder, Biqqur-ĥolim and so forth. Everyone in the community was governed by the same law, halakhah. This meant two things. Firstly, anyone who refused to be governed by this law (and this must have been as rare as mutiny and treason are in western societies today) must have realized that the consequence would be social ostracism - 'exile' from the community, being virtually cut off from one's family, society, people and culture, and having to face the enmity and disdain of the gentile world alone. How many of even the most recalcitrant would have had the guts to dare such a fate?
Thus the authority of Torah (and its wielders, the rabbis) was to all intents and purposes universally recognized. The second consequence of the rule of halakhah during all those long centuries was that the rabbis, realizing their power and responsibility, maintained halakhah as a living, dynamic organism. It constantly responded to the changes in Jewish society, slowly but surely developing with that society, the contours of society and halakhah being contiguous. We need only cite the reform of Rabbenu Gershom [died 1028] making divorce dependent on the wife's consent to illustrate the point effectively. Countless more examples could be cited.
With emancipation came the end of the 'dictatorship' of halakhah - be it benevolent or otherwise. Judaism ceased to be the dynamic civilization of a practically autonomous people: it became the religion of the Jewish citizen. Gradually 'Judaism' became something that one did in the home and in the synagogue while 'real life' continued elsewhere.
During the transitional years, as the Jews of the west were learning to come to terms with the new situation, there arose teachers and philosophers who proposed various solutions. Moses Mendelssohn [1729-1786] was the prime mover, but there were others. When we reach the second quarter of the nineteenth century we find a new philosophy burgeoning which, to all intents and purposes, denied Judaism its cultural aspects, in favour of the prevailing culture; it stripped Judaism of what was left of its nationalistic aspects (the hope for a Return to Zion, the Messianic hope); and it 'adapted' the age-old system of practical mitzvot (sabbath observance, kashrut, etc.) to make them innocuous when seen through the eyes of the prevailing religion and culture of the west.
These changes took place initially in Germany, which was at that time one of the most cultured centres of western civilization, Beethoven [1770-1827] and Goethe [1749-1832] being hardly in their graves. One of the prime movers in this development was Samuel Holdheim [1806-1860] who thus became one of the first spiritual leaders of what was to become known as Reform Judaism.
These changes, of course, were an extreme departure from the traditional pattern that Judaism had known until then in the ghetto. One extreme departure tends to beget another. If Holdheim and his colleagues were doing such violence to the Jewish tradition, the horrified traditionalists were forced to wonder where it would all end. The result was an extreme departure in the opposite direction. Under the spiritual aegis of Moses Schreiber [1762-1839] - better known by the sobriquet Ĥatam Sofer - further development of the Jewish tradition was all but proscribed! Ĥatam Sofer had an uncanny ability to resurrect old phrases, surreptitiously imbuing them with a new meaning, thus vesting them with the 'feel' of respectability and the appearance of traditional approval. One of his most typical inventions was the claim Ĥadash asur min haTorah - 'innovations are prohibited by Biblical authority'.
The Written Torah provides for a special ceremony to take place in the Temple before the produce of the present year's harvest may be consumed. Leviticus 23:9-14 describes the procedure, which took place on 16th Nisan ('Omer Day'). The produce of the new harvest is called 'Ĥadash'. Whether the prohibition that rests on the new crop until after the Omer ceremony applies in post-Temple times is a moot point in the Talmud and later authorities. And even those authorities who consider that the requirement still applies, are not agreed whether it is by force of Torah law or only by rabbinic legislation.
The original circumstances of the phrase so cunningly used by Ĥatam Sofer was the opinion of those authorities who held that 'Ĥadash asur min ha-Torah' - the prohibition against eating from the new crop until after 16th Nisan applies in post-Temple times by force of Torah law.
Under this new departure all natural development in Judaism was brought to an end, and Judaism was hallowed for all time in the form that it had prior to the innovations of the reformers. The last great codification of Jewish law that was unsullied by the influence of emancipation and its consequences was the Shulĥan Arukh of Rabbi Yosef Karo [1488-1575], which had been published in 1565, and had been undergoing constant updating by the commentaries that had been appended to it, particularly during the seventeenth century. This consolidated Shulĥan Arukh was now accepted as the last word in Jewish law and elevated to the rank of semi-sacred literature, above and beyond all similar compositions. Schreiber's system eventually became known as Orthodoxy ('holding correct opinions').
While Reform was capitulating completely to 'westernism', Orthodoxy was putting up the barricades against any possible incursion of Reform. With hindsight we can say that both reactions to emancipation were extreme and (therefore) wrong. Speaking metaphorically we might say that Reform was interested in getting Judaism through the door that gave access to the palace of western acceptance; unfortunately, the child Judaism was not of the right proportions to go through the door easily: instead of trying to widen the door, Reform began performing mayhem on traditional Judaism by hacking limbs from the living body in order to make it the right size and shape to go through the door! Orthodoxy, on the other hand, was concerned with the possibly bad influence that western civilization could have on the child and was afraid of the way the child might grow up if exposed to such insidious influences. So it took steps to stunt its natural growth so that it would never grow beyond the state that it was in, instead of taking steps to regulate the effect that western culture could have upon it.
Happily, there were two other developments that were less macabre! The first was when Samson Raphael Hirsch [1808-1888] initiated a variation of orthodoxy whose watchword was Torah 'Im Derekh Eretz - 'Torah together with western culture'. This version maintained orthodoxy's proscriptions except one: it permitted its adherents to live a western way of life. We shall return to the second development in a moment.
Let us pause at this point to see where we are, for the consequences of these developments from the nineteenth century are still with us in the twenty-first century. Reform is still called Reform, although it is sometimes also called Progressive or Liberal Judaism. Modern adherents of East-European orthodoxy are now referred to as Ultra-Orthodox in the diaspora and as Ĥaredim in Israel. Modern disciples of Torah 'Im Derekh Eretz are known as Orthodox in the diaspora and in Israel as Datiyyim.
The past few decades have seen a further development of Ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel. While traditionally very liberal in their applications of Halakhah, many of the rabbis who came to Israel from oriental communities in Asia and North Africa had the same reaction to the modern way of life they found in Israel as the East European Jews had 150 years earlier. However, the cause of Oriental Ultra-Orthodoxy, typified politically by Shas, burgeoned as a result of the perceived political and social degradation to which they had been subjected during the first three decades of statehood. Thus it would be imprudent to judge the extent of Ultra-Orthodox sentiment among those who identify themselves as 'oriental' by the extent of the political representation of Shas in the legislature and the government.
It seems that during the decades after emancipation, the culture of the western world was viewed by our ancestors either as 'a desideratum devoutly to be wished' or as an ominous vampire about to suck out our lifeblood. The former view was that of the Reformers and the Orthodox, who differed from each other not as regards the attitude appropriate to the heritage of Athens and Rome, but as regards the attitude appropriate to the heritage of Sinai and Jerusalem. The latter view was that of the Ultra-Orthodox, who were putting Jerusalem under voluntary siege from a perceived attack from Athens and Rome. No one seemed to have any interest in preserving Judaism as it had been before emancipation!
Until along came Zechariah Frankel [1801-1875].
Frankel's view of Judaism was that it should continue outside the ghetto much as it had inside the ghetto. We should continue our lives as traditional Jews, we should continue with our love of and devotion to Torah and Israel, and we should continue to permit our tradition to respond naturally to the effects of time and place, just as had been the case before emancipation. Reform was wrong in abandoning enormous segments of our own cultural heritage in order to make it appear more like someone else's cultural heritage.
The life of the Jew should continue to be defined by halakhah, as it always had been in the past. But this would only be possible when the Jewish body corporate could respond naturally and normally to the effects of time and place. Just as the rabbis of the past had always been looked to for Torah's answer to today's questions, so the rabbis of the present must be prepared to realize that Judaism could not be put into deep freeze, but had to continue its natural development.
To the reformers he was recommending a more positive attitude to traditional Jewish values and mores; to the Orthodox he was recommending an abandonment of the unnatural limitation on halakhic development that they had artificially imposed, in favour of a broad-spectrum historical perspective.
These two parameters of his view - positive attitude to Torah together with a critical historical perspective - gave his attitude its name: Positive Historical Judaism.
Actually, what Frankel was proposing was a return to normality! When Positive Historical Judaism crossed the Atlantic Ocean and began to flourish in American soil it became known as Conservative Judaism, since its founding fathers were concerned with conserving traditional Judaism and making it feel at home in the new world - new in both senses of the phrase! Now that it has struck roots once again in our ancestral homeland it is known quite simply for what it really is: Masorti, Traditional, Judaism.
One should here ask a very important question. If Masorti Judaism is essentially traditional Judaism, why is Orthodoxy so emotionally opposed to it? - even allowing for the natural exaggerations generated by partisanship. After all, should not Orthodoxy applaud and approve the championship of the halakhic system by Masorti Judaism? In order to understand the difference between the two systems - Masorti and Orthodox Judaism - we must recall two points that we have already made. Firstly, the problem that precipitated Judaism's split into streams was the situation of the western Jew vis-a-vis western society after emancipation. Secondly, Orthodoxy was founded upon a philosophy which was the rejection of an obvious solution: Ĥadash asur min ha-Torah - 'innovations are prohibited on biblical authority'.
Let us explain. The three revolutions in the west affected Judaism profoundly - and still do! We have already noted that the scientific revolution has wrought profound changes in what we know and how we get to know it; the technological revolution has revolutionized our conceptual relationship to the universe in which we exist and the boundaries of what we are capable of doing in it; the social revolution is a revolution in how we relate to the people with whom we live and how we govern our society.
Let us deal with the scientific revolution first. We not only now know things that we did not know before, but our whole manner of thinking and going about amassing and evaluating information and knowledge has changed. This is not only true in what is usually thought of as 'science' - biology, chemistry and physics - but in every discipline which involves the evaluation of knowledge gained. This includes our knowledge of Judaism as a historical and philosophic phenomenon: indeed, in nineteenth century Germany there grew up what we might call the 'Science of Judaism' or 'Jewish Studies' - Wissenschaft des Judentums.
Furthermore, the enormous development during the past two hundred years in human understanding of how the physical universe functions requires us constantly to revise our understanding of the teachings of Torah - about God, for instance. God, as perceived before the scientific revolution cannot be the same as God as perceived since! We now know, for instance, that the sun does not rise anew every morning because God says 'Get up and do it again!' And if our perception of God must change then our perception of 'God as Commander of Torah and Mitzvot' must change too. Not only is Masorti Judaism not afraid to face such questions, but it even positively requires us to do so. When our knowledge of the facts changes, our perception must change with it: only our overall loyalty to Torah is unquestioned, for it is our native culture. Modern Orthodoxy (Ĥadash asur min ha-Torah) would not approve secular knowledge. Pre-emancipation Judaism would. (Was the God of Rambam [1135-1204], the arch rationalist, the same as the God of the Besht [1700-1760], the founder of Ĥasidism?)
The same is true of the technological revolution. Judaism today must boldly face such questions as how do we run a modern, democratic state on Shabbat. Of course, the state of Israel continues 'running' on Shabbat, but that is because the non-religious Jew is prepared to be the Shabbes-Goy - in the medical profession, in the police force, in the Electric Company, in the Airports Authority, in the Broadcasting Authority and so on.
Shabbes-Goy is a term derived from the Yiddish. It refers to a non-Jew who performs for a Jew on Shabbat certain tasks that the observant Jew himself is prohibited from doing. (Halakhah strictly prohibits asking a non-Jew to do something for a Jew which, if done by a Jew, would be a desecration of the Sabbath. Nevertheless, many devious ways were invented to obviate this prohibition.
How is one to observe Shabbat in the Jewish state in the technological era? In another matter, the number of spheres where man's abilities have outstripped the updating of halakhah is legion. For instance, what about spare-part surgery or the human genome?
And let us not forget the social revolution. Our attitude to people in general has changed, and our attitude to our relationship to the body politic represented by the state has changed. More than anything else, we have brought about a situation of equality for all: Society has abolished slavery and we have enfranchised women. Must not the status of the female in Judaism reflect her newly acquired prestige and rights in society at large? This may require us to re-evaluate the way the Jewish family functions.
The basic difference, then, between Masorti Judaism and Orthodoxy is that for Masorti Judaism Torah is a living and dynamic organism, the instrument by which we live our lives here and now. It is as good and as valid for the Jews of the twenty-first century as it was for the Jews, say, of the sixteenth century. But since Torah is dynamic, the answers it affords to the Jews of the twenty-first century will not necessarily be the same as the answers it afforded to the Jews of the sixteenth century.
For Orthodoxy, however, Torah is static not dynamic. For Orthodoxy, halakhah is unchanging (except for minor and insignificant details); for Orthodoxy, even if circumstances change radically Torah will be an unchanging verity. The main reason for the reticence of Orthodoxy to 'update' Torah in its practical expression, halakhah, is the concept of an eternal Torah, immutable once given. For Orthodoxy, God spoke once for all time. That one-time statement is not open to any interpretation save that which was given it by the sages of ages gone by: today's sages may not do what the sages of the past did, for 'innovations are prohibited on Biblical authority'.
In all epochs before the modern age the difference between Masorti Judaism and Orthodoxy (had it existed!) would have been negligible. But the modern age is one of enormous and rapid change - and the pace of that change is constantly accelerating.
I recall that when I was a pupil at school one mathematical concept that was problematic for me was the measurement of the rate of acceleration. As a child I found it easy enough to understand the concept of velocity ('kilometres per hour'); but I found the measurement of an object moving at the rate of so many metres 'per second per second' confusing. Basically what it means is that however fast the object is travelling ('metres per second'), its velocity is increasing at a regular rate for every second that passes. As long as the velocity of the object is accelerating it will proceed along its course at an ever faster pace.
That is exactly what is happening to the course of change in the modern world: the rate of change is constantly accelerating. We can hardly keep pace with the enormous changes that are being wrought in the fabric of our lives. It is in this respect that the modern age is completely different from any age that preceded it.
Previous ages saw change; but no age has seen change and development proceeding at the rate of acceleration witnessed in the modern age. The changes began to gain momentum somewhere around the year 1500; they began to accelerate greatly about 250 years ago; in latter decades the rate of change has become excitingly awesome.
Some 400 years elapsed between the Roman emperors Julius Caesar and Constantine, yet the basic way of life of both gentlemen was not very different: they wrote the same way, prepared food the same way, travelled the same way, communicated over long distances the same way, and were very similar in their technological capabilities.
About 400 years also separate us from William Shakespeare in England and Yosef Karo, the author of the 'Shulĥan Arukh', in Eretz-Israel; but our basic way of life has changed almost beyond recognition! For example, we do not write the same way (these words are being written using a computerized word processor); we do not prepare food the same way (we use preprocessed food and microwave ovens); we do not travel the same way (we use vehicles propelled by the internal combustion engine, we use spaceships to reach out into the solar system and even beyond and so forth); and the telephone, radio, television, radar, fax, Internet and satellites, have completely altered our methods of communication. It is superfluous to compare our technological capabilities: we can create life outside the womb, we can revive the clinically dead, we have physically reached the moon, vicariously visited other planets in our solar system, and placed at our own disposal means of mass destruction and annihilation.
Our world is totally different from that of 400 years ago; it is totally different from that of 300 years ago, in the time of Newton; it is very different from that of only 200 years ago, the age of Napoleon. It is even different from that of 100 years ago, when Henry Ford was producing his first automobile! Nowadays even a decade can see incredible change! In the Victorian age women were referred to as 'the sex'; our great-grand- fathers would refer to them as 'the fair sex'; only fifty years ago they were 'the opposite sex'. Nowadays female soldiers fight in the front line of the wars (as in the American forces that fought the Gulf War) and serve in the Israeli Air Force and in combat units.
All this is what we mean by the acceleration of change. Masorti Judaism can accommodate change, because it sees Torah as a living and dynamic organism - Torat Ĥayyim. More and more, Orthodoxy will seem to be attached to a moribund and fossilized Torah that forces its adherents to live in the past; they will try to force the present into unnatural channels in order to accommodate the prescriptions of a Torah that essentially will not change, and will become increasingly detached from reality. Masorti Judaism, however, accommodates changed circumstances. But it must be done the way it was always done. We must delve deeply into Torah in order to ascertain what the right answer is for today's questions. And our rabbis - the accredited practitioners of Torah - must be free to find these answers untrammeled by artificial restrictions such as Ĥadash asur min ha-Torah.
When we speak of a changing Torah we do not mean that the Torah itself changes, but that our perception of what it requires of us changes. As a child I had a certain perception of my parents, based essentially on my dependence; as an adolescent I perceived them differently, the changed perception deriving essentially from my natural 'rebellion' - assertion of self. In adulthood I have yet another perception of them, based upon my increasing independence and their increasing dependence. But they are the same parents! Similarly, I myself change - from newborn to infant, to child, to youth, to adolescent to adult to elder: but I am the same me! Thus, too, does Torah change and develop but it is the same Torah.
We have spoken so far of three broad streams into which the river of Judaism has separated in modern times - Reform, Orthodoxy and Masorti (Conservative). But, like the river of biblical Eden [Genesis 2:10], in fact the river flows in four streams. The fourth stream is secularity. Millions of Jews all over the world, and particularly in the state of Israel, have abandoned Judaism as a religio-philosophic system entirely.
Let us elaborate. For several decades now there has been gradual but constant erosion of Jewish values in the Jewish state (and it may yet prove correct that this erosion of Jewish values has been in direct inverse proportion to the enactment by governmental coalitions of coercive religious legislation and so forth). On the one hand, the religious minority in the state has consistently attempted to create for itself prerogatives at the expense of the secular majority; on the other, the acquisition in the summer of 1967 of territories that were part of the historic land of Israel nurtured a euphoric insistence that the Messianic Age was just around the corner and that therefore we would be betraying our hope of all ages if we were now to sell our birthright for a mess of potage [Genesis 25:29-34].
Torah became identified in the minds of the secular majority with political chicanery, government by extortion, by coercion and by extremism. Surely there is nothing wrong with people who have religious convictions being involved politically, or with their holding any particular political views. It is the identification of Torah with some specific political ideology that is odious; it is the use of Torah as a spade with which to dig politically and financially that is abhorrent.
The Mishnah in Tractate Avot teaches: 'Do not turn [the Torah] into a crown with which to glorify yourself or a spade with which to dig' [Avot 4:5]. This means that the sages disapproved of using Torah to gain material benefits. It further adds that 'anyone who derives material benefit from Torah is taking himself out of this world.
The acute danger of misconception in the minds of the secular majority (and many of the religious minority) lies in the possibility that they might identify Judaism in general with the ideologies of politically active and vocal religious Jews who have claimed the attention of the media. The danger is not to these politicians and to their associates and supporters; the danger is to Judaism itself.
Let us try to describe what has happened.
In the formative days of the State of Israel the political parties that the orthodox created wished to ensure a religious education for their children, and gleefully accepted the system of streaming in education which ostensibly permits parents to choose which kind of compulsory education they want for their child: state secular, state religious or state-recognized (ultra-orthodox) education. In fact, however, the system also created a situation in which it is possible for parents to elect to have their children educated in a Judaism-free atmosphere, and some three out of every four of them actually make such decision!
I do not know how those religious leaders who sought and accepted this system will ever be able to justify themselves before that Bar which brooks no falsehood or bribery. I am certain that never in the whole history of the Jewish people has any religious leadership agreed to (let alone required) a situation in which some 75% of the nation's children are exposed to non-religious education simply so that 25% of them might have a religious education. They are directly responsible for the attitude that most Israelis today have towards Judaism. I am certain that when history judges them they will be found severely wanting.
Decades of such Judaism-free secular education have now produced a generation that is virtually devoid of any knowledge of Judaism at all, and is as far from practice as can possibly be imagined. A random survey of the activities on Yom Kippur of any 11th-grade pupils at a typical secular state high school in, say, Tel-Aviv, Herzliyya or Rishon-le-Zion should quickly convince most objective observers that it is not an exaggeration to claim that never before in the whole history of the Jewish people has so large a majority of the population estranged itself knowingly and willingly so much from all things religiously Jewish; decades of Judaism-free secular education have produced a generation that is virtually devoid of any knowledge of Judaism at all and is as far from practice as can possibly be imagined.
However, there is another phenomenon which has aggravated this estrangement. Orthodoxy also established in this country a system of rabbinic jurisdiction whose authority derives from the secular state. It did so in order to ensure that its directives would be obeyed both by the secular majority and by the ultra- orthodox minority, neither of whom identify ideologically with modern orthodoxy.
This sad situation has continued right up to the present day. It is truly unfortunate that the leaders of the religious political parties cannot see that their zeal in requiring coercive religious legislation is an indication of their utter failure as religious leaders. In 1990 Agudat Israel required the enactment of a law against the marketing of swine-flesh as a condition of its joining the governmental coalition. Since they have failed to persuade people not to consume this meat (which is forbidden by Jewish dietary law) they expect the secular legislator to do the job for them. But, truth to tell, they did not fail to persuade people not to consume this meat: they did not even try to persuade them not to do so! They are directly responsible for secular Jews losing their religious conscience: the marketing of swine- flesh is no longer a matter for religious the conscience: it is a matter for police and courts, who must do our vicarious soul-searching. I do not know which is more deplorable - the tragedy for democracy and human rights in that the Knesset must pass this measure, or the tragedy for Judaism that people actually demonstrate against it.
This situation (born and bred in the unholy wedlock of seedy coalition politics) created a sense of false security among the rabbis; a generation of orthodox rabbinic functionaries has grown up, like hot-house plants in a greenhouse, owing their position and authority to almost anything except a successful dialogue with the people and with reality. Worse, an atmosphere now exists in which virtually all religious functionaries suffer from a stiff neck brought about by constant checking over their shoulder to see whether their latest act of Torah-extremism has been noted and approved; in which the art of persuading people to love Torah has been lost in favour of the craft of getting the secular legislator to coerce them into obedience; in which a state-authorized rabbinate should be beginning to panic because it doesn't have acceptable answers to questions that are more and more insistently on the public agenda.
This panic has other consequences, too. Any attempt to claim authority, equality or recognition by groups whose Torah view is different from that of the beleaguered establishment, will be met with an obvious refusal, almost invariably linked with an attempt at delegitimization. Plaintive protests at 'unfairness' and cries of 'we want to play too' only serve to degrade the protester further in the eyes of the religious spectators - and also in the eyes of the secular majority.
This method of dealing with a religious opponent is as old as the hills. Even Israel's greatest luminaries have been sullied by the malicious and salacious insinuations of envious little men. Perhaps the most perceptive (and phlegmatic) of the victims was Rambam. Moses Maimonides, writing to a student and friend, Yosef ben-Yehudah Ibn-Sham'un, in a letter dated Monday, October 21st 1191, comments as follows about his detractor in Iraq: 'I am well aware that the more I become a celebrity over there, force of circumstances will bring him and those who are his followers - and anyone who wants to court public opinion - to denigrate my book [Mishneh Torah] and to demonstrate to the people that they are too learned to need to study it, that they disagree with it, and that if any of them had wanted to he could have written a better book in a shorter time! Should it become necessary they will not hesitate to bring my orthodoxy into question.' (Letters of Moshe ben-Maimon, Arabic original and Hebrew translation, annotated by Yosef Kafiĥ, Mossad Ha-Rav Kuk, Jerusalem, 1972.)
There is a third contributing factor to our malaise that must be mentioned. The modern secular Jew does not believe in the God of his fathers, even if he says he does. Generally speaking, over the past few centuries the God-idea has become increasingly unacceptable to the intelligentsia; that unacceptability has gained enormous momentum over the past few decades. God is no longer meaningful for Mr. and Mrs. Average, and does not inform their life-style or values-system. Unless Judaism can succeed in revamping its intellectual bases and make them prima facie acceptable to modern secular thought, the Israeli will drift further and further away from traditional Judaism and will do so with ever-increasing acceleration. The modern secular Israeli habitually behaves in a manner that proclaims loud and clear that the God of his fathers is for him a myth and a legend.
How is it that a situation has come about in which so large a proportion of our population is estranged from Judaism, and how can we cut out that cancerous growth from our body politic? We should not perceive the greatest danger in religious extremism. The greatest danger is when religious extremism is not recognized for what it is, but is perceived as a norm. That can only be so when the majority of our society is estranged from, ignorant of and apathetic to its ethnic cultural heritage. For when the majority of the population has a healthy and positive perception of what Judaism is all about, extremism will be recognized for what it is. That is why I am convinced that we can effect our own salvation only through the re-awakening of a sense of commitment to Jewish religious values in the hearts and minds of the secular majority.
And by 'secular majority' I do not refer to those who describe themselves as utterly secular; I refer to those who describe themselves as 'traditional'. But how can one bring about the re-awakening of a sense of commitment to Jewish religious values in the hearts and minds of people who are secularly-minded? One thing is clear: where the revolution must take place is definitely not in the legislature! Nor is it in the classroom. Nor is it even in the synagogue. Its most appropriate setting is the family home and in society at large, for what we are talking about is the re-establishment of Jewish values in the Jewish State.
What is a value?
A value is a feeling or conceptualization that informs and guides our actions at moments of decision in life. A value is something that helps create and maintain our personal ethical system, that feeds our conscious or habitual actions. In other words, a value is something that is important, something that is so important that we will put ourselves out considerably to get and maintain the things that it represents. Our own hierarchy of values becomes apparent when we consider what we would be prepared to give up in order to achieve a certain value.
If we are prepared to forego a social evening with friends in order to watch a football match on TV, we have demonstrated the relative importance to us of watching football over sociability. Even if we catechize our children daily about how important it is to maintain social relationships, our children will get the true message sub-consciously: 'despite what you hear us say, we believe football to be more important!' George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright and social philosopher, hit the nail on the head when he wrote that if you want to know what a man really believes, do not ask him what his creed is: watch what he actually does. He wrote in his play Man and Superman (1904): What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed but from the assumptions upon which he habitually acts.
What would be the situation if parents piously gave voice to the fact that they subscribe to certain values, but were always observed by their children to be acting on other assumptions? The children would absorb the real values into their sub-conscious, and these would now become for them actual, unless at some time in the future they were to make a determined effort to alter them for any reason. When the children become parents in their turn they will do exactly the same. It follows that within two or three generations an original set of values can be completely replaced with another - even if people still go on mouthing their loyalty to the old values. What we are taught in school will have very little counter-effect. What we see and hear on television will have some effect, but since the media usually reflect the actual values of society, they will in all probability only serve to re-inforce home values. The reactions of our peer-group (friends) will have very strong influence on us; but since we usually make our friends from a circle that reflects our own views, in all probability they too will only serve to further re-inforce home values.
What most people do not realize is that the devaluation of a values system is a gradual and incremental process whose ultimate consequences are not immediately perceivable.
The first generation will have received a full Jewish education from the home; therefore if they discard some value or other they are still left with the imprint of it in their soul. That imprint is much weakened in the second generation, but is still there - both because of the immediate input from grandparents and because of the weakened input from parents. In the third generation the real consequences start to become apparent, and by the time the fourth generation arrives the estrangement is complete.
This is how the overwhelming majority of the population of the State of Israel has become completely estranged from Jewish values in just a few generations. If nothing is done, within a few decades there will be nothing authentically Jewish left in the Jewish State - except for a dedicated minority of religious extremists (and by then all religious people will be extremist eo ipso). This ultimate demise of Judaism in Israel can only be prevented by the deliberate re-adoption of Jewish values and their practice, at least to a minimally meaningful extent, by members of the secular majority.
Our society today is not without values, for in it there are certain perceivable values at work. For example, we can see a values system at work in the behaviour of those who would be our leaders, in the Knesset, during moments of crisis. (The crisis is usually a threat to their hold on power or on their chance to grab hold of it.) The value that we observe informing their behaviour and guiding their actions is a will to possess power and control, and it expresses itself in denigration and ridicule of the opponent, demagoguery (which serves in place of convincing rhetoric), childish tantrums, sneaky tricks (thought to be brilliant ploys), verbal abuse and verbal violence - the selling out of professed values for a share in the right to snatch juicy morsels from the dish of power. Is there a political party that is free of these values? During any governmental crisis the behaviour of the members of the Knesset will show up the actual values-system of our governmental system. The bewildered populace will blame it all on the political system: but really and truly they were but seeing their own values-system being brought into play for the highest stakes! Perhaps that is why it hurts so much.
I refuse to accept the ridiculous justification that such is the behaviour of all politicians in all democracies. Even if that were true it is no justification. But in other democracies the will to power is curtailed by a sense of decency: John Profumo (British Minister of Defence in 1960's) and Richard Nixon (President of USA in 1970's) were forced out of politics in their respective countries never to return to the centres of power. One speaker of the Knesset committed a terrorist outrage on that institution itself many decades ago and another member of the Knesset who was convicted and has served a sentence for bribery (!) told the press that he considered himself a candidate for a ministerial post!
A generation or two ago in communities of the western world, the typical Jewish mother would dream of 'my son the doctor' or 'my son the lawyer' - because at the head of the values-system at that time were status and prestige, which were achievable through hard work, maintainable through loyalty and honesty, and to be forfeited when those characteristics were no longer perceived. The choice of profession made in present-day Israel will depend on how much money there is in it - will it make one affluent, give one power and independence? O tempora, o mores! [Marcus Tullius Cicero: "What times, what attitudes!" In Catilinam.]
Only an awareness that our very survival as Jews is at stake, a conviction that if we do nothing our grandchildren will cease to be Jews to all intents and purposes - only this can hope to penetrate the hard hide of habit, self-serving, cultural inertia and intellectual scepticism to get to whatever is left of the Jewish heart underneath. And the odds are completely against success! There are social, economic and philosophic factors working very hard indeed against the 'still small voice' [I Kings 19:12] of the collective cultural conscience.
Indeed, why should we assume that the 'ordinary' secular Jew will want to do anything religious: if there is one incontrovertible fact concerning religion in Israel it surely must be that the secular Israeli, from the practical point of view, is completely uninterested in all religious movements in Judaism - Orthodox, Reform or Masorti (Conservative). Whatever their claims to success here or there may be, they all have failed to attract the allegiance of the average Israeli. If anyone is inclined to query the necessity for an amenability to change, let me state quite clearly my opinion that in our epoch any philosophy of Judaism that is antagonistic to change is doomed to irrelevance - sooner and not later.
Certainly, the three revolutions of modern times that we have mentioned have brought about this development; but, in the state of Israel in particular, the ousting of tradition by secularity has also been brought about as a negative reaction to Orthodox control of certain sectors of public concern, as we have already noted.
It is to be hoped that the modern secular Israeli Jew would be prepared to adopt into his life-style certain Jewish values and customs provided that they are presented to him in terms that he can accept and understand without compromising his intellectual integrity or his basic secular ambience.