Tora of Israel, Tora of Exile

By Yoav Sorek

Judaism seems to have become irrelevant to reality. The first step to bringing it back.

A child born into the Jewish people in this generation constitutes another link in the long chain of those who bore the torch of Jewish identity by choice. But this torch, when it reaches today’s child, no longer attracts or excites him. We still treat Judaism with respect, for to do otherwise would be to shame our forefathers by declaring that their labors were in vain, their battles meaningless. But in Israel today, the relevance of the Jewish faith, its ability to illuminate life and give it direction, is understood to be the exclusive province of the “religious,” a subculture bound to a worldview which appears obsolete.
Among other things, the belief in the inapplicability of Tora comes from the ignorance, prejudices and fears of the secular cultural elite, which projects its views of tradition through the media, academia and other cultural institutions. But this is not the whole picture: A number of the basic features of “religious” Jewish life as we know it today only reinforce this conception of tradition as an irrelevance.
The most conspicuous characteristic of today’s traditional Jews is that their world contains an added dimension, one that is completely alien to the general culture. Religious Jews share the mundane world with the secular population, and the deeper their involvement with secular society, the more concepts and values they share. Yet alongside this mundane world lies the world of the sacred—a system of obligations and prohibitions to which the religious Jew is likewise committed.
The mutual alienation of these two worlds is particularly evident when they come into contact with each other—or, more accurately, when they collide. The workings of El Al, Israel’s national airline, are seen as a purely secular matter, both by Jews who identify themselves as religious and by those who call themselves secular. A scheduled flight on the Sabbath, however, is an intrusion of the secular world into the realm of the holy. Even if many religious Jews believe El Al would increase its profits by cutting Sabbath flights, and bring arguments from Jewish tradition to support their claim, they do not see this issue as a way for tradition to contribute to El Al’s profitability. Instead, they see it as a head-on collision between two worlds, a collision that in turn underscores an almost universal assumption: The Tora has nothing to contribute to the success and well-being of Israeli society.
The second conspicuous aspect of religious life in Israel is the nature of the commandments themselves—the “living space” of traditional values, which in many respects is a world of technicalities. It often seems that the more “religious” a person is, the more he sees halacha—a term that translates more accurately as “path” than “law”—as a purely technical matter. This technical approach to life finds expression in a phrase common in religious circles, “meeting the demands of the law”—as if Jewish tradition were a regulatory agency demanding adherence to a detailed set of rules.
This technical aspect of halacha is often related to the kabalistic idea that the point of observing Jewish law is to restore the “higher worlds” to their original state of perfection. Since these worlds offer no clear feedback, common sense cannot guide us in repairing them. Therefore, the only way to ensure proper behavior is through a careful, precise and usually stringent adherence to a crystalline halachic system.
This idea also contributes to a third feature of “religious” life as we know it: The assumption, explicit or implicit, that the commandments are not intended to influence the world we live in. The secular realm is a world unto itself, and the commandments to some extent contend with it for living space. As a result, the yardstick for adherence to tradition becomes the resources and time one dedicates to “religious” activities—at the expense of “secular” ones.
Religious education today, in all its forms, seeks to reinforce a pupil’s predilection for “religious” activity. When asked whether the goal of observing Jewish law is to improve our lives and the world in which we live, or whether this world is merely a (slightly neglected) way station en route to the “world to come,” a religious instructor will almost always give a vague and indecisive answer. For even those who view the commandments as tools for tikun olam (improving the world)—a concept mentioned thrice daily in the traditional liturgy—do not mean “improvement” in the same sense in which discovery of a new medicine alleviates the suffering of the ill. Rather, the connection between Jewish law and reality is an indirect, mystical one: God blesses us because we observe his commandments. For whatever reason, the Creator has a special interest in the commandments, just as we have an interest in the happenings of this world, and he rewards their observance—sometimes in this world, sometimes not.
From this follows a fourth aspect of contemporary religious life in Israel: The emphasis placed on obedience, on the commitment to act in accordance with the Creator’s instructions. The old system of dividing the world between the adukim, or “rigorous adherents,” and “freethinkers” is still regarded as legitimate and used regularly by many in the religious community. In contrast with popular haredi rhetoric, the religious individual does not regard himself as a free man, but as a bound one—bound not only to his Creator, but also to tradition and the rabbis. Religious education devotes much energy to the question of how best to instill loyalty and obedience, and far less to openness and creativity. For many, the main problem with religious education is not the demand that a Jew be committed to the will of the Creator, but the institutionalized quality these commitments assume in practice: One must be committed not only to a principle, but also to a precise pattern of behavior. Even in a case where common sense revolts because a certain value cannot be upheld within the accepted framework, this commitment is expected to persist.
The fifth feature of contemporary religious life is the relationship it engenders between individual and community. A shift in focal point from this world to the next also moves the focus from the Jewish people and humanity as a whole to the individual. Even halacha, the focus of life for the religious Jew, concentrates on the individual and his behavior. However, it does not follow that the religious community values individuality. On the contrary: The cult of the individual in Western society has scarcely penetrated the Orthodox world, which remains in principle a fortress of communal responsibility.
This sense of community, however, has not been fully integrated into the religious ethos—even among religious Zionists, who have placed the well-being of the state at the center of their worldview. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Orthodoxy expresses itself in public life. For most ailments, the religious prescription is usually defensive, negative and localized: “Take care not to damage value X.” It offers no comprehensive conception of public life in a Jewish state. And because of this, religious individuals make no attempt to occupy key positions in the national leadership—positions that deal with foreign policy, defense, the economy or law.
All these aspects of religious life turn Jewish tradition into a teaching that is irrelevant to the major issues facing the contemporary Israeli. A Tora that has nothing to say about the mundane, secular world, and whose alternate realm—the world of the sacred—does not presume to influence this world directly, cannot be relevant. If we add to this a commitment to rigid frameworks and authorities, and a law whose essence is the fulfillment of technical demands, we can easily understand why tradition has become so unappealing in the Jewish state—the very place where it should carry the most influence.
The historian can easily pinpoint the momentous changes of recent centuries that drove Jewish tradition into the sanctuary of irrelevance: Enlightenment and emancipation, modern technology and its social repercussions, and the success of secular Zionism. The challenge, however, lies not in identifying the forces that influenced the tradition in this manner, but rather in identifying those factors that prevented a powerful and diverse tradition from responding differently—in a manner that would have succeeded in projecting the fundamental principles of the Jewish faith upon the new reality, as had happened previously in the face of great challenges (such as after the destruction of the Temple).

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