Tora of Israel, Tora of Exile

By Yoav Sorek

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

In recent times, Jewish tradition has not responded fully to new challenges in an appropriate manner. The redaction of the Mishna and Talmud and the termination of the chain of rabbinic ordination1—events that took place in the centuries following the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth at the hands of the Romans—solidified the Oral Law, subduing its dynamic character in favor of a Judaism more suitable for preservation in exile. Great vitality remained, however; the ensuing 1,500 years witnessed the creation of an extensive and diverse literature in the spheres of halacha and homiletics, albeit within well-defined bounds. The sweeping challenges of the modern age, on the other hand, created the need for a renewed dynamism and for the authority to innovate—in other words, for those aspects of the tradition that have not existed in practice since the closing of the Talmud.
The absence of such a response has been attributed to many factors—fear of the Enlightenment, assimilation, Reform and so on—but perhaps the most important factor is one that has been little discussed: The development by Jewish leadership, over the course of many centuries, of a religious idea particularly suited to life in the dispersion, yet which, whether consciously or inadvertently, ended up contradicting many older principles of the Jewish faith. Over the ages, this worldview, which we may call the “Tora of Exile,” played a vital role in the fashioning of Jewish life, along with—and at times, in place of—the religious ideas prevalent when the people dwelled in their land. This exilic Tora succeeded in making Judaism relevant over the many generations during which an entire people had to be maintained outside the stream of historical life. This same Tora of Exile has become the primary obstacle to the relevance of Judaism in the current generation.
Although part of the Tora of Exile was formulated deliberately by the religious leadership in response to the destruction of Jewish life in the land of Israel, another significant element consists of Jewish practice in its popular conception, a set of ideas that have become mainstays of religious life despite being unsupported by the authoritative rabbinic literature. Therefore, an honest examination of the original character of the Jewish faith—the “Tora of the Land”—requires removing the filters that modernity imposes upon our view of Judaism.
Especially helpful in this task is Maimonides, whose definition of the Jewish faith focuses on pure monotheism as its core idea. When Maimonides spoke of idolatry as the antithesis of Judaism, however, he was thinking less of polytheism than of the belief in intermediary forces that stand between man and the one God:
Mankind in the time of Enosh made a great error, and discarded the counsel of the sages of that generation. Enosh himself was among the errant. This was their error: They said, “Since God created these stars and celestial spheres to direct the world, placed them in the firmament and honored them, and since they are the attendants who serve him, it is fitting to praise them, glorify them and give them honor. This is the desire of God, may he be blessed, to exalt and honor whoever exalts and honors him, just as a king wishes to honor those who serve him, which thus gives honor to the king himself.”2
Once people saw the celestial bodies as servants of God, writes Maimonides, they began to build temples to the stars, offer them sacrifices, praise and glorify them, and eventually bow down to them—all with the intention of fulfilling the desire of the Creator as they misunderstood it. This is the basic idolatrous error of mankind:3 The notion that various intermediary powers impart protection, fertility or success, powers that are not the source of life itself. It is of no consequence if one ascribes this power to a god made of silver and gold, or to silver and gold themselves. The idea that something has the power to grant blessings, that there is some entity besides God to which one should bow down and subjugate one’s soul in order to merit reward—this is idolatry.
Monotheism, properly understood, does not mean merely replacing the idols with the intolerant rule of a single God. The God of Israel is not just another God, nor is he really foreign to mankind at all, but is instead the very source from which man’s life springs.4 Life, therefore, plays a central role in Judaism. The faith of Israel does not spread through the world as a message or holy writ around which adherents gather; the proper beliefs of Judaism are revealed only through life itself, through human examples, and even more so in the life of an entire nation. A nation that worships only the God of life, without intermediaries, unifies all of life’s aspirations—expansion, growth and well-being joined with morality and the repair of the world. According to the faith of Israel, the revelation of God in the world stands as the axis around which all history revolves. The arena for this revelation is not a desert cave far from civilization, but the life of an entire people fixed at the center of history and culture. This new faith that sprang forth from among the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt presented itself as an alternative to them—indeed, as the alternative.
According to the Jewish faith, the world has an inherent purpose: To be brought to a state of perfection. The hoped-for era of perfection will be marked not only by the rectification of moral injustice, but also by the disappearance of the world’s ambiguities: The power of the infinite will be revealed within the finite, and all the deeds done under the sun will be understood in their proper light. Scripture offers numerous allegories depicting the unity of heaven and earth that will be attained in such a better world: In the Song of Songs, for example, Israel (the representative of a humanity longing for repair) and its God are described as a woman and a man whose separation brings terrible isolation, and whose unification is erotic and tempestuous.
The importance of the repair of this world as a religious tenet is obvious: As long as one believes that redemption can occur only on a different plane, in a different world, while this world has no intrinsic significance, faith can never bring life to fruition. Nor can it ever be relevant to the questions that most trouble mankind. Concentrating upon this world means assuming responsibility for it and attests to a faith appropriate for human life—an approach that constitutes a revolution in the history of world religion.
But this revolution never fully got off the ground: Judaism itself was exiled from its national home and could no longer continue the effort to realize its faith. Christianity, which retained only some of the character of ancient Judaism after detaching itself and going its own way, took pains to neuter the issue of repairing the world, and indeed the Jewish attitude towards action in general. The Tora of Exile followed a similar path, preserving the idea of tikun olam but severely limiting its place in the rubric of Jewish life.
It would be incorrect to view tikun olam as an intrusion of the profane into the realm of the holy. On the contrary, improving the world is, in the Jewish view, itself a holy task, the fulfillment of the demands God has placed on his people. No contradiction exists between human and heavenly values; Judaism presents the human values as originating in the heavens. Moreover, the proper contemplation of reality leads to a recognition of the values which the Creator imprinted on the world. The worldview of ancient Judaism respects reality and learns from it, whereas philosophies that regard worldly values and heavenly values as contradictory cannot derive anything of ethical value from this world.
The outward characteristics of the Tora of the Land express this idea, which is at its very heart. The Tora of the Land also consists primarily of the commandments, but these instructions differ in important ways from those in the Tora of Exile. For one, the laws as originally understood comprise a social constitution. They address the people in terms of a national covenant, and the punishment for non-observance is always meted out within a national context.5 It is clear from the Bible that the commandments are intended to be fulfilled by the people of Israel dwelling in its land; the observance of the commandments while in exile is not part of the covenant between the Creator and Israel, nor can it lead to the realization of the great social goals for which the commandments aim.

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