In discussions about Judaism, “Why can’t people do what they want?” and “What’s wrong with embracing societal trends?” are two questions I keep being asked.
Rabbi Yaakov Filber, a noted Israeli educator and author, once recounted how as a teen growing up in Israel during the 50s, he and his friends would argue about Torah’s compatibility with socialism. Woe would have been to them had they decided it wasn’t compatible. Fast forward 60 years, and most of us experience feelings ranging from discomfort to dismay at the thought of a socialist Torah.
Judaism believes that every idea and behavior, no matter how wrong, contain a spark of truth, what is called a nitzotz. Without it, the idea would not be able to exist. Smoking is a classic example. We all know smoking is harmful, but it has the “redeeming” value of helping the smoker relax. This is the kernel of good hidden underneath layers of evil.
The same can be said of every social trend. Socialism taught the world to protect the weakest members of the community. Feminism asserted that men and women are fundamentally equal. Capitalism called to recognize individual achievement.
All of these ideas are valid at their core. None of them are news to Torah philosophy. The problems begin when an idea becomes an ideology and the center of people’s worldview. Then, all other ideas become subservient and we are thrown off kilter.
The Jewish view of reality is complex and three-dimensional. The world includes aspects of justice and mercy, community and individuality, sacred and mundane. The correct approach is that of balance.
Sefer Hatanya illustrates this point with the examples of Shamai and Hillel. Although Shamai held a worldview of strictness, there were certain halachot on which he was lenient. On the other hand, while Hillel tended to be lenient, in certain cases he was stricter than Shamai. Likewise, Avraham and Yitzhak, the epitomes of mercy and justice respectively, are called upon by G-d to behave in ways that deviate from their intrinsic nature, Avraham at the Akeida and Yitzhak in handling the controversy over the wells with the Philistines.
In Hilchot Deot, Rambam advises against polarization and instructs us to seek middle ground in personal development. Such equilibrium is impossible when one idea (no matter how true) trumps all others. It is therefore not surprising that the “faithful” quickly allow the means to justify the end in their quest to fight previously held ideals and introduce their own into consensus.
Some people would find it ironic that the Jewish perspective of balance actually enables great pluralism of opinions within the boundaries of the mainstream halachic process. Torah recognizes that each individual comes into the world with a mix of attitudes from various parts of the spectrum. There is no one way to serve G-d. Each one of us has unique attitudes, skill sets, and missions to bring into the world. Each one of us is a unique puzzle piece, without which G-d’s world would not be perfect (Netivot Shalom).
To enable us to play our unique roles, however, we need boundaries. Imagine children playing soccer on a rooftop. If the rooftop is not railed off, the players will be afraid to make use of the entire space. They’ll cluster in the middle, afraid to fall off the edge.
The same is true in the world of thought. With no clear boundaries, it is easy to overstep the thin line between plurality of ideas and anarchy.
These boundaries are the belief in the Divine origin of the Torah (both Written and Oral) and the validity of the halachic process. While we all have our opinions, ruling on matters of Jewish law requires in-depth knowledge of the sources and legal reasoning.
In a society that sanctifies individual right to an opinion, it’s hard to accept that people are driven by subjective, often subconscious, beliefs. Yet like any navigation system (think a compass) humans need an external point of reference to make sure they don’t get sidetracked by interests and self-serving thinking.
The idea of boundaries is by no means a product of “charedi fundamentalism.” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik argues that Torah, like science, is its own system that cannot be appraised based on external considerations. He illustrates the concept by pointing out that humanity was able to make progress in physics and mathematics only after it had discarded common sense and embraced the scientific method.
Similarly, while common sense is sometime dubbed the fifth part of Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law comprised of four sections), it is the fifth, not the first part. Common sense is not so common and can be applied only after a person perfects his thinking by acquiring extensive knowledge and acquiring the logic governing Torah study.
And there is also the wisdom of the community, which has undertaken to live in accordance with halacha. In a wondrous system of checks and balances, rabbinic authority is always a product of communal choice. Any rabbi is only as powerful as his followers make him. A poignant example (cited in Dr. Harari’s new Hebrew book The Secret of the Rebbe) can be found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s forceful year-long refusal to assume the mantle of leadership and in the no less dogged determination of the chassidim to crown him as their leader.
Anyone even faintly familiar with the Torah community knows full well that it embraces societal trends and new technologies. But it does not do so at the breakneck pace they develop. Preserving balance requires waiting out to see how a trend plays out and then absorbing only the best, truest parts. And as in any other community, religiously observant Jews have enough trouble separating the wheat from the chaff.
Torah was given in the desert to symbolize that it should not be judged based on preconceived notions. On the other hand, we can judge societal trends based on Torah values and accept those, which enable us to bring G-d’s truth into the world.