Is our mission being accomplished?
The essential reason that the blessed G-D, sanctified us
through giving us His Torah and Mitsvot
and set us apart to be His people
is in order that we may reverence Him and sanctify His name in the world
(Rabenu Yona of Gerona: Sha’arei Teshuva 3:158)
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What Is Our Mission?
The greatest source of merit for the nascent nation of Israel was their declaration at Sinai 3,330 years ago that they would execute whatever G-D mandated (Exodus19:8 and again at 24:3) and that, moreover, they would carry this mandate out even in advance of hearing its particulars (24:7).
This latter declaration comprises the celebrated two words na’aseh ve-nishma. Often it is translated as “We shall do unconditionally even in advance of understanding why!”
However in its most simple and logical sense (pshat) it means “We undertake to do even before listening to what we have to do!”
These words were declared (according to Rashi and other major commentators) before hearing the Ten Commandments encapsulating the essence of the 613 mitsvot. Moreover, the declaration was in response to a prior revelation of G-D to Moses alone, which was immediately conveyed to the people. The nature of that epiphany is recorded for us in Exodus 19:5-6 in what I would term our national covenantal mission statement.
Now, if you listen well to Me and and keep My covenant you shall be for Me a uniquely beloved treasure among all the nations; for all the world is Mine. .You shall be for me a kingdom of kohanim (priests) and a holy nation.
According to R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, “a kingdom of kohanim” means “each individual among you is to become …a true Kohen who, by his word and example, spreads afield the knowledge of G-D and loyalty to Him”
In other words, our entire nation is to be dedicated to leading the world towards an understanding of G-D and acceptance of the universal code of morality upon which the world stands.
Aspiring to be “a holy nation” on the other hand, again, as per R’ Hirsch, enjoins us to be a nation apart, dedicated to the service of G-D through Torah. Here, however, R’ Hirsch adds the comment on the ensuing phrase “these are the words” (v.6) – “these, no less and no more. Less would not be sufficient to guarantee your future; and more is not required!”
With these remarks, R’ Hirsch clarifies the precise nature of our mission. To confront the world without being sufficiently kadosh, separate, would not be sufficient to guarantee against assimilation. To be too kadosh, however – kadosh-with-a-vav as my teacher Rav Eli Munk ztl would have said (see Lev. 19:2 and 21:8) – will remove us from the world, render us irrelevant and incapable of fulfilling the first part of our mission.
In other words, we, Am Yisrael, must impart to the world but stay apart from the world. This is the essence of the Jewish mission. A complex mission for a complex nation!
The World’s Enrichment Personnel
In an essay entitled Rank Insiders, I once weaved a homily around a set of instructions issued to enrichment personnel by the cruise company for which I have served as resident rabbi during several Chanukas past.. The directions were designed to turn these enrichment personnel into role models whom passengers could respect yet relate to. I expressed my admiration for these guidelines, founded as they were (consciously or unconsciously) on our mission statement cited above.
These guidelines are basic for all educationists and, of course, quintessentially parents, society’s primary educators. A parent must be distant enough from a child to cultivate respect yet close enough for the child to be able to bond in love. Of course such a relationship ought also to exist between ourselves and our heavenly Parent, G-D. We relate to him as malkeinu, our Ruler (awe and respect) but also as avinu, our Father (love)
The Jewish Nation and The World: A Fraught and Tense Relationship
Why then has such a relationship never been possible between the Jewish nation and the world of nations? Why have we never been able to fulfil our role satisfactorily as mamlekhet kohanim ve-goi kadosh?
We can, of course, lay much of the blame at the door of antisemitism. The world has hardly allowed us to fulfil our role. Consequently we left it to the ‘illegitimate-daughter’ religions, Christianity and, more latterly, Islam, to do our missionary work for us. Tragically Christianity, the so-called ‘older-daughter’ of Judaism, which has borrowed (or stolen) from us all that is noble in her, turned on her ‘mother’ from the outset, viewing her more as an evil stepmother. Her insane jealousy of her ‘mother’ caused her to corrupt many of her ‘mother’s’ ideals and to distance herself from her, resulting in acts of barbarism making her claim to be the religion of love a mockery.
Meanwhile, Islam, the insolent ‘younger-daughter’, has embraced the zeal of Judaism without Judaism’s compassionate spirit and, as a result, threatens to spin the world out of control. It dislikes its ‘older sister’ but loathes, with a pathological loathing, its ‘mother’ much more.
Yet today the majority of the world is neither devoutly Christian nor fanatically Islamic. It is overwhelmingly secular. Of course, secularism , both on the nationalistic far-Right and the socialistic far-Left, also detests the sacred ideals of Judaism and of Jews the “conscience of the world”. Fascism and its uniquely evil half-sibling, Nazism, embodies the most extreme manifestation of the former, Communism the latter. However both these ideologies are now, thank G-D, terminally sick. Mein Kampf (notwithstanding the release of its recent critical edition) and Das Kapital have been discredited. Today’s free world is searching desperately for an anchor in a raging sea of ideas and ideologies. The dogmas of political-correctness and climate-change blind faith on the one hand and certain New Age manifestations on the other are but examples of this desperate search for meaning.
Yet it is precisely this aching search that makes me wonder if society is really as secular as it appears. The ancient Roman Epicureanist poet Lucretius (c.99BCE – c.55BCE) perhaps speaks for all honest unbelievers throughout history when he declares “fear was the first thing on earth to make gods!” In other word, man has an inherent need to worship. If the ‘object’ of worship is not G-D it will be the idols of whatever age.
Today there is no dominant ‘idology’ (if I may coin the term). And today, unlike in the Church-dominated past, no Jew in the free world is going to be prosecuted for spreading the ideas of Judaism or the Noachide code. With rare exceptions, Christianity no longer persecutes Judaism. In fact it has started to humble itself before Judaism. Some years ago, Pope Francis made a visit to the main synagogue in Rome – the third consecutive pope to do so – and repeatedly spoke of Jews as Christians “elder brothers”. He also denounced all past violence committed by Christians against Jews in the name of the church and echoed a Vatican pronouncement that Catholics should no longer try to convert Jews as “G-D has never annulled His covenant with the Jewish People” and that therefore Jews are in no need of the Christian gospel.
This remarkable admission – a potentially world-changing pronouncement by the largest Christian denomination in the world – has been met, so far as I am aware, with zero Jewish response beyond an obsequious murmur of appreciation and “gratitude”.
If we have reacted at all it is with a strange sense of embarrassment! Have we failed to grasp that, with these words, striking as they do at the very heart of traditional Christian theology which has always stated there is no salvation for anybody except through its founder, the former triumphalist Catholic church has written its own epitaph?
And since “nature abhors a vacuum” (a saying attributed to Aristotle) the eternal covenantal nation, the nation that stood at Sinai and gave light to the world, should be pursuing her historic mission as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” with assertiveness and confidence. The reason why we, that nation, are not able to do so needs no explanation from me. We, Am Yisrael, are, sadly, a nation confused and divided; a people that has all but forgotten its mission.
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Labels in Judaism: A Necessary Evil?
Labels are an absolute necessity for food products, blood samples and check-in luggage. To differentiate between groups of Jews they are unwelcome. No-one was labelled at Sinai except with the noble epithet ‘son/daughter of Israel’.
However one cannot deny reality. The Jewish world is multi-textured in its diversity. Even within the Torah-observant Jewish world there is copious ideological variegation.
But broadly speaking, if you are Torah-observant you fall into one of two groupings: Modern/Centrist Orthodox, a.k.a. Torah uMada or Ultra-Orthodox a.k.a. Charedi.
Here I must make a frank admission. My detestation of labelling has much to do with the fact that I am unsure exactly where I fit in. Intellectually I find many of the ways of MO darchei no’am ways of pleasantness; yet there is a certain hitlahavut (spiritual intensity) missing. I am probably more at home in the Charedi camp; yet I cannot identify with all its values, policies and priorities. After seven decades of life, I am yet to find my clear ideological box and wonder if it actually exists! (Maybe I should be happy not to be in a box at least for the next fifty years!)
It occurs to me that the key to my irresolution and indeed my dissatisfaction lies in the approach of each of the groupings to the two planks of our overarching mission and that the fault may not lie entirely with me.
Modern Orthodoxy: Too Much A Part Of The World
In the introduction to his latest book The Living Tree, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, perhaps today’s leading exponent on MO, writes (in his introductory chapter entitled “What Is Modern Orthodoxy?”) of “an Oral Tradition of human interpretation and exegesis, of decrees and enactments, so that the input of righteous and pious scholars will retain the relevance of the divine teachings in every generation, in every circumstance and even for specific human needs and exigencies”. I wish he had added to that sentence “without compromising the Torah’s authenticity and integrity”.
It is deeply concerning that, in its determination to continue to engage with the world, Modern Orthodoxy has, of late, albeit tentatively, explored accommodations, alliances and even affiances with groups, movements and outlooks which cannot be reconciled with Torah precepts and values. I was shocked to read that in the USA the Yeshiva University Day School Partnership representing Modern Orthodoxy is set to merge with pluralistic, Conservative and Reform day school roof bodies and networks. The aim: to pool existing talent, expertise and resources for the common good in order to boost falling enrolments. (Ironically MO is the only one of the aforementioned day school movements where enrolment is not falling, although it is static) Evidently the merger is founded on the notion that what divides Modern Orthodox educational philosophy from non-Orthodox ideologies is not critical. It must send a chill through the limbs of all those hoping MO has a vibrant, authentic future. One wonders how long it will be before so-called “Open Orthodoxy” is accepted as a fully authorised presence in the Modern Orthodox spectrum.
R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) is often described as the father of Modern Orthodoxy. However he would shudder at how his philosophy has been adulterated. R’ Hirsch’s definition of Torah im Derekh Erets, is the application of Torah values to every civilisation (see also the writings of his grandson Dr. Isaac Breuer). Now it has become the wholesale adaptation of the Torah to contemporary concepts of right and wrong. Spurious justifications are being applied to excuse and even to validate what was formerly inexcusable. Contemporary societal values have become king in much of the Modern Orthodox world.
The Charedi Sector: Too Apart From The World
No enrolment problems are facing USA schools in the Charedi community. In fact such schools are rapidly growing, now accounting for more than half of all Jewish school enrolment nationally, This reflects the burgeoning Charedi sector which, with an average of over six children per family, is set (given present demographic trends) to double in less than two decades.
However, partly in reaction to the plunging moral and societal vulgarity of our age, the charedi community has become ever-increasingly insular and wary of wider social inaction. While in some ways it is an understandable reaction, it is also, in my view, an ill-judged one. It is as though the Charedi community is unaware of its own strength and power to influence others. Borne perhaps of an historical fear of assimilation when its numbers were proportionally miniscule and of its perceived need to batten down the hatches, it is a response that is no longer either valid or appropriate – not just because of its numerical strength but also because in today’s society it creates an unfortunate impression of a superiority complex which in turn can spawn chilul haShem (bringing the name of G-D and Judaism into disrepute). Regrettably this negative outlook vis-à-vis interacting with the world is too often heard and seen out of the mouths and pens of charedi spokespersons.
Today with an all-pervasive Internet, everyone is under scrutiny. Never has the phrase from the Mishna chachamim hizharu be-divreikhem – “scholars be prudent with your words” (Avot 1:11) – had more application.
Society has not plunged morally in all respects. There is a general acceptance in all democratic societies that discrimination and certainly demonisation purely on the grounds of race, ethnicity or sex is morally wrong. But how many are aware that this concept is not new; it was given to the world by Am Yisrael. Man was created singly ……for the sake of peace among humankind, so that no person should be able to say to another ‘my parent was greater than yours! (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).
It would indeed be surprising, given the extent of the nations’ persecution of us throughout history, if there were no pejorative rabbinic comments directed at the umot ha-olam, the nations of the world or, colloquially, ‘the goyim’. Yet most of the Talmud’s barbs are directed at ingrained, anathematic lifestyle choices, usually idolatry with all of its undesirable spin-offs. From this way of life Am Yisrael must remain utterly distant (see for example Deut 7:1-5).
At the same time, the above quote from the Mishna, uttered not in the name of this or that individual rabbi but as a unanimous tannaitic pronouncement, stands like a colossus, head and shoulders above any negative statement. Man – Jew and gentile alike – was created singly, in the image of G-D. As does this citation from Tana deBei Eliahu Raba (9): I testify upon heaven and earth that whether Jew or non-Jew, man or woman …according to one’s actions does the Divine Spirit reside upon him.
It was the Jew who, through his Torah, taught the world about the essential equality of man, the evils of discrimination on the basis of race. It was, on the other hand, Darwinism and its theory of “the survival of the fittest” that gave to the world the odious notion of selection and selectivity which paved the way for the Nietzschian concept of the Ubermensch and, eventually, Hitler y.sh. and Mein Kampf..
This is what we must tell the world. And we should do it with the aim of creating a Kiddush haShem (sanctification of G-D’s Name). Let the world declare, as indeed it should: “How great is the Torah which proclaims such values! And how great is a G-D who gave such a moral code as the Torah to His chosen nation!”
The charedi sector of Jewry as the most successful religious sector in the contemporary Jewish world are in the best position to lead the way. They have taught the rest of us how to be a goy kadosh, a holy nation. Now they must become the vanguard in our mission of being a mamlekhet kohanim, a nation of chaplains and moral guidance counsellors for a world which is fast losing its way.
“Shouldn’t We Be Outreaching to Jews, Not Goyim?”
Many will argue that we should be concentrating our energies and resources on kiruv (outreach) towards estranged Jews and not worry about “the goyim”. Even assuming such an approach was once valid, it is not any more. Much of what passes for outreach in the contemporary Jewish world is actually inreach. The baal teshuva movement had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. Those Jews on the fringes today, very culturally-assimilated, utterly a part of the world, are impacted principally by the ideas they see on the Internet which are for general consumption. Therefore our reaching-out must be targeted to all. It will enable us fulfil our worldly mission – and probably our best hope of reaching assimilated fellow-Jews as well!
One man, probably the most remarkable rabbi and indeed individual of his generation, showed us how. The Lubavitcher Rebbe ztl had an all-encompassing approach to outreach and human relations As he is quoted by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin as having said once to Mayor David Dinkins: “We are not [representative of] two sides [you and I]. We are one side!” (Rebbe page 159).
For some unaccountable reason, while Chabad Chassidim continue the Rebbe’s legacy in all the other Rebbe-campaigns with full vigour, comparatively few even among Chabad are engaged in promoting Judaism’s mission to the world in the way the Rebbe urged ever since initiating the Sheva Mitsvot campaign in 1980. We are abjectly failing in our mission not because we lack the tools but because we lack the will. That is the tragedy.
We’re All In This Together!
But even with the best will in the world we, Am Yisrael, in all our diversity need to be unified in affirming this mission and unified in our aims, otherwise we cannot hope to succeed.
We must also know and accept that there is no undertaking more important and more basic. It is, as we have said, the very first assignment we agreed to at Sinai. It is also, as Rabenu Yona declares, the essential reason we were chosen by G-D. To be a kingdom of outreach chaplains effectively disseminating authentic Torah teaching to the world while remaining a holy nation.
The Charedi sector who most understands the concept of kedushat Yisrael is best equipped to lead the mission if only it would want to. Modern Orthodoxy could be a complementary partner in this if it restores Torah im Derekh erets to its original Hirschian formulation.
But the fact is that not one of us who call ourselves committed Jews can shirk his or her responsibility to participate in this genuine form of tikkun olam. We are all in this together! “It is not your duty to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it!” (Avot 2:21)
The world, fragile, frangible and floundering, is in desperate need of direction. It is waiting for us, the chosen and choosing nation, to assume our chosen role. We cannot afford to procrastinate any longer. The time is now!