The establishment of the State of Israel, together with the challenges that modernity has presented to the Jewish people – in Israel and elsewhere in the world – have confronted Judaism with a reality unlike any other that it has encountered for nearly 2,000 years. In response, there is an urgent need to rediscover, reactivate and even (carefully) recreate Judaism in accordance with its great vision and beliefs.
The time has come to deal with the real issues and no longer hide behind excuses that will ultimately turn Judaism into a sham. Our thinking is behind the times.
Judaism is about bold ideas and bold actions. Its goal is not to find the truth, but to inspire us to honestly search for it. Torah study is not only the greatest undertaking there is, but also the most dangerous, since it can easily lead to self-satisfaction and spiritual conceit. The leashing of our souls is easier than the building of our spirit.
It is time to start thinking big about Judaism and Halacha (Jewish law). Great opportunities await us, and too much is at stake to let them just pass by. We have fallen in love with – and become overwhelmed by – an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive information about Judaism in general and Halacha in particular, which does not get processed but only recycled. For too long, Judaism and Halacha have been imprisoned in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate them.
Novelty is always seen as a threat. It carries with it a sense of violation; a kind of sacrilege. It asks us to think, and to stretch our brains. We prefer the commonplace to the visionary and therefore do not produce people who have the capacity to deliver true innovation.
What today’s Judaism desperately needs is vocal critics who could spread and energize its great message. It needs spiritual Einsteins, Freuds and Pasteurs who can demonstrate its untapped possibilities and undeveloped grandeur. Judaism should be challenged by new Spinozas and Nietzsches; by remorseless atheists who would scare the hell out of our rabbis, who in turn would be forced to start thinking bold ideas.
Jewish education today is for the most part producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance but think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers. Many of them are great Talmudic scholars who don’t realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge and are now trapped.
Consequently, they rewrite halachic Judaism in ways that are foreign to the very ideas it truly stands for. Everything is done to crush questioning. The quest for certainty paralyses the search for meaning (Eric Fromm). It blocks proper understanding. By ignoring this fact, these rabbis are embalming Halacha while claiming it is alive because it continues to maintain its external shape.
The greatness of the Talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts, as well as their attempts at solving them. This is demonstrated in their fierce debates on major halachic issues, notably between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, and between Rava and Abaye. These disagreements were rooted in their outlook on life and how they viewed Judaism. Students were privy to their teachers’ inner lives, and that made their discussions exciting. The teachers created tension in their classes, waged war with their own ideas and asked their students to fight them with knives between their teeth. They were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to deconstruct the conclusions so as to rediscover the questions. These teachers realized that not all halachic paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is full of contradictions. They also understood that an answer is always a form of death, whereas a question opens the mind and inspires the heart.
We have created a generation of yes people. We desperately need to heed what Kierkegaard said about Christianity: “The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [like-minded] Christians.” (Marie M. Thulstrup, “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation” in Howard A. Johnson and Niels Thulstrup (eds.), A Kierkegaard Critique, [New York: Harper 1962] p. 277)
We need to emulate Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter who, unlike all other painters of his generation, used the raw material of Holland’s landscape to perceive hidden connections. He thus linked his preternatural sensibility to a reality that he was able to transform, with great passion, into a new creation. He was the object of ongoing antagonism from his society, yet he spoke to his generation and continues to speak to us, because he elevated himself to the point where he saw the full dimensions that art can address, something that no one else had discovered.
As with art, one cannot inherit Halacha and one cannot receive the Jewish tradition. One must fight for it and earn it. To be halachically religious is to live in a state of warfare. The purpose of art is to disturb; not to produce finished works but to stop from exhaustion, leaving it for others to continue. So it is with Halacha. It still has scaffolding, which should remain while the building continues.
One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among students. Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator. We owe nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed but to those who differed. Judaism, in its essence, is an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal and compels the world to grow. It creates loyalty. That is what brought Judaism into existence. Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols; and he was followed by his children, by Moshe, by the prophets, and finally, by the Jewish people.
When we teach our children to eat kosher, we should tell them that this is an act of disobedience against consumerism that encourages human beings to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it is a protest against our arrogance in thinking that we can do it alone. When couples observe the laws of family purity, it is a rebellion against the obsession with sex. By celebrating Shabbat, we challenge our contemporary world that believes happiness depends on how much we produce.
As long as our religious educators continue to teach Jewish texts as models of approval, instead of manifestations of protest against the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more and more of our young people to that very mediocrity.
To move forward, we have to take what is valuable and appropriate from the past and infuse it with what the future has to offer. We must return to the rich Jewish tradition of open exploration and debate, as exemplified in the Talmud. And we must embrace both the best of human thought in our own time and the original creative spirit of Jewish law, opening it once again to the multitude of options expounded in the Talmudic and other traditional sources, and even going beyond.