In a recent essay, we posed the following question: How does one constantly fight complacency and repetition in order to accomplish the goal of achieving genuine religious cognizance?
We believe this goal can be reached only if we walk in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu and put ourselves in his position. We will never be able to accomplish this in the full sense, but we can re-discover what he already found. We should simultaneously bring our own personal self into this process, so that we are not just re-discovering Avraham’s earlier found faith but also adding a deeply personal dimension. In doing so, we must be careful not to abandon the idea of real growth, which involves not leaving our experiences behind us but incorporating them within us. It is therefore the task of every Jew to discover the archetypal Avraham in them and integrate it with their own self.
Just as Avraham Avinu discovered the fundamental pre-halachic forms of the Jewish faith on his own, so must we. And just as he was open to the Divine entering and making contact with him while in the process of his discovery, so too must we place ourselves in similar situations. We need to retroactively re-discover that which set Avraham on his spiritual path. Avraham was not just the discoverer of God’s existence; he was also trying to find the way to experience God in the here and now. We too can experience this by carefully implementing the categories through which the Torah sees the world.
However, it is not only the Avraham within us that we need to discover but also all of the other early biblical personalities. Yitzchak and Ya’akov, together with their wives, followed by the twelve tribes, all contributed to the faith community and added new dimensions to this pre-halachic lifestyle. By studying their lives and trying to identify with them, we embark on a pilgrimage through souls, until we discover our own religious dimensions.
In Order to Revere
By way of the above, we recognize the uniqueness of the biblical approach to life. As Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “The Greeks learned in order to comprehend. The Hebrews learned in order to revere. The modern man learns in order to use.” [*] Avraham was the first person to experience the biblical view of life. He discovered God’s presence by recognizing the sublime and the wonder, and realized that the meaning of all that surrounds us is greater than can ever be expressed; that the existence of the sublime cannot be adequately conveyed. It can be sensed in every drop of water, or grain of sand, but attempts to express this recognition in a purely rational way inevitably fail. It is only through this radical astonishment that we can grasp the complete mystery surrounding us on all levels. Once this is recognized and overtakes our very being, God can then enter into a relationship with us, similar to Avraham’s experiential relationship with Him.
However, it is not just the mystery itself that will pave that road for us. As in the case of Avraham, we will have to ask ourselves what to do with that enigma and recognize that something is demanded of us in relation to it. Two things will then be accomplished: the experience with God, and an understanding of the vital importance of Halacha.
It is here that the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu and the Bet Midrash of Moshe Rabbeinu meet. The fact that people are capable of recognizing the mystery of existence and, on a practical level, are able to react, investigate, and enjoy all that they have discovered, is fundamental to the appreciation of Halacha.
Halacha is a practical response to our ability to stand in wonder. The fact that one cannot explain or justify it presents us with another inescapable question. Do we deserve this ability? The shattering truth is that we are not worthy of it. Nobody ever earned the right to live, to love, and to enjoy. These are gifts, not rewards. We are overcome by existential embarrassment, and are required not just to find the opportunity to discharge our debt to God, but to realize that we must do so in order to acquire dignity.
We need to obey the One who gives. Only then is there some symmetry between the Giver and the receiver. The realization that all of our faculties and all of existence are rooted in mystery obligates us. Therefore, this is recognized as law in the life of a Jew.
The Wonder of Judaism
Nevertheless, it is not just the wonder of this world, or of a grain of sand; more than that, it is the wonder of Judaism that we need to re-discover. We must recognize its phenomenal depth and breadth, its ability to refresh the human spirit, its transformative strength and, perhaps above all, its healthy attitude toward life. Since Judaism is a religion that deals with day-to-day minutiae, in which every minor issue becomes a major one, the overall picture is often lost. We should not lose sight of the forest for the trees. Jewish education must focus on Judaism’s comprehensive insights and values, not just on its myriad details.
What is Authentic?
We must also marvel at Judaism’s struggles and constant search for new ways to explain itself. This means having to face some painful issues. How do we recognize what is authentic and what is not? We will be forced to question some aspects that are now seen as essential to Judaism but might, after all, not qualify as such. There is little doubt that certain concepts and values entered the Jewish tradition through the back door and don’t really belong there.
These concepts are mainly found in the elucidation of the Jewish tradition, not in its essential structure; although it may be argued that certain halachic decisions by contemporary rabbis do not always reflect Judaism’s basic values. This matter is extremely complex, because Judaism fails to have a catechism, or even a universally accepted system of dogmas. Even Rambam’s “Thirteen Principles of Faith” were never officially accepted as binding. Therefore, it would be difficult to unequivocally say what makes Judaism what it is. A return to the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu – Judaism’s incubation phase – may give us some clarity about the fundamentals of Judaism.
However, it might be necessary at times to question some of the so-called Jewish beliefs, and even to suggest that they may require replacing. The breaking of idols and slaughtering of sacred cows is, in itself, a Jewish task that began with Avraham Avinu. Consequently, we should not be afraid to do so, or at least to discuss the possible need for change. This could raise some eyebrows in certain religious circles, and we might even become controversial. So, we must keep in mind that great controversies are also great emancipators. They often clarify and enhance essential philosophies behind majestic traditions.
For sure, certain issues may never be resolved. But this could be a blessing, as it will prove Judaism’s multifaceted nature and its unwillingness to be pinned down on every issue. Still, it is undeniable that there are some powerful beliefs within Judaism that cannot be circumvented and without which its very structure would collapse. Such issues would need to be considered very carefully.
Coherence in Pluralism
For this reason, it is important to mention that within Jewish thinking, there are opposing views, and religious diversity will no doubt be part of its weltanschauung. We should not always attempt to reconcile the differing opinions, although it will be necessary to do so when it contributes to a more comprehensive picture. Pluralism is no doubt part of the Jewish tradition. If we look back at the creation, it is clear that God Himself is a pluralist, allowing for so many opposing forces. This doesn’t mean that everything goes. There must be coherence in diversity for it to have any value. As in a Rembrandt painting, many colors contradict each other, but together, and within a certain order, they create not only coherence, but a painting of unprecedented beauty.
[*] A.J. Heschel, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism (NY: Free Press, 1997) p. 37.
Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo