What ails Judaism: One rabbi’s view

The headlines tell a bleak story about the state of Judaism today. From the raging debate over “Open Orthodoxy,” to a new Pew Survey’s findings about diminishing observance among Jews generally, to deep and seemingly unbridgeable divisions among the streams and even within each, it is clear that Judaism in the 21st century is in serious trouble.

One authoritative rabbi and scholar blames what ails Judaism in part on “masters of Torah” who actually distort its teachings, especially when it comes to why people should observe the Torah’s mitzvot. They create bizarre and confused scenarios that defy logic and belief, he says, adding that it is almost impossible to find a “master of Torah” whose opinion is uncontaminated by error.

He divides these “masters of Torah” into five groups. One group, he says, argues that the reward for doing the mitzvot is eternal life in a heavenly “Garden of Eden,” where homes are made of precious stones, rivers flow with wine and fragrant oils, and no one has to work for anything. On the flip side, they created a hell called Gehenna, “a place of raging fire, in which bodies are burned and agonies of all sorts are inflicted upon sinners.”

A second group produces a reward-and-punishment scenario involving the coming of Mashiach. It will be a time when all virtuous men and women will be angels, and everyone will live forever. In those wondrous days to come, clothes will grow up from the ground, as will fully baked loaves of bread. As for the sinners, their punishment will be that they will not be a part of this idyllic world.

Then there is the group that believes that the virtuous among the dead will rise from the grave and live forever.

There also is a group whose members believe performing the mitzvot will result in material benefits in this world.

Finally, a fifth group — a large one, the rabbi says — takes a little from each of the others. These “masters of Torah” insist Mashiach will resurrect the virtuous dead and lead them into the heavenly Garden of Eden, where they will eat and drink in perfect health forever.

All of these assertions distort Torah, not enhance it, the rabbi says. Because each group finds biblical and rabbinic prooftexts to support their assertions, however, people naturally assume it is Judaism itself that beggars belief.

A good person, the rabbi says, must never approach performing a mitzvah wondering “what will I get out of it.”

He quotes Antigonos of Sokho, who said in Pirkei Avot 1:3, “Do not be like the servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master without expecting a reward.” In other words, one should believe the truth for the sake of the truth. Says the rabbi, “Only a disturbed fool whose mind is deranged by folly and by fantasy will refuse to recognize this truth.”

This authoritative rabbi adds that the words of the Sages of Blessed Memory are interpreted differently by three groups of people, only adding to the distortions and worse.

The first group, he says, is the largest one. “They accept the teachings of the sages in their simple literal sense, and do not think that these teachings contain any hidden meaning at all,” the rabbi says. As a result, “They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be.”

These people, he insists, do not understand science, among other reasons, and never have sought out proper teachers. To them, the literal meaning of the words of the sages is the only possible meaning, even though some of these teachings, when taken literally, “seem so fantastic and irrational.”

The “inadequate knowledge” of the people in this group, and especially the preachers and teachers among them, leads them to error time and again. “One can only regret their folly,” the rabbi says. “Their very effort to honor and to exalt the sages in accordance with their own meager understanding actually humiliates them. As God lives, this group destroys the glory of the Torah and extinguishes its light, for they make the Torah of God say the opposite of what it intended.”

The second group also is a large one. The people in this group also insist on taking the words of the sages literally, and then point out how absurd the teachings of the sages were. Ultimately, they declare the sages to be fools and simpletons, hold them up to contempt, and slander what does not deserve to be slandered. In so doing, they diminish Judaism in the eyes of people who have no choice but to agree with them. After all, do not their rabbis also insist that the words of the sages must be taken literally?

“The members of this group are so pretentiously stupid that they can never attain genuine wisdom,” says the rabbi. He adds: “They are more stupid than the first group; many of them are simply fools.”

The third group “are so few in number that it is hardly appropriate to call them a group,” the rabbi says. Members of this group “understand that the sages knew as clearly as we do the difference between the impossibility of the impossible, and the existence of that which must exist. They know the sages did not speak nonsense, and it is clear to them that the words of the sages contain both an obvious and a hidden meaning.”

We live in terrible times and Judaism has much to offer, but few will listen as long as its message is obscured by fairy tale accretions coming from people who should know better.

You can read more of what this outspoken rabbi has to say on the subject. His name is Moses Maimonides, and his opinions can be found in the introduction to his Commentary to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
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