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Yerushalayim, Shavuot, and Our Unique Historical Imperative

At the end of the Six Day War, Israeli soldiers hug and kiss the stones of the Western Wall, Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, June 11, 1967. (Photo by Dan Porges/Getty Images)
At the end of the Six Day War, Israeli soldiers hug and kiss the stones of the Western Wall, Old City of Jerusalem, Israel, June 11, 1967. (Photo by Dan Porges/Getty Images)

In his book Orthodoxy, Christian theologian G.K. Chesterton writes: “Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  It is the democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.  Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

It is through similar logic to that of Chesterton’s that I happened upon Orthodoxy.  Although in my experience ‘Orthodoxy’ refers to Orthodox Judaism, fundamentally, Chesterton’s arguments for fidelity to tradition are universal.

This week, between Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot, invites introspection into the arc of Jewish history and its modern implications.  On Yom Yerushalayim, we are acutely aware of our place within history, at a national and individual level.  The words of King David in the 137th chapter of Tehillim, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” sustained the spirit of the Jew in the darkest nights of exile.  It was only the hope of a future redemption, of some eternal reward for their suffering, that sustained the Jewish spirit in the Rhineland in 1096, or in Ukraine in 1648, and so on.  It may be easy to make light of our present historical reality and to ignore the prophecies being fulfilled.  A cursory review of the past century, however, implores us to take account of our place in the process of geulah, redemption.  The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall behold a land stretching afar… look upon Zion, the city, of our solemn gatherings; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a peaceful habitation, a tent that shall not be removed” (Isaiah 33:17-20).  On Shavuot, we recall Matan Torah, when we accepted Torah in its entirety and began our endless struggle to serve as God’s representatives in this world.  Through Torah and mitzvot, we were commanded to create a just and righteous society, and world, in His image.

In this spirit, I have reflected upon my own religious journey, starting with a personal ‘Yom Yerushalayim,’ a reckoning with the historical implications of our present reality, and culminating with ‘Shavuot,’ accepting the Torah into my own life and living a life of mitzvot.  I grew up quite secular and removed from religion, although my mother in particular instilled in me a sense of Jewish identity.  My journey to Orthodoxy did not begin with any Rabbi or sefer.  I was never convinced of the validity of Jewish tradition, but rather I bore witness to that validity by living out its manifestations.  I also never was persuaded by “proofs” of the Torah’s divinity, which is something I only came to believe through studying Torah and living a halakhic life.  From a young age, I felt a deep connection to everything “Jewish.”  In middle and high school, I developed a strong passion for everything related to Zionism and Israel.  I cannot offer any explanations for why this all was, but it led me to conclude that maintaining my Jewish identity and passing it on to future generations would be a priority in my life.  Indeed, in many ways my Zionism led me to religion.  In a certain sense, however, it was dafke my secular Jewish upbringing that prompted my religious views.  Above all else, observing the undeniable, yet tragic, death of Judaism and Jewish identity in my community motivated my dedication to Jewish continuity.

With this commitment to “Jewishness” in a vague sense delineated, I had to decide how this identity would manifest itself in my life.  Over the course of several years, I decided that I had a duty to my ancestors and to Jewish history to dedicate myself to carrying on the historical memory of our nation.  Undoubtedly, the present reality of the Jewish nation in the context of our historical travails inspired me in my journey and fortified my trust in the God of Jewish history.  If I will be committed to the history of Israel, so too must I give myself over to the God of Israel.  How, then, does a Jew serve and emulate the God of Israel?  He does so through the Torah of Israel and the mitzvot enumerated therein.

Even if I were to accept this premise, that an affinity for Jewish history and historical memory commands me to uphold Jewish tradition, the rationale for being medakdek in the minutiae of the halakhic system is not self-evident.  From a sociological perspective, the answer is not as difficult.  Halakha can be viewed as a system, one you can either “buy into” and live a Jewish life, or one you can reject.  If you want to be a part of the broader religious Jewish community and affirm your place within Jewish history and the Jewish nation, the logical conclusion is that you should keep mitzvot.

The sociological answer was enough for me in practice, but not in principle.  It is highly problematic to render the totality of Torah and halakha to being a function of one’s own desires.  Historical and sociological reasons provide basis, but that alone suggests that the essence of a Torah life is in service of something other than Hashem.  The practicality of such an approach long term is also dubious, for it hardly justifies the struggles some must endure to live a halakhic life.

What, then, is my reason for keeping mitzvot?  In short, I live a halakhic life out of a sense of yirat shamayim.  By that, I do not suggest that I live my life in fear of divine reward and punishment per se.  In truth, I only became convinced of the Torah’s divinity through living a halakhic life and studying Torah.  Even now, I reject the notion that the Torah can, or should, be proven.  My doubts remain, but they are superseded by my dedication to Hashem, His values, and the halakhic system.  Rather than living a halakhic life out of fear, I do so out of commitment and obligation.  My yirat shamayim is a result of my reverence and awe for Hashem and a belief in the validity of Torah’s message.  Through Torah, we are challenged to realize the human experience in a way that brings sanctity to the mundane, creating a just and righteous society emulating the values of Hashem.

There is a well-known statement in the Gemara that “Gadol ha-metzuvah ve-oseh mi-mi she-ino metzuveh ve-oseh.  One who is commanded and performs a mitzvah is greater than one who is not commanded and performs it” (Bava Kamma 87a).  Rav Lichtenstein zt”l discusses this line and suggests that Chazal is teaching us that the center of our religious experience is the state of being called and commanded.  One who is commanded must, at times, subjugate his own desires to the will of Hashem.  “Set aside your will in the face of His will” (Avot 2:4).  As such, to discriminate between different mitzvot, cherry-picking aspects of Judaism that suit your own desires, is an affront to the Torah.  Rav Lichtenstein concludes that being an eved Hashem means serving Hashem for His sake, not your own.  It is praiseworthy to align one’s own will with Hashem’s, but accepting God’s command as the guiding force in life is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

As I look back over the past several years of my life, I observe the intersections between historical affinity and religious commitment.  Ultimately, although my sense of commitment to Hashem outweighs all else, the historical and sociological reasons I explained deserve mention.  Doubts I have about the historical development of the halakhic system, for instance, are nullified when I accept the validity of Jewish history.  Our current historical reality, fifty-five years after the reunification of Yerushalayim, solidifies my confidence in Hashem and His role in Jewish history.  When I observe the past two-thousand years of the Jewish story, perhaps the most miraculous and at times most tragic story in human history, I cannot help but see the hand of Hashem.

In our era, when democratic values are under attack, many insist that we must be champions of the democratic order.  Perhaps, too, we should consider championing the most profound democracy of all: tradition, which, as Chesterton writes so eloquently, is “the democracy of the dead.”  My path to Orthodoxy began neither with the profundities of Chesterton nor with the exciting minutiae of halakha.  Rather, observing both Jewish history and our present reality, I made a conscious decision to include myself in the Jewish future.  On Shavuot, we read Megillat Rut, and, although, unlike Rut, I was born a Jew, her words encapsulate my life and my purpose: “For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Chag Sameach, and may we all have the zechut to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem.

About the Author
Jake Fradkin is an incoming student at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He previously learned at both Yeshivat Orayta and Yeshivat Torah V'Avodah in Yerushalayim. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home in New Jersey, Jake developed a passion for Judaism, Torah, and Zionism.
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