By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

On the Limitations of Torah Ideology: The Weaknesses of Torah in Galut and What to Do About It

As a proud alumnus of the Modern Orthodox educational system, I do not wish to offend the sensibilities of my pious teachers and friends who adhere to the tenets of the Torah. I also do not want you to think that I have, chas veshalom, strayed from the ways of the Law of God and rebelled against the truths that have defined the Jew since his inception. I am grateful for my upbringing as a proud Jew and I appreciate all the mentors, friends, and figures who have allowed me to take part in the millennia-old story of the eternal people. Throughout the ages, many have fought and died in order to preserve our hallowed tradition, and to object to even the most basic teachings of our sacred inheritance would amount to personal hubris on an unimaginable level and an absurd denial of the authenticity of our most cherished possession and the closest element to God in existence.

However, I cannot but bemoan the damage that a two-thousand year exile has inflicted upon our holy covenant. The Torah we have today has for the most part survived the impact of the destruction of both temples, multiple exiles, pogroms, holocausts, and destruction. Even through the most harrowing periods of our tortured exiled existence, our collective will has preserved our precious cargo and has transmitted it onwards for future generations. But, in general, the effects of this never-ending galus have weakened the spiritual connection we retain with the original, natural torah shebe’al peh, the unwritten commandments as part of our life as a nation. In a well known passage from the Talmud (Shabbat 112 b), the Rabbis (Amorites) consider their relative stature as compared to their fathers and ancient predecessors. They conclude that they are as asses to men in comparison to their forefathers.

This concept of yeridat hadorot, or the “diminishing of the generations,” reverberates strongly in the fabric of our nation’s history. Throughout the millennia, great scholars of Torah graced the landscape of Torah Judaism. These figures served not only as spiritual and halakhic leaders, but also as political personalities that served the pressing needs of Jews in exile. They, as documented by our ever-present reverence for their talmudic prowess and human insight, inspired generations upon generations of Jews to uphold their traditions and preserve the authenticity of the Torah. Even so, any talmid of basic Talmudic law knows that we do not approach every Rabbi with equal reverence. The temporal hierarchy as described by the Rabbis in the Talmud continues to this day and plays a major part in Jewish literature. A prominent Acharon may argue with his peers and possibly with a Rishon, but no one would tolerate a modern Rabbi to personally contradict the teaching of a Tana(!). Similarly, the dictates of previous Rabbis remain in place today not only as a result of a consensus of Rabbis who continue to deem them appropriate, but rather, in recognition of the greatness of past generations and our relative insignificance due to our time-diluted relationship to the source of Torah, and due to our personal, communal, and national shortcomings, we dare not dissent.

Hence, we find ourselves in an awkward situation. We maintain the integrity of what remains from the revelation at Sinai, strive to protect and study the works of our great religious leaders, and attempt to lead lives of bnei torah as we find them guided by our ancient tradition. However, as many of us feel, and as demonstrated by our continuous decline from the heights of Babel to the present, the conduit of divine revelation, of ancient commandments and decrees, runs drier and drier as time goes on, and can no longer satisfy the political and spiritual needs of most of us. To experience the revelation at Sinai through the study of Torah offers the most direct connection to God almighty, but, to our dismay, the act of study does not always answer life’s most pressing questions. I do not mean to question the importance of knowing the laws of Sabbath, of Nidah, or of Neziqin. All observant Jews need the expertise of Rabbinic guidance when approaching the specific halakhic issues that affect everyone, everyday. Instead, I question the prospect of expecting Torah to provide the answers to some of the major questions that now occupy world Jewry and the world in general.

Of course, Jewry today is not the Jewry of a century ago. We have suffered much in the past century, have survived against all the odds, and have risen from the ashes of Auschwitz to settle and secure the ancient Land of Israel, initiating the process of the redemption (speedily in our days. Amen). Nevertheless, the process of transformation from a “nation spread out amongst others,” to a nation sovereign in her homeland has brought forth much confusion and has disturbed the status quo of Jewish life as defined by its never-ending experience as a diaspora Jew. Along with the new Jewish State of Israel, and the ingathering of the exiled masses of Jews from the world over, the Jewish people have begun the process of fulfilling their destiny. Instead of just rolling with the punches, accepting the yoke of gentile rule with both equanimity and despondent helplessness, the modern Israeli Jew lives proudly in his homeland, fashioning for himself a culture, society, and life unique to the Jew and to Israel. But, owing the lack of proper guidance, and to the influences of the ever-present exile, Israeli Jews, and even Religious-Zionist Israelis, find it difficult to envision a redemptive society, one which would fully unlock the potential of our peoplehood. Such a society, as proposed by religious Hareidim and Zionists, must ultimately conform to the dictates of the Torah, but as to the critical elements of culture, economy, and society, there does not exist any agreement between parties, nor, indeed, much interest in analyzing the possibilities in light of Torah principles.

This apparent oversight, the inability of Torah to adapt to a practical, realistic geula has dogged Jews for centuries, if not millennia, though rises to prominence only now in regards to the contemporary Jewish state. Up until recent history, Jews have made do with adapting themselves to whatever environment the exile has presented them. They usually could not realistically impact the politics of their host countries, and, when they tried to do so, risked facing anti-Semitic backlash accusing them of meddling. Additionally, those who injected themselves into the secular discourse of gentile politics usually found themselves severed from the existing world of Torah and Jewish tradition. Most visionaries, as we discovered, quickly threw off the yoke of Torah and assimilated into the surrounding culture. With the establishment of an independent Jewish state came the responsibilities that had so long been relegated to our numerous gentile hosts. Who will run the country, how will they be chosen, what will the economy look like, and how do we embrace our brethren in this birth of an ideal society? Surely, the ingathering of exiles and the establishment of the State of Israel contribute to our sense of an impending geula, but if we do not, or cannot, actively engage in the dialogue surrounding the practical aspects of an ideal society, if out of fear or lack of insight we refrain from contributing to the construction of a just, divinely inspired community, how will we continue to see Israel as an expression of divine will? In order to achieve a deeper level of understanding, we must first attempt to acknowledge and examine our weaknesses and begin to compensate for the damage that such an exile has wrought.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhaq Hakohen Kook, a man we may consider the demi-prophet of religious Zionism, writes in his work “Orot” of the many spiritual, sociological, psychological, and political forces that affect the Jewish people. In a passage he calls the “Course of the Ideas of Israel,” he describes the interaction that takes place between the Ideas of Nationalism, Religion, and Divinity. He writes that in order to maintain stability and succeed, the people of Israel need to incorporate the characteristics of all three. Wayward nationalism, or weak religious conviction, works against the collective strength of the Jewish people and brings about suffering. In the society preceding the destruction of Israel and the Temples, the powerful monarchs maintained Jewish independence to varying degrees, but due to the weakness of the religious aspect of life, as influenced by the surrounding cultures’ paganism, Israel became weak and eventually succumbed to the larger forces of a larger world. Rav Kook, when describing the transition between sovereignty to exile, explains that “When the spirit of God was swept from upon the nation, when her national character separated from her spiritual wellspring, the exile became obligatory. The public sphere, impure in its essence, needed to suffer. The exile struck and destroyed to the core the wanton national spirit that betrayed her God. This, by her severing herself from the source of life and engaging in pagan cultures.

“Instead of a strong national identity, the divine spirit found its place in the religious character of the diaspora Jew.

“Unable to influence the national character of the nation...the divinity withdrew herself and subsisted in a small and meager nest: the lesser temples of the synagogues and study halls, in the holy quotidien lives of man and family, in the codes of Torah and religion...remnants of what had been lively and complete and which will return to glory when God redeems his people.

All the mundane specificity of Torah practice, Mitzvot and their individual minutiae...that earlier manifest itself and was performed through the revelation of the divinity in the soul of the collective nation...began to, in the absence of the collective spirit...found itself and stand out in the private sphere: the morality of the individual, the concern for immortality (including the afterlife), and the meticulous detail of every act...adapted nicely to the limited divine revelation in the private sphere--the religious idea.”

But after years of exile and suffering, after the millennia of submission and humiliation, Rav Kook argues that the sin of our forefathers has been washed away and this has allowed us to begin to reinvigorate our national spirit and reestablish a national identity. He claims that “our long absence from deliberating political issues silenced the collective spirit of Israel,” but also gave us the time to regroup and get ready for redemption.

In order to regain the stature lost in the destruction of Israel, modern Jews must, as Rav Kook desires, understand the nature of each piece of our collective identity that was lost or transformed throughout history. The religious identity, purified through the efforts of all the generations of galus, in addition to the rediscovered national identity and purpose held in limbo for so long, must come together and combine to form one coherent national, religious, and divine identity, informed by the dictates of religious laws, practical national policies, and divine authority.

Upon further thought, it may occur to you that such a prescription for national rejuvenation too generally states its purposes and lacks much in details. How shall the spirit of national identity reawaken in our weary psyches? How may we navigate this torment of newfound ideas and old-new identities? I believe that the answer lies in the way we approach the problem. We must first understand that the Torah as we have it today serves a purpose in maintaining for us the necessary principles and laws that allow us to think in a structured, holy manner. Without the strict regulations of a Torah mentality, we would never succeed in determining the proper manner of building a national society. However, you would be amiss if you only focused on the specifics of the Idea of Religion. Religion, as defined by a mentality borne in galus, cannot offer the broader vision of full national recovery, as it knows not how to function in a real, practical manner. All of Torah is true, but not all of truth can be found accessibly within the tomes of the Talmud or in the teachings of the Rabbis. Economy, politics, culture, and security all present themselves with their own peculiar challenges, and require us to think in broader terms, outside the world of the diaspora Jew. Nevertheless, such discoveries, novelties in their own right, cannot contradict our authentic teachings of Torah. We must view them through the lens of religion. They must find themselves in union with Torah, a national symbiosis allowing for the continued progress of our nation and humanity.