Jewish Law (Halacha) as Rebellion (2)

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 18 augustus 2017

Second and final excerpt from Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea For Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, New York, September 2017.

To Deliberately Create an Atmosphere of Rebellion
One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its 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. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into existence. Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols, and he was followed by his children, by Moshe, by the Prophets, and by the Jewish people.

What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah and its laws was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions, the likes of which we have never known. The text enumerates all the radical heresies of the past, present and future. It calls idol worship an abomination, immorality an abhorrence, the worship of man a catastrophe. It protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, imitation, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.

All of this seems to be entirely lost on our religious establishment. We are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform and not to stand out. We teach them that their religious leaders are great people because they are ‘all-right-niks’ who would never think of disturbing the established religious and social norms. We train them to view these leaders as the ideal to be emulated. But by doing so, we turn our backs on authentic Judaism and Halacha, and convey the very opposite of what Judaism is meant to project.

By using clichés instead of the language of opposition, we deny our students the excitement of being Jewish. It is both the excitement resulting from the realization that there is a need to revolt and take pride in it, no matter the cost, as well as the excitement at the awareness that they are part of a great mission for which they are prepared to die, knowing that it will make the world a better place because they are the real Protestants.

When we teach our children to eat kosher, we should tell them that this is an act of disobedience against a consumerism that encourages human beings to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it is a protest against man’s arrogance in thinking that he can do it all by himself. 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 our happiness depends on how much we materially produce.

The Mediocrity of Religious Teaching
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 of our young people to that very mediocrity.

Halacha, in its essence, is an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force that compels the world to grow.

One wonders why we Jews, throughout thousands of years of our history, were never able to develop into a stable, secure nation. We had to deal with so many obstacles: being deprived of our homeland for nearly 2,000 years; experiencing difficulties living with each other; being few in number; and being the target of a constant onslaught of accusations and calls challenging our very right to exist – all unparalleled in world history. Even today, after the re-establishment of our commonwealth – the State of Israel, with its mighty power and exceptional accomplishments – we remain a nation in a constant state of uncertainty, never sure what the next day will bring, confronted with one crisis after another.

This emerges as a major paradox, considering the nation’s remarkable capacity to be constantly on the brink of extinction, yet, to not only survive, but to rejuvenate itself in a most powerful way. Historians and anthropologists are hard put to comprehend how we not only live on, but we outlive our enemies, draw the world’s attention with our achievements, and contribute to mankind in a manner that is significantly far out of proportion to our numbers.

The shifting sands on which all of Jewish history is based makes us wonder whether this paradox is not, in fact, essential to the very existence of the Jewish people.

There is one commandment and Halacha that, unlike any other in the Torah, is almost endlessly repeated. It instructs us to be concerned about the welfare of the stranger in our midst. (1) According to one opinion in the Talmud, (2) this commandment appears forty-six times in the Torah. Since no other commandment even comes close to such numerous repetitions, we must conclude that we are looking at the core of the mystery of Jews, Judaism and Halacha.

Of great importance is the fact that we are asked to look after the stranger because of our own experience in Egypt. Here we are confronted with a crucial aspect of a halachic moral imperative. The demand of what is seemingly the most important of all commandments, to care about the stranger, can only have sufficient authority when it is substantiated through the appeal to personal experience.

It indeed does not take much effort to realize that all of Jewish history is founded on strangerhood. Avraham, the initiator of Judaism, was called upon to become a stranger by leaving his home and country to find his Jewish identity. Early Jewish history relates the story of a nomad people who even after they reached their destination, the Jewish land, were compelled on numerous occasions to leave that land and live once again as foreigners. They were forced to live for hundreds of years “in a land that is not theirs,” (3) namely Egypt, and it was under those circumstances that their identity was formed. It was only sporadically that Jews actually lived in their own homeland. Even the Jewish raison d’être, the Torah, was not given “at home” but in a desert, an existential experience of “foreigner-hood”. It is as if all of the Torah’s commandments, without exception, find their meaning, justification and fulfillment only once one knows and experiences what it means to be a stranger. More recent Jewish history, of the last nearly 2,000 years, once again found Jews living as foreigners in other people’s lands.

There Can Only Be Moral Hope as Long as Man is Somehow Unsettled
What the foreigner lacks is security, a feeling of home and existential familiarity. Paradoxically, it is this deficiency that creates the climate in which man can be sensitized to the plight of his fellow men. It leads to the realization that there can be moral hope only as long as man is somehow unsettled. The human being’s quest for security will obstruct his search for meaning and purpose, while his lack of security will impel his moral powers to unfold. It is clearly this fact that underlies the ongoing repetition of the commandment to look after the stranger “because you were strangers in Egypt.”

What this means is that for a nation to maintain sensitivity and concern for “the other”, it must continue to live in some form of strangerhood. It must never be fully secure, and must constantly be aware of its own existential uncertainty. As such, the Jew is to be a stranger. Only in that way can he become a moral beam of light to the nations of the world, a mission that above anything else is the reason for his Jewishness. The Torah is a protest against humans feeling overly secure, for it is aware that the world will become a completely insecure place once people begin to feel too much at home and consequently forget their fellow man.

We Jews must live between eternal existence and insecurity, even as we reside in our own homeland.

The upheavals in recent Israeli Jewish history, which deny the Jewish people stability and security, may well be a message to return to a much greater sensitivity towards the stranger and fellow man. Jews must realize that God fashioned them into a people of archetypal foreigners, in order to enable them to live by the imperatives of the Torah. We need to understand and internalize that nearly all problems in society result from seeing “the other”, including one’s own fellow Jew, as a stranger. Most people cannot perceive what it means to be a stranger and how far it extends, unless they themselves experience it on some level. “For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” (4) Most men are alone, surrounded by many; and man suffers his most difficult moments when by himself, standing in a crowd.

To Trouble the Comfortable
This awareness is the bedrock of Halacha. It wants Jews to be an eternal nation because this lack of definite security is the great paradox that makes a truly moral Jewish society possible. Halacha is a protest against too much familiarity with this world, because familiarity breeds contempt, causes complacency, mediocrity and a lack of authenticity. The function of Halacha is not just to comfort the troubled, but above all to trouble the comfortable (Louis Jacobs). It teaches us that something great is demanded of us, to rebel against spiritual and religious plagiarism, to never become aged and outmoded in one’s search for real life, and to warn us against the fallacy of expediency.

Psychologists tell us that one of man’s greatest enemies today is boredom. Sometimes, when reading a paper or popular journal, watching television or a DVD, using an MP3 or iPod, or just listening to the old-fashioned radio, we are confronted with the most absurd manifestations of dullness and apathy. Believe it or not, there are people who spend their time rolling around Europe in a barrel, and couples who dance the salsa for hours upon hours in order to break a record. Others seek entry into the Guinness World Records by developing the stunning art of eating more ice cream than any human since the days of prehistoric man.

What is boredom? It is a disorder that has stricken our modern world as a result of our wishes being too easily and too quickly satisfied. Once the urge has been fulfilled, we immediately feel the pressure of new urges because we cannot live without them. We are like deep-sea fish. We thrive on atmospheric pressure, and without it we are lost. Since Western man is easily able to satisfy most of his wishes, he begins to look for absurd pursuits to satiate his urges.

Our Sages make a very interesting point when they say a man’s character can be uncovered in three different ways: be-kiso, be-koso, uve-ka’aso – by his pocket; is he a miser or a spendthrift? By his cup; how does he hold alcoholic intake? And by his temper; how does he control himself when provoked? But according to one of the Sages, there is a fourth test: af besachako – also by how he plays, i.e., how he spends his free time. (5)

One of the great blessings of our day is that more and more young people realize that there is more to life than having a good time. Many of them are showing a keen interest in matters of the spirit. Lectures on religion and philosophy in famous universities and other places of learning are becoming more and more popular. Young people are looking for existential meaning and a high-quality spiritual mission. It is here that Halacha has to tap in and show that it is able to dare to respond to this challenge. By showing that it has a wealth of different ideas, and even opposing rulings, it is able to fascinate many young people who live and love pluralism. Just like poetry, Halacha must become an expression of excited passion, and it can only do so by causing continuous earthquakes accompanied by eternal fever, which will throw young people off their feet in total surprise.

In Israel, we see a large number of secular young men and women interested in studying Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, and Jewish Philosophy in their attempt to understand what it means to be a Jew and what Judaism has to offer the world.

Most interesting is the fact that young people are finding their way back to Judaism in rather unconventional ways. Official outreach programs are losing their grip on Israeli society. They are replaced by a new phenomenon: Jewish self-discovery. It is not uncommon to see young bareheaded men with long hair, earrings and tzitzit; (6) others eating kosher, but never entering a synagogue; young women lighting candles on Friday afternoon without observing Shabbat, praying with great fervor and going off to a dance party. There are even committed atheists who will enthusiastically join prayer events. And women, whose dress code perhaps leaves much to be desired, sincerely kissing mezuzot before entering a shopping mall or gym.

Surely not all of this is a sign of maturity – no doubt in certain cases it is superstition; still, what we observe is people searching for a sense of authenticity.

No to Religious Plagiarism
It is an aversion to religious plagiarism that keeps these people out of mainstream Judaism and the conventional Halacha. By paving their own way, they develop a fresh approach to what Judaism is really all about – being open to new adventures. They are keenly aware that one cannot passively inherit Judaism and its vital companion, Halacha; they realize that one needs to discover it on one’s own.

Spiritually, nothing can be worse than trying to fit these people into mainstream Judaism and conventional Halacha. The religious establishment could make no greater mistake than to interfere in this development and start giving advice. All it can do is be there to help when asked. By trying to force its views on these people, it will uproot the seeds that have been carefully planted.

What the religious establishment needs to realize is that Halacha itself has generally fallen victim to boredom. Rituals and prayers are often mechanical and do not touch the soul. Today, show and ceremony must be minimized in Judaism. Ceremonies are for the eye, but Judaism is an appeal to the spirit. The only Biblically required ceremony in today’s synagogue service is the blessings of the priests, and even then the congregation is asked to close its eyes! (7)

In Biblical days the Halacha was astir while the world was sleeping. Today the world is astir while the Halacha is sleeping. Only when it wakes up and starts to challenge our society with novel ideas and rulings will it once more be the vital mover of Jewish life. It must be prepared to look inward, challenge its own verdicts and once again understand that its main function is to protest and rebel.

We are in desperate need of bold ideas that will place the Halacha in the center of our lives and make us receptive to God’s presence through a daring new encounter with Him. Let it be heroic. Not staid and comfortable, but painful and hard-won; a deep breath in the midst of the ongoing conflict ever-present in the heart of humankind.

To forget this is to betray Judaism.

(1) See, for example, Shemot 23:9, “Do not oppress a stranger. You know how it feels to be a stranger, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

(2) Bava Metzia 59b. See Talmudic Encyclopedia, s.v. ona’at ha-ger and s.v. ger 6:277–278.

(3) Bereshit 15:13.

(4) Francis Bacon, The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016) 46

(5) Eruvin 65b.

(6) Ritual fringes knotted on each corner of a four-cornered garment, which religious Jews wear under their shirts as a remembrance of God and His commandments. See Bamidbar 15:37–41.

(7) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, quoted in Samuel H. Dresner, I Asked for Wonder (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), 87.

8 + 2 = ?

Columns 2024

Columns 2023

Columns 2022

Columns 2021

Columns 2020

Columns 2019

Columns 2018

Columns 2017

Columns 2016

Columns 2015

Columns 2014

Columns 2013


Crescas kan niet zonder jouw steun. Met elke donatie, hoe klein ook, steun je onze activiteiten en zorg je dat wij nog meer voor Joods Nederland kunnen betekenen.