In memory of Rabbi Yehudah Henkin z’l, one of the great halachic voices in the contemporary Jewish world.
As mentioned in our last essay, Halacha cannot express the “Heilsgeshichte”, the redemptive history, of Israel and of the world, nor can it lead us toward it. This is both its power and its weakness – its power because it is the “eternity” of Halacha that makes it “a-historical” and gives it its strength and authority. But it is also a weakness, because Halacha cannot grow within history and runs the risk of becoming stagnant (signs of which we see in our present world). Halacha is unchangeable because it is rooted in Heaven and hovers above history; it is thus untouchable.
This does not mean that Halacha cannot change on a practical level. But its foundations, its major principles, are not within this world, and therefore they remain constant.
What the Jewish sages did was to connect Halacha to history before it would become entirely inoperable. This is why they uprooted certain laws of the Torah or gave them an entirely new meaning and application. (For more on this, see my book: Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem/New York, 2019, chapter 27.)
But all this also means that most of the time Halacha runs after history and responds to history, but cannot shape history or run in front of history. Its “a-historicity” makes that impossible.
Consequently Halacha cannot show us the nature of the road itself on which Judaism and the world is traveling to its destination i.e., its redemptive goals and aspirations. It can only show us how to behave while traveling; the understanding of where we are going and what we may encounter on the way are not part of its being, nor within its capacity to solve.
Halacha Fails to Represent the Jewish Mission
Thus, Halacha has almost nothing to say about the mission of Judaism, its visions of the future, or its ideals and ideology. It is for this reason that the codices of Jewish Law – the Shulchan Aruch and others – include nothing about the spirit and vocation of Judaism. (Some of this broader information is however found in the Rambam’s Mishne Torah, which is not only a halachic work but also delves into philosophy and ideology. This is what makes this work so unique.)
We’ve argued that the “Heilsgeshichte”, the vision of Judaism’s redemptive history, was lost with the destruction of the Temples, when prophecy ceased (and perhaps even before that). This was a catastrophic loss of much of the motive force of Judaism, its redemptive task. Gone were the men and women who could tell people the meaning of their history, its future, and its role in liberation.
The Prophets as People of Great Sensitivity
A closely related service provided by the prophets, which was of crucial importance, was also diminished. Since redemptive history consists of a road with many bumps and obstacles, it is in need of highly sensitive people who can deal with these kinds of challenges, who can help people on an individual level with overcoming these obstacles and seeing meaning in them. This too was one the tasks of the prophets.
These are things that touch on the personal and emotional life of individuals, which often exist outside the parameters of the Halacha. Halacha is in many ways a law of conformity, and can only speak in terms of the general needs of – and guidelines for – the community. This is equally true of other forms of (secular) law. Legislation cannot take the individual or personal-emotional matters into account. Any legal system would collapse if it attempted to do this; it can only work with generalities.
But the life of the individual does not consist of generalities. Every human being is different from every other in his or her distinct and specific needs. Legislation has no place for such needs. And while it may be true that Halacha takes such needs into account more than other legal systems, owing to its religious foundation, it is still far from ideal when dealing with such highly personal issues.
In such circumstances, it was the prophets who came to the rescue. They were involved in people’s individual lives, and hence could relate to these personal matters. To do this effectively, they had to be people of great sensitivity.
In fact, the greatest prophets in Tanach often had to deal with their own personal issues, which were often disturbing and quite painful. This gave them the foundation they needed to deal with the pain of others. Like Moshe Rabbenu, they could even challenge God for bringing suffering upon human beings, questioning His right to do so. See for example: Yirmiyahu 12:1,2; Iyov 27:2-6.
Such issues are external to Halacha.
The Devastating Result of Exile
All of this collapsed the moment that prophecy ceased to exist. The damage was compounded by the exile of the Jews following the destruction of the Second Temple. Not only did Judaism lose its redemptive dimension, it could no longer function as a moral/religious guide to humankind at large.
The prophets had a universal message, far beyond the Jewish people. Their message included redemptive history for all human beings. Their cry for peace and justice was universal. Their calls to aid the poor, widows and orphans, and the promise of the coming of the Messianic age were meant for the whole world. But all this came to an end with the termination of the prophetic voice.
As mentioned, Judaism was amputated of a part of itself, and consequently turned within to become something akin to a conventional religion. From being “particularistic” and “universalistic”, it became mainly particularistic, focused primarily on the Jewish people and less on the outside world. As such, it became artificial and lost much of its raison d’etre.
This became even more problematic over the next 2,000 years as the Jewish people lived “outside” history in foreign countries. Whether they lived in the 7th, the 12th or 15th centuries, nothing changed. Their lives were centered around a more or less static Halacha and traditionalism, which for the most part took place in the home and synagogue behind the walls of the ghettos, even in the face of pogroms and inquisitions.
The Jewish people became a “halachic” entity, since this was all that remained, allowing Judaism to escape total annihilation.
Anti-Semitism and the End of the Jewish Mission
But with the dispersion of the Jews, scattered nearly worldwide, something else happened as well: The universal and redemptive mission became completely impossible.
A large part of the gentile world saw the Jews as a pariah nation (See Max Weber, Ancient Judaism, NY,1967 and The Sociology of Religion, Boston 1963), supposedly cursed and rejected by God, due, among other things to their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. This status was supposedly proven by the loss of the Jewish homeland, which was seen as a punishment.
And so Israel’s prophetic voice – or what was left of it – was not only ignored, but opposed. To learn from the Jews was considered sacrilege.
And if anti-Semitism was not enough, others rejected Israel’s prophetic voice because its call for peace and moral behavior was an affront to many whose very existence was built on a sensual, egocentric, and materialist way of life, which had no place for a higher moral-religious calling.
So even where Judaism’s prophetic call still lived, it could have little impact. It was caught between religious – often Christian – denunciation and materialistic sensual craving and barely survived these dual pressures.
The Opposition of the Prophets to a Purely Particularistic Judaism
Jews could do nothing else but turn within and build high psychological (and physical) walls between themselves and the often-hostile gentile world. In fact, this explains many halachic rulings and ideological attitudes in the Talmud that are unsympathetic toward the gentile world. A large part of the non-Jewish world of those days rejected the moral values of the Jews. Driven into a corner of history, the sages saw separation as the only way Jews could survive under these extreme circumstances.
Thus, Judaism itself was forced to employ measures with which the prophets would never have agreed – rulings that ran against the prophetic teachings and the very spirit of Tanach, which was to a great extent universalistic.
The spirit of Judaism was compromised by these measures introduced by the sages to guarantee the survival of the Jews and Judaism. The sages themselves realized this, and often softened and limited their own rulings, or those of their predecessors, concerning the non-Jewish world, especially when it became clear that many non-Jews were highly moral people. (See Jewish Law as Rebellion, chapter 27, second part.)
At the same time, it should be emphasized that the prophets definitely were strongly “particularistic” regarding the Jewish people, and were strongly opposed to assimilation. They believed in the mission of the Jews as the “chosen people”, which meant that the Jews had to remain a separate entity, apart from the other nations.
Nevertheless, the prophets were universalists in their belief that the Jewish prophetic message must impact all the nations of the world. They strongly believed that Jews were missionaries of peace and justice to the rest of the world, and that Jews could carry out this mission only as committed Jews.
The illusion of Assimilation
The tragic loss of the prophetic voice came to a head in the last hundred years, as Jews attempted to assimilate into non-Jewish cultures. Many Jews rejected their mission and dreamed of a world where Jews could live as gentiles, thinking that they would fully integrate into the larger non-Jewish world and end their suffering at the hands of gentiles. They truly believed that integration would put an end to anti-Semitism.
In this, they themselves rejected their own prophetic voice. But the more they tried to adapt to the gentile world, the more they were rejected by that world. This did not make any sense. It became increasingly clear that the prophet’s warning ( Yechezkel 20:32-33) was true: Jews could not escape their redemptive destiny, however much they tried. All this came to a peak with the Holocaust, when so many assimilated Jews were confronted with their Jewishness as never before.
This was one of the greatest tragedies in Jewish history.
Even those Jews who did not want to abandon their prophetic mission, who wanted to remain Jewish while emphasizing the universal dimension of Judaism discovered that this did not work. Even though they gave up the particularistic dimensions of Judaism as emphasized by Halacha (Shabbat, circumcision, kashrut, etc) to gain entrance into the cultures of the nations among whom they lived, it did not succeed. They continued to be seen as foreigners by the gentile world. In fact, and paradoxically, the more of these rituals they gave up, the less the non-Jewish world respected them. This is well expressed in the Yiddish saying: “If the Jew does not make kiddush Friday night, the gentile will make Havdalah (a distinction) on him on Saturday night.” (1)
It is here that something radical happened in Jewish history. When Jews realized that they would never be fully accepted by the gentile world and would always be the “other”, and the “foreigner”, they no longer continued to believe in the possibility of total integration.
Many Jews ,even the most assimilated ones, realized that there was only one way to succeed: a return to the Jewish people’s uniqueness and a return to their homeland.
The Remarkable Restoration of the Jewish Commonwealth
The establishment of the State of Israel allowed the Jewish people to “come out of the closet” after nearly 2,000 years. It put an end to the notion of the “pariah nation” and gave the Jewish people the opportunity to have a voice in the world that would be heard, respected, and acted on. The State of Israel, with all its enormous accomplishments, suddenly became a center of world affairs – something that almost nobody foresaw. Jews re-entered history, this time as Jews. They became active partners in the world’s restorative history.
In fact, the establishment of the State of Israel was one of the most outstanding proofs that the notion of redemption was very much alive. It bore witness to the restoration of Israel’s prophetic mission.
That this was, and still is, accompanied by great turmoil, birth-pangs, and ups and downs cannot be denied. It will take some time before the way is made smooth. Still, it is remarkable that the very return of the Jews to their homeland comes in fulfillment of an old prophecy, in which the biblical prophets predicted the rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth.
The State of Israel is itself the greatest proof that prophecy is slowly coming alive again. In our age, Judaism has been handed an opportunity to restore its full capacity, including its redemptive message, to heal the world and end the amputation of the best part of itself.
This however presents the greatest challenge to our religious leadership, which now needs to recognize this and act on it.
We will discuss further steps into this prophetic future in the next essay.
With thanks to Yael Shahar for her editorial comments.
(1) Kiddush, the blessing over wine, is the ritual which inaugurates Shabbat and Havdala is the ritual by which the Jew makes a distinction between Shabbat and the weekdays at the end of Shabbat.
This publication was made possible with the support of the Louis and Dina van de Kamp Foundation, August 2020.
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