In my last essay I tried to analyze the underlying reasons for an ongoing global crisis facing us, of which the COVID-19 is not the cause, but merely a powerful symptom.
It is now our task to see what can be done to rectify this situation. But first, we’ll need to identify some other major problems. Let us start by going back into history.
With the destruction of the second Temple, Judaism lost its direction and began to become artificial. This was both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because Judaism was able to disconnect itself from a priestly religion, symbolized by highly formalistic laws with little spiritual content. These laws featured in the second Temple service, but their impact was felt far beyond the Temple itself.
However, the downside was that with the destruction of the second Temple, the last memory of the first Temple was lost. In contrast to the second Temple, the first had been highly spiritual. (although in its time the people were neither free from occasional idol worship.) As long as the second Temple was around, it still reminded people of the glorious days of the first Temple, and of a world that no longer existed.
The Judaism of the first Temple far surpassed the world of strict halachic conformity, obligation, and observance, which Abraham Joshua Heschel used to call “Pan Halachic Judaism”, that is to say a Judaism which consists of Halacha to the exclusion of all else.
In the first Temple, the rituals showed spiritual authenticity and a very strong awareness of God’s presence, the “hasharat hashechina”. A deeply religious awesomeness, was felt everywhere. This was embodied by the Ark of the Covenant, which was found in the Holy of Holies. Also placed in this holiest space were the Tablets of Stone, the vessel filled with mannah, and Aron’s staff. Also the “shemen hamischah”, anointing oil, was availabe. The Choshen, the breastplate of the High Priest, with its different prophetic stones (the Urim Ve Tumim) was still present. In this Temple the holy fire coming from heaven, which was never extinguished could be seen by everybody. According to the Talmud, the first Temple included many daily miracles. When human beings entered the Temple they were lifted up and found themselves in another spiritual realm, in which the law of the Torah was pervasive, but not all-encompassing.
All these phenomena were absent from the second Temple. Above all the Ark of Covenant, the central part of the Temple, seems to have been entirely missing. (1)
In fact, the observance of the Torah’s laws was always meant to increase the awareness of God’s presence in very real terms, and as such they reinforced the nearly tangible presence of God. But they could never replace Him. There was a careful balance between Law, ritual, and spirit. God’s presence was so overwhelming, and created such an outburst of authentic religiosity, that ritual behaviorism was impossible.
Genuine religiosity was the very breath that people breathed in those days. God took up all of space. His existence was found and experienced everywhere – in the sun, the wind, in the growing flower, in the creeping insect, in the totality of nature, and in the universe at large.
With the destruction of the second Temple, even the memory of this worldview was lost. Not only were the Jews exiled when the second Temple was destroyed, but the very spirit of Judaism was compromised. It was also the very moment when the first signs of a process of secularization set in.
The Withdrawal of God
After the destruction of the second Temple and the exile of the Jews, God was no longer experienced as an “active” Participant as He had been in the earlier periods. It was as if He had withdrawn and grown silent. He was there, but only at a distance. His hand was no longer seen in real events. To preserve Judaism under those circumstances became a major problem for the sages. They realized that something else had to take the place of God’s missing Presence, something that would remind people of His existence. What was left of the earlier days were the rituals, the laws and customs, and so the sages focused on all these, elaborating on them until all that was left were the “four amot” – four cubits – “of the Halacha” (Berachot 8a).
And so Judaism, out of sheer necessity, changed direction and became overwhelmingly halachic. This was really a rescue operation by the sages, and it worked to a great extent for the last two thousand years while the Jews were living in Galut. It succeeded in keeping Judaism alive among the gentile nations, but the price was high. With its lack of “active” participation by God, the deep, nearly tangible awareness of His overwhelming presence was absent – or at least diminished – and so it lost much of its grandeur. God no longer spoke to His people and open miracles ceased to take place.
This was a serious tear in the fabric of Judaism. And it is this “torn” Judaism that we know today. It is built on foundations which are really compromises of what was once a full and vibrantly spiritual Judaism – a Judaism in which God played an overwhelming role and in which His hand was seen everywhere, a Judaism in which the Halacha played an important but much humbler role. While in the earlier days, God stood at the center of Judaism, in later days it was the Halacha that served as the centerpiece.
And, as I mentioned, this withdrawal of God introduced the first signs of secularism. Why God “decided” to withdraw is a matter of crucial importance for any modern Jewish “theology”, which we need to discuss another time. It looks as if God wanted human beings to find Him on their own, not by offering them His presence, but by their search for Him. But for a great number of Jews, this Divine appeal was too much to handle, and the first signs of a decrease in religiosity slowly entered their lives.
Heilgeschichte and The Lack of Prophecy
But the biggest problem in all this was that Judaism lost one its most important components: Prophecy – and with it the teaching of the Nevvi’im (prophets) and their message.
With the destruction of the Temple, the era of the prophets came to an end, and Judaism was robbed of one its most important voices. As long as the prophets were around, the word of God was heard at every street corner via the mouth of these unusual men and women. In the days of the first Temple and before, there were hundreds of prophets (only the most important ones are mentioned in Tanach). In nearly every city there were prophets, and they were the spokesmen/women of God. They placed God in the middle of history, they explained the meaning of what was happening, what God was trying to tell them, and what the future could bring. They made sure that God stayed the “God of History” as He always had been.
The prophets also showed the “Heilgeschichte” (salvation history), the redemptive role of God in the events of history – both Jewish and non-Jewish. They revealed how history would, despite its ups and downs, eventually bring humankind to a spiritual climax in the messianic age.
This was different from Halacha, which, at least as far as its foundations were concerned, was “constant” and could not be changed, and was therefore a-historical. This was its power, but also its weakness. Since Halacha had to remain eternal, it could never be really redemptive.
On the other hand, the concept of redemptive history needs to take place in history. Otherwise it cannot be redemptive. This teaching was the main concern of the prophets. This was important because the Jewish people were constantly confronted with new conditions for which guidance was needed. Halacha could not provide this guidance, since its eternity and constancy meant that it could not (fully) adapt.
The destination may not change but the road to this destination constantly moved – and still moves – often setting up unexpected conditions. What this means in real terms is that there are crucial issues in this world which are not halachic, but concern the spirit, the grand view of Judaism, its inner workings, its universal mission, its raison d’etre. Not how to behave while traveling but what is the nature of the road itself upon which we travel toward our destination. It was the task of the prophets to make this known, both on a particularistic Jewish level and universal level for all of humanity.
No halachic work has ever dealt with this, and consequently there is no place in the Shulchan Aruch (the codex of Jewish law) that deals with any of these issues. There is not a word about the mission of the Jewish people, its dreams, its view of the future world, its wonderful spiritual music, its sense of Tikkun Olam (the mending the world), etc.
Ultimately, out of sheer necessity, caused by the exile of the Jews, it led to the codification of Halacha which it made it even more static.
The Tragedy of An Amputated Judaism
The voice of the prophets, with their universal moral religious message, has been lost. What this means is that Judaism has undergone an amputation. Instead of walking on two legs, Prophecy and Halacha, it now only walks on one leg: Halacha. This also meant that the Halacha itself was misunderstood, since, as we shall see later, it should heavily rely on the prophetic voice to give it its very spirit and motivation. Because of the absence of prophecy, this spiritual component is missing or overlooked in the day-to-day experience of the sages and halachists.
As such “prophetic Judaism” was pushed back and ceased to exist, and conventional Judaism became a standard and predictable religion. And so it lost its illustrious universal impact and could no longer play a role in the spiritual progress of all of humankind. It became a one-sided, amputated religion, which was only able to secure the survival of Judaism in a limited way, and only for Jews.
This lack of the prophetic voice has given rise to a global spiritual crisis. The reality of this crisis became evident with COVID-19 not only because of the resulting medical crisis, but because the world was turned on its head on all levels: economic, psychological, educational, political, and religious. The very foundations of our society have been challenged as never before. Our happiness, family life, the future of our children, and so much more have all been undermined. For years we’ve denied the effects of climate change, the obsession with meat consumption, over-expenditure, child-abuse, discrimination of women (in and outside Judaism), and now we find ourselves with nearly unsolvable problems on all fronts.
All this is due, we believe, to the lack of the prophetic dimension.
Those who believe that with the vaccination of all of humankind against the current pandemic, everything will be fine are, once again, making a huge mistake. The vaccinations – while necessary – will be in some sense treating the symptom rather than the cause.
What we need is a drastic and far reaching change of attitude towards life itself and its purpose. We need to learn what real happiness is really about, what genuine religion is trying to teach Jews and gentiles. We must find a way back to prophetic Judaism, even when there are (at least not yet) no prophets to be found.
This is far from an easy undertaking, especially while living in a secular world (which itself is the result of the lack of prophecy). But we will have to see what our options are, a task that I will attempt to tackle in the next essay.
(1) Not everything is clear concerning the exact details of both Temples and the differences between them. Here are some sources: Yoma, 21b, 52b, 53b ; 73b Yerushalmi, Taanit, second Perek; Pirke Avot, 5:5; Yerushalmi, Bava Batra 6:2; Tosefta, Sota 13:2, Rambam, Hilchot Kele HaMikdash, Chapter 10. Several commentaries are not in an agreement concerning the correct interpretation of these sources.
This publication was made possible with the support of the Louis and Dina van de Kamp Foundation, August 2020.
With thanks to Yael Shahar and Yehudah DovBer Zirkind’s editorial and informational comments.
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Nathan Lopes Cardozo