The great Chassidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, complaining about the Jews’ detachment from Judaism, once said: “When a bridegroom stands under the chuppa (bridal canopy) he can say hundreds of times to his future bride: ‘You are betrothed’, but it is as if he has said nothing and they are not married. Only when he adds one more Hebrew word, ‘li’ (‘to me’), i.e. ‘You are betrothed to me’, is there a marriage.” All the family and friends can be present, the music may be playing, the food served and the new home ready, but nothing has happened until the word “li”, “to me”, has been uttered.
The crucial word in life is “li” – “to me.” Only when things stand in relation to the sum-total of the human being is there meaning. Such a commitment is not partial but total: “Till death do us part.”
This observation is perhaps the most crucial message for Jews around the world today. The Jewish community may be involved in many issues of Jewish concern and may struggle with problems of survival, but as long as it does not inspire Jews to say “li”, i.e. to feel a personal and total commitment to authentic Jewishness, it will not create the right conditions for continuity and renewal.
When observing the state of Jewish commitment today we see a great amount of scholarship within the world of Jewish academia. Comparative studies between Judaism and other religions, archeological investigations in Jewish history, and philological studies occupy tens of thousands of Jewish students in the best universities in the world.
Journals and magazines publish important studies on questions such as: “Are the Jews a race, a cultural entity or a religious group?” But all such studies are only of limited value if the student does not add the word “li”, “to me.” It is like studying the human being as a collection of protoplasm, as a complex robot or a social mechanism while forgetting that man is a profound being of tremendous spiritual wholeness in which all his dimensions become one.
Studies like these, without denying their practical inferences, do not touch on the most important aspect of human existence: what does it mean to be a human being (in our instance, a Jew)? What is the purpose of one’s existence, what is one’s task and mission, and how are these studies able to add to human dignity? Such questions involve our whole beings, overlooking no component These questions are the ultimate “li” in our lives; they should haunt us and allow us no escape.
Regarding the aforementioned Jewish studies, how much value is there in this kind of scholarship if it does not lead to the point where one is touched in one’s deepest recesses by what it means to be a Jew? Spiritual relevance is of the utmost importance; “li” is crucial.
To understand what it means to be a Jew one must surpass these studies and understand their stifling implications. To be a Jew is to be a messenger, to be “God-intoxicated” and to teach mankind the art of spiritual transformation. To be a Jew means to be dissatisfied with just being ‘civilized’, a ‘nice’ person or a ‘good’ person. That is not good enough. One needs to surpass ‘being good’. Rather, being a Jew means touching on emotions we have never cherished before and to be surprised by our souls. To be a Jew is to live a holy life with an exalted mission. To be “God’s stake in human history”, to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and live accordingly.
Just like great works of art, Judaism does not solely supply information but inspires unanticipated visions and the deepest forms of authentic self¬-expression.
The tragedy of Jewish life today is that many Jews lack the courage to confront their inner beings as Jews. They observe the Jewish people and Judaism as a sociological phenomenon to be studied from without. It is for this reason that they do not hear the music of Judaism and subsequently complain that such music is wholly absent. It is like the student who takes a musical instrument apart, and then complains that he/she cannot find the music and so the instrument must be a fake. It seems that certain academic circles consider it their duty to keep their studies somehow artificial and at a distance. They do not desire to discover the essence of what they are studying! They are afraid of this, for it is too challenging and frightening.
“Li” means that one recognizes that one’s own group has a singular and distinctive contribution to make to the world and if this is not developed and cultivated, not only the group itself loses out – the whole world suffers as a result.
The late British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, at the end of his famous essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, tries to convince us that one needs “to realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly.” (1) We must, however, agree with Michael Sandel’s bitter critique when he states: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly?” (2) Indeed, this kind of liberalism, with all its beauty, keeps the “li” out of our lives and turns us into outsiders observing our lives as a blind man who is trying to see colors.
Albert Camus once stated: “There is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” If life is meaningless then why does one have to undergo all the suffering we have to go through when we can easily escape them by ending our lives. The great Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel differed. It is not suicide but martyrdom, he said, which is our only real problem: Is there anything worth dying for? (Who is Man, p.92)
This is the ultimate question for Jews today. Only when Jews realize again that their Jewishness is worth dying for will they be able to live it properly, in joy and will they make a great contribution to humankind.
(1) Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, Oxford, 2002; Oxford Press, (p. 217)
(2) Michael Sandel, “Liberalism and its Critics”, 1984, Oxford, Blackwell, p. 8. Both quoted in Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ fine work: The Dignity of Difference, How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Continuum, London, NY, p.18.