The Judaism of survival no longer works

By Yair Caspi

[Caspi teaches a course of his own creation called "Psychology in Judaism," and for the past three years has run a program by that name at the Cymbalista Jewish Heritage Center at Tel Aviv University. This is a one-year program for studying Judaism, designed mainly for psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. He calls his unique concoction "God-centered psychology." This article (which appeared in Haaretz, May 128, 2006) is in a sense a late discovery of what in the US we have for about 30 years been calling "Jewish renewal", and from our perspective it may be surprising that he imagines it will start or should start from Israeli society. That aside, it is a thoughtful exploration of what Judaism needs to become. === AW, editor]

There is truth in what A.B. Yehoshua told the centennial conference of the American Jewish Committee. Until the modern era, Judaism was never a "religion" like Christianity, which is responsible primarily for its adherents' spiritual life, but a doctrine of life, which seeks to guide all the acts of man and all the ways of the society. Life in a Jewish state in which, potentially, most of the decisions are "Jewish," is a far more "Jewish" life than in the Diaspora, where a very small part of a person's life is c onducted from within his Judaism.

Surprisingly, this is not the position of modern Zionism but, as it happens, a traditional Jewish posture originating in the Bible, which asks of mankind, "In all your ways acknowledge him," and continues in the Mishna and in the Talmud, which require halakha (Jewish religious law) in all spheres of life.

And there is also falsehood in what Yehoshua said. For a long time, the bulk of our life in Israel has not been conducted according to Judaism. We avoid that challenge in two ways: Secular people measure their lives mainly in terms of the world's cultural values (is it "democratic," are "individual rights" preserved, and so on); religious Jews confine their Jewish life to observing kashrut (the dietary laws), Shabbat and studying the Gemara.

Yehoshua misleads his readers. What makes our deeds Jewish is not the fact that they are done by Jews in the State of Israel. Our deeds are Jewish because they stem from a basic Jewish vision about the proper conduct of mankind and society. This is the vision which the Zionist movement sought to revivify in the "exemplary society" it set out to establish in the Land of Israel. Before we can go to Diaspora Jewry and offer them Israeli Judaism as the perfect thing, there is much work to be done.

To understand the precise core and the misleading element in Yehoshua's remarks, we need to go back very far and to survey the history of the idea of Israel's exemplary society as the formative element of the Jewish identity, which begins with the revelation of a purposeful creation and a singular role for the Hebrew nation, and is renewed, after a very long and inactive period, in the form of the Zionist movement. And is lost and again strives to arise again.

The world's role

A thousand times since his creation, man has looked at the world: at the land, at the sky, at the sea, at the trees, at the animals, at the people. A thousand times he saw land. Sky. Sea. Plants. Animals. People. But one morning everything changed. Suddenly all the individual items fused into a picture. Suddenly man saw a grand design. And in the design each detail fulfills a role that has been set. And the observer, filled with inspiration, sat and wrote: "In the beginning." "Let there be light." Suddenly everything spoke. Suddenly the voice was heard. Suddenly the person saw that every stone and tree and animal had a purpose. Suddenly it was revealed that every item in the world fulfills a mission.

The discovery from Genesis, that the world has a purpose, changed man's understanding of himself. Henceforth he had a new question to guide him: What is my place in the design? What was I intended to do? The man who asked discovered an invitation to be his creator's partner in completing himself and the world.

The special invitation he received fired man with enthusiasm, but also with resistance. He liked being the creator's assistant, but did not like being told what to do. Therefore, after he scored several achievements, he started to wonder: Maybe I have reached the level at which I can decide about my future by myself?

The rest is known and it repeats itself in almost every generation: The God of truth is dismissed and replaced by a selection of false gods that exempt man from the long, hard road and can be interchanged according to need.

The patriarch Abraham identified the pointlessness of worshiping the false gods and taught others how to listen anew to the voice that calls on man to fulfill his mission. Moses found that natural talent is a national avocation - being a pioneer of the next stage of human development. The Israelites undertook to specialize in exemplifying an exemplary society on earth. Moses and his successors laid foundations that evolved into rules of labor:

Know what is above you. Do not be tempted into a belief that exempts you from your basic responsibility. Be aware of what you have received in your world and of the possibilities that your gifts open to you. Seek intentionality and proper action in all your ways. Make the perfection of man and society the cardinal mission of the nation and educate to that end. Build institutions for the development of the method. Take social responsibility for those who have received less than you, because the collective mission will not succeed if part of your nation feels that it does not belong. Discover what you were meant to do and accept limitations. Do not despair at unavoidable misses along the way, and practice repentance. Set dates for remembering the formative events on which important intentionality or a role were designated. Do not become addicted to your sacred work and set aside a day on which you only receive what already exists, a day without activity.

The Jews liked being God's chosen people. But very quickly they tired of the demanding mission: to live a life of obligation. They began to wonder: Why did we, of all people, receive harder work than all the nations? Why is it that we, of all people, have to devote ourselves to sublime goals when around us everyone is out to have a good time? And how is it that the whole world is wrong? And who even knows that God exists?

At the end of the Second Temple era the Jews found a compromise solution to the serious tension created between the responsibility of being the leaders in human development and the desire to be like everyone else: They decided to constrict themselves. To preserve all that had been revealed until that point. Not to add more. They left the land and put off to the distant future the day when they would return to their labors completely.

Judaism shifted itself into a waiting mode. The Jewish role changed. It was no longer the vanguard of the human journey, but the "preserver of the precepts." Preserver of the great achievements of the patriarchs. Preserving them for the future day on which we will go back to fulfilling the mission in full. Preserving and waiting for a different person with a great wind at his back.

Judaism went into exile - from full responsibility to independent life. From a role that it postponed for the future. From the Land of Israel. So that they would one day be able to unite and return and complete an unfinished labor, the Jews decided to freeze themselves in the present and to make an assumption regarding the last common denominator which all Jews agreed on before they were scattered to the four corners of the earth: of the Babylonian Talmud as the basis for religious law that is not to be changed.

Light unto the nations

While they were sleeping, the world changed; the discoveries of the Hebrew nation, which had at first been rejected, began to be accepted.

The world adopted the Tanach, and its readers, from everywhere on earth, found in it an exciting personal invitation to come along on the journey to perfect man and society. Those who joined found themselves suddenly enlisted in a role that makes them partners in a new community: mankind.

From the Jews the world received the future - the revelation that what is does not determine what will be, but on the contrary: Accepting the vision of the world as it should be changes the present.

Every person received from the Jews an invitation to find himself a place which is no longer dictated according to his race, origin, class, appearance or money - but solely according to his good deeds.

Idol worship, everyone suddenly agreed, was a mistake. From the Jews the world received one God. And from the Jews the world received a day of the week on which to remember that there is someone managing the world even when man does nothing. From the world the Jews received confirmation that they did indeed have a special role.

In the middle of the 18th century, after about 2,000 years of delays, the Jews discovered that the exile was over. Judaism, which had been kept in deep freeze, no longer stood up to competition with the Enlightenment and the general culture. Having no choice, the Jews decided to go back to being a chosen people.

"You chose us" and "light unto the nations" were translated, in the language of the Zionist movement, into the vision of an exemplary society that would be established in the Land of Israel and would serve as an example - for a singular convergence from all corners of the earth in order to complete an unfinished mission. For the healing of a sick nation that was living in the past and the future, and had no present. For the renewal of an ancient culture that knows how to connect the Israeli consciousness of mission with exemplary achievements from the world's cultures. For renewing a connection with nature and soil. For taking complete responsibility for the totality of a nation's life. For social legislation that sets new standards of mutual responsibility. For a life of truth, simplicity, integrity, readiness for sacrifice, fraternity.

The vision of the Jewish-Israeli exemplary society that moved the return to Zion in its first decades was replaced by two different styles of idol worship: the worshipers of the new, who believe that God is in new technology, in the latest social norm, in state-of-the-art products, in parting with all the old values, in children with no limits, in man who will soon be God. And, in opposition to them, the worshipers of the old, who believe in a doctrine that even God is forbidden to change; who narrow their lives and exempt themselves from discovering the human role in all the possibilities that entered the world; who believe that redemption will come when the king from the House of David returns to us and all old land shall be returned, and a priest shall perform sacrifices on the mount; and who allow themselves to subjugate gentiles and exploit the secular, because they are already the chosen people.

We need Israelis

The Torah of Israel, which knows the secret of connecting yesterday and tomorrow, of the needs of the individual and responsibility for the public good, of religion and science, of nation and world, is today in very limited use. And we are again beset by the worldwide rift between religion and culture as an existential threat to the State of Israel.

The Judaism of survival no longer works. And the Jewish people is disintegrating because it has lost its formative element: the consciousness of the mission which is assumed by all its members and which builds them as a people. No one knows who is a Jew, because there is no agreement on what a Jew is obligated to do. The Diaspora is not succeeding in constructing a system of rules which a majority of the Jews there want and are ready to commit to. We have lost the connecting element. Between Diaspora and Land of Israel, between Israel and its Judaism. Israel's young people, secular and religious, no longer believe anyone or believe in anything.

For a human development program that revealed a mission for man and forged a model nation and changed the world and lost its way, Israelis are needed who will restore it to its place.

We need Israelis who are ready to give up the illusion that someone somewhere is safeguarding for them a ready-to-use Judaism to which people can return when they take off time from their careers and from enjoying themselves. Individuals who know that there is no one from whom to learn Israel's role today, and who will take it upon themselves to relearn all the books of Judaism, without guidelines about what they are permitted or forbidden to discover. We need sinners who have decided to repent and have discovered that they have to bring back with them all of Judaism, so that they will have something to come back to.

We need perceptive people who will expose anew the tools and the methods with which intentionality is deciphered in reality and a mission is found for man, who will discover the essence and the core, and will take it upon themselves to differentiate it from habitual postponement and survival.

We need strong people who are ready to acknowledge their dependence, to record what they received and what they did not do alone, to be thankful for it and to start to rewrite the Book of Blessings.

We are very much in need of people who know how to hear a shout. Who are available to listen to the requests of those who have lost their way and do not know what to do. We need pioneers who will write new prayers.

We need men and women who are ready to prepare themselves for an old profession: world experts in the struggle against the new and covert ways of idol worship. We need pioneers who will build us a house of study to mend the world and man and nation. Who will articulate the "do" and "do not do" for our time. Who will write the missing tractates of the Talmud, on parenthood, relationships, career, technology, the State of Israel. Who will muster the courage to add to the Ten Commandments: Do not buy for no reason. And much more.

We need people of faith who are certain that the whole world will join tomorrow but are ready today to work alone. We need people of patience who are ready to start, knowing that this journey of ours will take several generations. We need people of humility who do not know it all, who want only to make a beginning and to invite a nation to rewrite itself. We need people whose worlds have been ravaged and whose alternatives have run out and who know that Israel will not exist if it is not guided by a vision concerning its role. We need pioneers who take it on themselves to act even before the voices have been heard.

When that happens we will be able to appear again before the American Jewish Committee and say: We are offering the real thing. You are invited to come and grow with us.

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