Saturday, July 07, 2012

American Olim in Israel: The Challenge (Part 3)

                In considering the way that American Olim, especially rabbis and educators, should impact on Israeli society, I find myself thinking a lot about Peter Berger. Prima facie, one might wonder what an Austrian, Liberal, Lutheran sociologist of religion has to do with deepening the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Upon further reflection, the connection will become both clear and compelling.

            Berger, the author of some of the most seminal works in Sociology and the Sociology of Religion, has the distinction of being one of the few scholars I know who were willing to admit they erred. Berger, earlier in his career, was of the opinion that religion and religious faith were in decline; that a wave of triumphal secularism would sweep over Western Society. The upsurge in religious affiliation, spiritual searching and various forms of Fundamentalism (which is not always a negative thing) led him to admit that he’d been wrong and that the world was actually in a process of desecularization. In the past few years, he’s dedicated himself to gauging the character and long-term implications of this intensification of religion and spiritual quest; this longing for God.

            This brings us to Berger’s relevance for Israeli Judaism. On more than one occasion, Berger has argued that the success of religion in the present era (I eschew the term post-modern) is tied to a free market model. In other words, coercive religious affiliation and obedience simply don’t work in a society that is predicated upon radical free choice and initiative. Thus, if people thirst for faith, if they search for God, it is up to religion to make itself accessible and attractive to the searchers. (Berger is a fan of Rational Choice Theory in Microeconomics.) Coercion, established bureaucracies and time-worn slogans will not attract sensitive, God hungry searchers. On the contrary, these will drive them away.

            I believe that Berger is essentially correct, though I am not necessarily happy with this state of affairs. Judaism is not a commodity that can be marketed  and then donned and doffed like an article of clothing. Its point of departure is that it makes demands of man, whether he likes it or not. Of course, man possesses freedom of choice, and he may decide not to respond to God’s demands. However, he remains a commanded being, whether he obeys or not (and, we believe, will pay whatever consequences for his refusal God will deem appropriate). [Rav Yehuda Amital זצ"ל addressed this precise point in a memorable serious of talks, בין התחברות למחוייבות.] 

            Nevertheless, the cultural atmosphere that presently characterizes Israeli Jewry (and to an even greater extent, that of North America and Europe) militates against a priori religious demands, especially if these are not framed in terms that are, at least, reasonable or comprehensible to their putative audience.

             In other words, the Torah has to be cast and presented in terms that will command the respect, assent (and, hopefully, consent) of other Jews. This insight is not mine. Over 900 years ago, Maimonides pointed out that the Torah itself demands it.

            Consider. In the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 6), the Torah declares: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה: ‘Safeguard and keep [these rules], since this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say, 'This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people.' On two occasions (Guide III, 31 and מבוא לפרק חלק, ד"ה הכת הראשונה) Rambam points out that the Divine wisdom that inheres to the Torah must be expressed in terms that will lead any intelligent person, not only Jews, to be moved and amazed thereby. This does not in any way justify misrepresenting the Torah, ח"ו, or of doing violence to its integrity by subordinating it to an external (and possibly alien) system of values.

            It does mean that we believe that the Torah can, and must be made accessible in such a way that thoughtful, cultured people will see its beauty, its sophistication and the fact that it provides the spiritual succor that they seek. It means that the Torah has nothing to fear from other cultures, and can hold its own in defending its integrity in the lists of cultural encounter and confrontation. The obverse of this conviction is that we can address the challenges that post-modern society and culture pose to us, and instill that capacity in the Orthodox community. In an Internet age, we can no longer allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that Orthodoxy can shut itself off from the world and be safe. If we do not address the world head on, those who seek Torah will be lost and those whose lack of sophistication renders them incapable of dealing with doubt and questions; who innocently accept everything in writing on the internet as true, these too will be lost. [See the Introduction Rambam’s Letter on Astrology.]

           All of this brings me back to the unique contribution that American Olim, generally, and Rabbis (in particular), can contribute to deepen the relationship of Israel’s Jews to God, to Torah, to Mitzvot, to Jewish Historical Experience.

          Briefly stated, and I have asserted this more than once, the representatives of Judaism in Israel lack the tools to achieve either of the above goals. Far too many, barely have a High School education. This, far too often, stunts their ability to teach, to pasken, to debate, and to pastor. Ironically, lack of a sophisticated awareness of the nuances of contemporary culture (and of the Western cultural heritage) also prevents them from critically engaging the latter, which not infrequently leads them to surrender to values that do not jibe with Jewish tradition. And if this is true of rabbis, consider what the lack of such tools means for the average Jew.

         It is precisely these skills, this background, this nuanced ability and inner conviction which the Rav זצ"ל demanded of his students and his students’ students. These are abilities and talents that even the most yeshivish YU musmakh possesses. Happily, Eretz Yisrael is blessed with a greater population of such potential leaders (some rabbinic and most laypersons). They have a God given mission to integrate into Israeli society, to take responsibility to create a voice for Torah vis-à-vis both the broader community and the Orthodox community. These Olim, men and women, have the capacity to elicit the response: ‘וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.’

        They do not have the luxury of not heeding this call of destiny.

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