The great pillars of Judaism, the great value of spiritual, intellectual and
moral dissent, have become anathema. Instead of teaching the art of audacity we
are now educating a generation of kowtowers.
Insight has been replaced
with clichés, flexibility with obstinacy and spontaneity with habit. There is
social ostracism of any kind of healthy rebellion against the
Eliezer Berkovits was ignored when he argued that Halacha
had become defensive; the great thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel is largely
disregarded by Orthodoxy; Haredi yeshivot pay no attention to Rabbi Avraham
Yitzhak Kook. Above all, we see dishonest attempts to portray fundamentalism as
a genuinely open-minded, intellectual position, whereas in truth it is nothing
of the sort. Great visions of the past are misused and abused. Today we are
seeing many people being told that they must imitate so as to belong to the
religious camp. Spiritual plagiarism has been adopted as the appropriate way of
religious life and thought.
Yes, there are still dissenters in Judaism
today – and they are increasing in number. There are even some yeshivot and
institutions that dissent, such as Yeshivat Otniel, Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and
the David Cardozo Academy’s Beit Midrash of Avraham Avinu. But the great tragedy
is that while these places encourage courageous and independent thought, the
vast majority of Orthodoxy ignores their voices.
the-powers-that-be put their weight behind the insipid and the trivial, and have
fallen in love with the flatness of mainstream institutions, which deliver large
numbers and offer instant answers to people who find themselves in religious
Original Jewish thinkers today fall victim to the glut of
conformity. While these thinkers challenge conventional thinking, they remain
unsupported and live lonely lives because our culture writes them off. It serves
only the idol worship of intellectual and spiritual submission rather than
saying yes to new religious ideas, which we desperately need.
TALMUDIC scholars today do not realize that the authors whose opinions they
teach would turn in their graves if they knew their opinions were being taught
as dogmas that cannot be challenged. They wanted their ideas tested, discussed,
thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no
final conclusions have ever been reached, nor could they or should they be
reached. They realized that matters of faith should remain fluid, not
Halacha is the practical upshot of unfinalized beliefs that
remain in theological suspense. Only in this way can we prevent Judaism from
either becoming a religion that is paralyzed in its awe of a rigid tradition, or
evaporating into a utopian reverie.
TODAY’S JUDAISM desperately needs
great critics to impassion and energize its important message. We need spiritual
Einsteins, Freuds and Pasteurs to reveal Judaism’s untapped potential and
yet-to-be developed grandeur. Judaism should be challenged by new Spinozas and
Nietzsches; by remorseless atheists who would scare the hell out of our rabbis
who would then be forced into thinking bold ideas.
Our thinking is behind
the times, and that is something we can no longer afford. Judaism is about bold
ideas. Its goal is not to find the truth, but to inspire us to honestly search
for it. Torah study is not only the greatest privilege there is, but also the
most dangerous, since it can so easily lead to self-satisfaction and spiritual
conceit. The leashing of our souls is easier than the building of our
We must search for Judaism in its embryonic form, before it was
solidified into the Halacha as we know it today. We have a desperate need to
return to its great ideas with its many opinions and develop them in ways that
can answer the many different spiritual needs of modern man and inspire his
We should emulate Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter who, unlike
all the other painters of his generation, used the raw material of Holland’s
landscape to perceive hidden connections – linking his preternatural sensibility
to a reality that he was able to transform, with great passion, into a new
creation. He found himself in a state of permanent antagonism toward his society
but today inspires us as never before.
In Judaism, too, one cannot
inherit faith and one cannot receive the Jewish tradition. One must fight for
the Torah and earn it. To be religious is to live in a state of warfare. The
purpose of religion is to disturb. Judaism is a building that is still
surrounded by scaffolding. That scaffolding should remain while the building
We do not need revisionist, reform-like positions. History has
shown that such approaches do not work and often lack the genuine religious
experience. We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation in cases of
doubtful improvement. And one does not discover new lands by losing sight of the
shore from where one began one’s journey.
But the time has come to
rethink Jewish education.
We are in need of yeshivot in which students
are challenged about their beliefs; where they are confronted with Jewish and
non-Jewish thinkers’ critiques on Judaism and learn how to respond.
young people must become aware that doubt, not certainty, leads to real
education. We need yeshivot where religious authenticity rather than rabbinic
authority reigns supreme, where teachers have the courage to share their doubts
and where students have the freedom to learn that, just as in life, Judaism is
the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient
There is an urgent need to set up “Tents of Avraham” throughout
the land of Israel, where religious and nonreligious Jews can study, discuss and
argue the great faith positions of earlier and later generations. Where they can
engage in the wonder of Judaism and study its struggles, its worries and its
constant search for new understandings of itself.
The result of those
discussions could well be the discovery that some components now seen as
fundamental to Judaism may have to be replaced. But the need to break idols and
take down sacred cows is itself a Jewish task, one that the first Jew, Avraham,
initiated. No doubt there will be fierce arguments, but we should never forget
that great controversies are also great emancipators.
Sure, this is
painful. But it is also liberating and refreshing. Without it, not only is there
no future for Judaism; there is also no real purpose.The writer is dean
of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books on Judaism
and an international lecturer. For more information on this topic, the writer
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.