It is time to start thinking big about Judaism. Great opportunities are awaiting
us and too much is at stake to let them pass by. For too long, Judaism has been
jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate
Most religious Jews are not aware that Judaism has nearly become
passé. They believe it is thriving. After all, we have more learning, more
Jewish schools, yeshivot, women’s seminaries and outreach programs, and more
books on this subject than ever before.
Despite this, Judaism suffers
from a serious malady. In truth, it is not only Judaism that suffers from this
disease, but the whole world. We lack bold ideas. We have fallen in love with –
and become overwhelmed by – an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive
information, which does not get processed but only recycled.
access trillions and trillions of sound bites, which expose us to every kind of
information, providing us with all the knowledge we could ever dream of. The
problem is that this easily accessible information has replaced creative
thinking. It has expelled the possibility for big ideas; we have grown scared of
We only tolerate and admire bold ideas when they provide us with
profitmaking inventions – when we feel our empty pockets – but not when they
dare challenge our hollow souls. We do not discuss big ideas because they are
too abstract and ethereal.
Novelty is always seen as a threat.
carries with it a sense of violation; a kind of sacrilege. It asks us to think,
to stretch our brains. This requires too much of an effort and doesn’t suit our
most important concern: the need for instant satisfaction.
We love the
commonplace instead of the visionary and therefore do not produce people who
have the capacity to deliver true innovation.
It is only among some very
small, secular elite groups that we see staggering ideas emerging (Hawking and
black holes, Aumann and game theory). In the department of Judaism, we rarely
find anyone who even comes close to suggesting something new.
This is all
the more true within Orthodox Judaism. While in ages past, discussions within
our faith could ignite fires of debate, incite revolutions and fundamentally
change our views about Judaism and the world – as when the Ba’al Shem Tov
founded hassidism – we are now confronted with an increasingly post-idea
Provoking ideas that would boggle our minds are no longer “in.”
If anything, they are condemned as heresy. Since they cannot easily be absorbed
into our self-made religious boxes, and they don’t bring us the complacency we
long for, we stick to the mainstream where we can dream our mediocre dreams and
leave things as they are.
MOST OF our yeshivot have retreated from
creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than push
for daring ideas. We are producing a generation that believes its task is to
tend potted plants rather than plant forests.
We offer our young people
prepared experiences in which we tell them what to think instead of teaching
them how to think. We rob them of the capacity to learn what thinking is really
all about. The plethora of halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of
the most intricate parts of Jewish law, hardly generate the inspiration of new
ideas about these laws.
In fact, they stand in the way. There is no time
for anyone to process all the information even if they want to. But instead of
seeing this as a problem, they and their teachers have turned it into a
And that is exactly the point. We are faced with two extremes:
either our youth walk out on Judaism or maintain a lukewarm relationship with
Jewish observance; or, they become so obsessed by its finest points that they
are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees and they consequently turn into
rigid religious extremists.
What we fail to realize is that this is the
result of our own educational system. In both cases, young people have fallen
victim to the disease of information for the sake of
Information is not simply to have. It is there to be
converted into something much larger than itself; it is there to produce ideas
that make sense of all the information gathered in order to move it forward to
Information is not there to be possessed but to be
Jewish education today is, for the most part, producing a
generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance but
think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers.
Many of them are great talmudic scholars, but these very scholars don’t realize
that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less
Just as a young child may think it is an act of kindness
to lift a fish out of an aquarium and “save” it, so these rabbis may be choking
their students while thinking they are providing them with spiritual oxygen.
Doing so, they rewrite Judaism in ways that are totally foreign to the very
ideas that it truly stands for.
They are embalming Judaism while claiming
it is alive because it continues to maintain its external shape.
AND fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great Jewish
thinkers of the past and present. And even when they do, the ideas of these
great thinkers are presented to them as information instead of as challenges to
their own thinking, or as prompts to the development of their own
This is a tragedy. Our current spiritual and intellectual
challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backwards and giving answers
that once worked but are now outdated.
Instead of new theories,
hypotheses and great ideas, we get instant answers to questions of the utmost
importance, offered via a wide variety of self-help books, the authors of which
seem to claim that their philosophical information came directly from
Trivial, simplistic and often incorrect information replaces
The information is merely twittered – thus too brief
and unsupported by proper arguments – yet still presented as “the
By delivering “perfect” answers, which fit nicely into the often
underdeveloped philosophies of their authors, everything is done to crush
The quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning. It
is uncertainty that is the very stimulus impelling man to unfold his
Every idea within Judaism is multifaceted – filled
with contradictions, opposing opinions, and unsolvable paradoxes. The greatness
of the talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own
struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them, as when Beit Hillel and
Beit Shammai debated the essential, existential question of whether man should
have been created at all (Eruvin 13b).
Students were made privy to their
teachers’ inner lives, and that made their discussions exciting. The teachers
created tension in their classes, waged war with their own ideas and asked their
students to fight them with knives between their teeth.
They were not
interested in teaching their students dogmas, but instead asked them to take
them apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions.
teachers realized that not all paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is
full of paradoxes. They also realized that an answer is always a form of death,
but a question opens the mind and inspires the heart.
It is true that
this approach is not without risk, but there is no authentic life choice that is
Nothing is worse than giving in to the indolence and
callousness that stifles inquiry and leaves one drifting with the current. Such
an approach shrinks Judaism’s universe to a self-centered and self-satisfying
ideological ghetto, robbing it of its most essential component: the constant
debate about the religious meaning of life and how to live in God’s presence and
move to higher levels.
Outreach programs, although well intended, have
become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe
that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful
That their methods crush the minds of many newcomers who might
have made a major contribution to a new and vigorous Judaism is of no importance
to them. The goal is to fit them into the existing system.
outdated theories make other independent minds abhor Judaism is a thought they
do not seem to even entertain. To them, only numbers count. How many people did
we make observant? Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the
same type of religious Jew. Like the generation of the Tower of Babel, in which
the whole world was “of one language and of one speech,” we are producing a
religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought
and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered
to be the ultimate ideal.
We have created a generation of yes-men. We
desperately need to heed what Kierkegaard said about Christianity in M.M.
Thulstrup’s “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation”: “The greatest proof of
Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [like-minded]
Insight has been replaced with clichés, flexibility with
obstinacy, and spontaneity with habit. What was once one of the great pillars of
Judaism – the esteemed value of spiritual, intellectual and moral dissent – has
become anathema. Instead of teaching the art of audacity, we are now educating a
generation of kowtowers.
There is social ostracism of any kind of healthy
rebellion against the conventional. Eliezer Berkovits was ignored when he argued
that Halacha had become defensive; the master thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel is
completely disregarded by Orthodoxy; haredi yeshivot pay no attention to Rav
Above all, we see dishonest attempts to portray fundamentalism as a
genuinely open-minded intellectual position while in truth it is nothing of the
sort. Great visions of the past are misused and abused.
Today we are
seeing many people taught 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.
IT IS true that there are still dissidents in
Judaism today – and they are growing in number. There are even some yeshivot and
institutions that dissent, but the great tragedy is that these places speak in a
small voice, which the religious establishment is unable to
Instead, the establishment puts its weight behind the insipid and
the trivial, and has fallen in love with the uncompromised flatness of
mainstream institutions, which yield large numbers and offer instant answers to
people who find themselves in religious crisis.
Original Jewish thinkers
today fall victim to the glut of conformists. While these thinkers challenge
conventional views, they remain unsupported and live lonely lives because our
culture writes them off. Rather than saying yes to new religious ideas, which we
are in desperate need of, the conformists pander to the idol worship of
intellectual and spiritual submission.
In fairness, it is not much
different in the non- Jewish world. Were Socrates, Plato, Kant or Spinoza alive
today, they would barely be mentioned in the media other than in some
specialized philosophical journals that nobody reads.
What our generation
does not understand is that without these giants of the past we would still be
living in a primitive world without science’s contribution of all the knowledge
and luxuries that we enjoy today.
Whether we agree or disagree with them,
it was these thinkers who produced the great ideas that laid the foundations for
much of what we have harvested through the centuries.
Today they would be
crowded out by massive quantities of trite sound bites that lead only to
And so it is with Judaism. Most talmudic scholars don’t
realize that the authors whose ideas 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, could be reached or even should be reached.
They realized that
matters of faith should remain fluid, not static. Halacha is the practical
upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while remaining in theological suspense.
Only in this way can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid
tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.
who are worried by their children’s lack of enthusiasm for Judaism do not
realize that they themselves support a system that systematically makes such
What today’s Judaism desperately needs is verbal
critics who could spread and energize its great message.
spiritual Einsteins, Freuds and Pasteurs who can demonstrate its untapped
possibilities and undeveloped grandeur. Judaism should be challenged by new
Spinozas and Nietzsches; by remorseless atheists who would scare the hell out of
our rabbis, who would in turn be forced into thinking bold ideas.
TIME has come to deal with the real issues and not hide behind excuses that
ultimately will turn Judaism into a sham. 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 undertaking there is, but also the most
dangerous, since it can so easily lead to selfsatisfaction and spiritual
conceit. The leashing of our souls is easier than the building of our
What we need to do is search for Judaism as it was in its
embryonic form, before it was solidified into the Halacha as we know it today.
We must return to its great ideas with its many opinions, and develop them in
ways that can answer the varied spiritual needs of modern man and inspire his
We need to emulate Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter who, unlike
all 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
He found himself in a state of permanent antagonism from his
society, and yet he spoke to his generation and continues to speak to us because
he elevated himself to the point where he could see the full dimensions that art
could address, which nobody else had discovered.
Just like art, one
cannot inherit faith and one cannot receive the Jewish tradition. One must fight
for it and earn it. To be religious is to live in a state of warfare.
purpose of art is to disturb; not to produce finished works but to stop in the
middle, from exhaustion, leaving it for others to continue. So it is with
It still has scaffolding, which I believe should remain while
the building continues.
I am not advocating revisionist, Reform-like
positions, often presented just for the sake of being novel. History has shown
that such approaches do not work and often lack the genuine religious
We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation in cases
of doubtful improvement.
But the time has come to rethink Jewish
education as it is being taught in many traditional places. We are in need of a
radically different kind of yeshiva: one 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; where they become aware that it
is not certainty, but doubt, that gets you an education; where it is not
rabbinic authority that reigns supreme, but religious authenticity.
yeshiva where the teachers have the courage to share their doubts with their
students and show them that Judaism teaches us how to live with uncertainty, and
through that uncertainty to be deeply religious people.
Students need to
learn that Judaism, like life, is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from
insufficient premises. A reasonable probability is the only certainty we can
There is an urgent need to set up “Tents of Avraham” throughout the
Land of Israel, where religious and non-religious Jews can study, discuss and
argue the great faith positions of earlier and later generations, where they can
engage in the wonder of Judaism, study its struggles, its worries, and its
constant search for new understandings of itself, where there can be honest
discussion, even if it leads to considering the replacement of some components
that are now seen as fundamental to Judaism. The need to break idols and
slaughter sacred cows is itself a Jewish task, which none other than Abraham
initiated. No doubt there will be fierce arguments, but we should never forget
that great controversies are also great emancipators.
Broad change is not
just window dressing, and it can be painful. It is liberating and refreshing but
comes with a price. Without it, though, not only is there no future for Judaism;
there is also no purpose.
We are in desperate need of bold ideas that
will place the Torah in the center of our lives and make us receptive to God’s
presence through a daring new encounter with Him.
Let it be heroic. Not
staid and comfortable, but painful and hard-won; a deep breath in the midst of
the ongoing conflict ever-present in the heart of humankind.
The writer, who
is an author and international lecturer, is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in