OPINION / To be religious means to be rebellious
Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force through which the world is able to grow.
ultra orthodox weeding in bnei brak Photo: marc israel sellem
Leadership is one of the most difficult tasks for man to undertake. It requires
a rare combination of wisdom, courage, knowledge and experience.
people possess all of these qualities and even fewer know the art of combining
them in a balanced way.
When looking into the personality of Moshe
Rabbeinu, we learn the astonishing story of how he became capable of undertaking
the most challenging leadership role in the history of man: liberating a few
million slaves from an anti-Semitic dictatorship and transforming them into the
nation of God, with the added mission of teaching mankind the highest level of
One might think the ability to inspire a few million people to
fear God would require the best religious education available, with only the
finest teachers. A person of that caliber should also be holy, living in a
well-protected environment into which outside heretical ideologies do not
penetrate and where secularism plays no role. Only from a background like that
could emerge a man great enough to experience an encounter with God and receive
His teachings. But in reading the story of Moshe, we are confronted with a
When Moshe leaves Pharaoh’s palace for the first time,
to visit his enslaved brothers, he is struck by the hard realities of life.
Right in front of him an Egyptian strikes a Hebrew, possibly with the intention
of killing him. Without hesitation, Moshe smites the Egyptian and buries him in
Reflecting on the fact that Moshe had just left Pharaoh’s
home, in which he was raised for many years, we wonder what went through his
mind. Whose side was he going to take? Brought up in the world of Egyptian
culture, and instructed by elite Egyptian educators, possibly receiving private
tutelage from Pharaoh himself to prepare him for the monarchy of Egypt in years
to come, Moshe must have seen the Egyptian as a compatriot. This was a man of
his own culture! Why take any action against him? On the other hand, it would
seem from the text – “he went out to his brothers” (Exodus 2:11) – that Moshe
knew he was of Jewish lineage, despite being far removed from anything Jewish.
He had warm feelings toward the Jews, though they were foreigners to him.
Psychologists would no doubt raise the question of Moshe’s dual loyalties and
how to resolve this dilemma.
A deeper reading of the verses may give us
some insight. “And he [Moshe] turned this way and that way, and he saw there was
no man, and he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:12) As
suggested by an unknown commentator, this may allude, albeit in an allegorical
way, to the state of Moshe’s mind.
Moshe suddenly realized that he was
living in two worlds. While his youth was spent in the world of Egyptian culture
regarding knowledge, art and religion, his heart was elsewhere. Deep down inside
of him was a Jewish voice demanding the opposite of everything Egypt
It is for this reason that “he turned this way and that
Moshe realized that he was at a crossroads in his life and that
“there was no man.” As long as he did not decide to which world he belonged, he
was a man with neither character nor strength. He therefore killed the Egyptian
man within himself, and buried him in the sand.
It is this decision that
turned the world on its head, steering mankind in a completely different
direction. Made in the blink of an eye, this is possibly the most radical
decision ever made in human history, causing both Jews and gentiles to put God
at the center of their lives and commit themselves to a higher ethical
But Moshe must have also realized that by ending his ambivalent
situation, he would be destroying his entire future.
Not only would he
not become the new monarch of Egypt, but he would surely turn the whole of Egypt
against him, becoming a wanderer and refugee, with no money or
HEROISM IS in no way better demonstrated than by one who can say
no and then calmly accept the consequences of his resistance, knowing all too
well that most of the time that heroic act will vanish into oblivion. Many a
great man disappeared from the map of history because others were mediocre and
could not grasp his message.
Yet, contrary to Moshe’s expectations God
reveals Himself to him at the burning bush, viewing him as the man suited to be
the leader of the Jewish people. Had Moshe been educated by the best teachers in
a warm Jewish environment, and protected from the influences of the outside
world, he would not have become the extraordinary man he was. He would have
remained in Pharaoh’s palace, probably to become the next head of state in
Egypt, but he would have left no legacy that would turn the word
What is completely surprising is that Moshe became the prototype
of the ideal leader not in spite of being raised in a world of idol worship,
self-worship and total lack of morality, but because of it! He became the
greatest Jewish leader ever, because it was his secular, polytheistic and
morally empty education that did the trick. It turned him into a fighter,
determined to overthrow the false ideas he knew and recognized so well from the
inside. It was the “rebel within” that made Moshe the leader of a nation whose
function it is to fight and protest.
One of the great tasks of Jewish
education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its
Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator.
nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed but to
those who differed. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into
Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols, and he was
followed by his children, then by Moshe, and then by the Jewish
What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first
rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set
in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions, the likes of which we have
The text includes all the radical heresies of the past,
present and future. It called idol-worship an abomination, immorality an
abhorrence, the worship of man a catastrophe. It protested against complacency,
self-satisfaction, imitation, and the negation of the spirit. It called for
radical thinking and drastic action, without compromise, even when it meant
standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.
All of this seems to be
entirely lost on our religious establishment. We are instructing our students
and children to obey, to fit in, to conform and not stand out. We teach them
that their religious leaders are great people because they are “all-right-niks”
who would never think of disturbing the established religious and social norms.
We teach them that they are the ideal to be emulated. By doing so, we turn our
backs on authentic Judaism and convey the very opposite of what Judaism is meant
By using clichés instead of the language of opposition, we
deny our students the excitement of being Jewish: excitement resulting from the
realization that one makes a huge difference and takes pride in it, no matter
the cost; excitement at the awareness that one is part of a great mission for
which one is prepared to die, knowing that it will make the world a better
When we tell our children to eat kosher, we need to tell them that
this is an act of disobedience against consumerism when human beings are
prepared to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it
is a protest against man’s arrogance in thinking that he can do it all himself.
When couples observe the laws of family purity, it is a rebellion against the
obsession with sex. The celebration of Shabbat must be presented as an enormous
challenge to our contemporary world that believes our happiness depends on how
much we produce.
As long as our religious teachers continue to teach
Jewish texts as models of approval, instead of manifestations of protest against
the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more of our young people to that very
Judaism is in its essence an act of dissent, not of consent.
Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force through which the
world is able to grow.
To forget this crucial element is to betray
The writer is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem
, author of many books and international lecturer in jewish philosophy. For his
weekly Thoughts to Ponder: www.cardozoacademy.org