(This is the first part of a two-part essay)
Many of us believe that Judaism is thriving.
After all, we have greater
religious observance, more Jewish schools, yeshivot, women’s colleges and
outreach programs than ever before. The truth, however, is radically
Judaism is nearly irrelevant. It suffers from a major
In truth, it is not only Judaism that suffers from this disease
but the whole world. We have fallen in love with an endless supply of
all-encompassing but passive information, which does not get processed but only
We no longer produce bold ideas.
They demand too much
effort and do not suit our most important need: instant satisfaction. With the
exception of science, we only admire bold ideas when we feel our empty pockets,
but not when they dare challenge our empty souls. We love the commonplace
instead of the visionary.
While in ages past, discussions within our
faith could and did ignite the fires of debate, incite revolutions and
fundamentally change our views about Judaism and the world – as when the Baal
Shem Tov founded Hassidism – we are now confronted with an increasingly
post-idea Judaism. Provoking ideas that would stagger our minds are no longer
“in.” If anything, they are condemned as heresy.
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 teach young
people what to think instead of teaching them how to think. The onslaught of
halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts
of Jewish law, hardly generates inspiring new ideas about these laws.
A result, we are faced with our youth either walking out on Judaism or becoming
religious extremists who can’t see the forest for the trees.We fail to realize
is that this is the result of our own educational system.
not simply to have but to produce ideas that make sense of the information
gathered and move it toward higher latitudes.But Jewish education today is
mostly about producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more
about Jewish observance but think less and less about what they
This is even truer of their teachers.
Many of them are great
Talmudic scholars, but these very scholars do not realize that they have drowned
in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand. Just as a
bird may think that it is an act of kindness to lift a fish into the air, so
these rabbis think they are providing their students with spiritual oxygen but
may actually be choking them.
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 creativity.
This is a mistake. Our current spiritual and intellectual challenges cannot be
answered by simply looking backwards and giving answers that once worked but are
Instead of new theories, hypotheses and great ideas, we get
instant answers to questions of the greatest importance, offered via a variety
of self-help books, which seem to claim that their philosophical information
came directly from Sinai.
Trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect
information displaces significant ideas. The information is merely “tweeted” –
thus too brief and unsupported by proper arguments – yet still presented as “the
answer.” By delivering “perfect” answers, everything is done to crush
The quest for certainty paralyses the search for
UNCERTAINTY IS the very stimulus that compells man to unfold his
intellectual capacity. Every idea within Judaism is multifaceted and 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 resolving them, as when Beit Hillel and Beit
Shammai debated the essential, existential question of whether man should have
been created or not (Eruvin 13b).
Those teachers made students privy to
their own inner lives. In that way they made their discussions exciting. They
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 dogmas, but instead asked their students to deconstruct them so as
to rediscover the questions.
These teachers realized that not all
paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is a paradox.
It is true
that this approach is not without risk, but there is no authentic life choice
that is risk-free. Nothing is worse than giving in to the indolence and
callousness that stifles inquiry and leaves one drifting with the
Such an approach shrinks Judaism’s universe to a self-centered
and self-satisfying ideological ghetto, robbing it of its most essential
component: ongoing debate about the religious meaning of life, how to live in
God’s presence and how to move toward higher levels.
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 they are. By doing so, they crush the minds of
many newcomers who might have made major contributions to a new and a vigorous
Judaism. The goal is to fit them into the existing system. To them, only numbers
Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the same
type of standard religious Jew. We are not unlike the Tower of Babel generation,
when 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.
In doing so we have created a generation of
“yes men,” but we desperately need to heed Kierkegaard’s warning to
Christianity: “The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously
large number of [like-minded] Christians” (M.M.
“Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation” in A Kierkegaard Critique, H Johnson and
N Thulstrup, eds., NY 1962).
The author is the dean of the David Cardozo
Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books on Judaism and an international