Judaism as menschlichkeit

As Israel stands at a crossroads, its existence challenged as never before, it is time to realize that the national trauma surrounding disengagement i

August 23, 2005 15:13
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orange headband girl 88. (photo credit: )


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As Israel stands at a crossroads, its existence challenged as never before, it is time to realize that the national trauma surrounding disengagement is only a symptom of a much deeper and dangerous problem the liquidation of the inner spirit of the Israeli Jew. Israelis may be exposed to plenty of information about Jewishness and tradition, but one cannot build an everlasting future for a nation solely on knowledge. We need to cultivate inner values. Israeli society, including a large part of its Orthodox segment, has become hijacked by a mass culture that has captured the minds of old and young. Hollywood, Madison Avenue and materialism have become a threat to our spiritual freedom. We're seeing a spiritual boredom resulting in this quest for extreme materialism, cheap entertainment and lack of sensitivity towards one's fellow men. There is a deep need for spiritual audacity, educational guts and defiance which will create a radically different atmosphere in Israeli society. And it is suicidal to argue that unless the climate favors these principles, there is no chance to successfully make major changes. The environment has never been conducive to spiritual concepts. It was Abraham, the first Jew, who declared war against spiritual indolence and desensitization. His daring personality created the greatest revolution in human spiritual history. Although aware that he had everything against him, nothing disheartened him, knowing that the inner spirit of man could be rescued. How was Abraham able to become the founding father not only of Judaism but of much of the moral value systems of other monotheistic religions and Western civilization? He realized that there was little worth in starting to teach people about the oneness of God. To superimpose that important value would fall on the deaf ears of his generation. Monotheism was totally alien and irrelevant to most people of his generation. So Abraham searched for a common dominator on which all men could agree and concluded that this could only be found when he was able to reach the inner life of his fellow men, the core of their being. To cultivate their souls and not just their minds. Abraham knew that, deep down, man is searching for meaning, looking for empathy and reverence and, above all, needing to do good toward his fellow man. Only then would man discover his real self. And so Abraham started a "Tent Revolution," which became the educational backbone of Judaism. It was through his astonishing dedication to bathing his fellow man in goodness and showing love even to the most crude of idolaters that he won hearts and thereby took the world by storm. What Israel needs is to return to Abraham's Tent Revolution. We needs to build tents of Abraham throughout the country in which inspired teachers and laymen Orthodox, liberal or secular teach, debate and exemplify the great Jewish ethical values as found in the classical sources of Judaism. Not as academicians or scholars trying to decipher an ancient text, but as feeling human beings looking for ways to craft a society in which menschlichkeit has the upper hand. CONTRAST THIS vision with today's reality. There are too many yeshivot and too few (if any) tents of Abraham. Most yeshiva students should, after elementary studies, be motivated to prepare themselves for the great task of bringing Jewish ethical values back into the center of Israeli life. We can no longer afford for most of them to study Talmud for its own sake. Unless we make these tractates relevant to the overall needs of the Jewish people, we badly underestimate the power of the Jewish tradition and rob our fellow Israelis of what Israeli society needs the most, namely Jewish ethics. (Continued from page 1 of 2) The need to study the great classical texts of Jewish weltanschauung must become the center of yeshiva studies. Whether these are found in the writings of Yehuda Halevi, Maimonides, the Maharal, Abraham Joshua Heshel, Franz Rosenzweig or Joseph Behr Soloveitchik is of secondary importance. What is important is that all of them focus on the powerhouse of Jewish ethical wisdom; not as dry texts but rather as moving, passionate teachings. SINCE THE mass media are by now the most powerful way to create public opinion, we need to find the means to initiate programs on radio and television that inspire audiences to aspire to emulate Israel's sages. Jewish tradition holds an infinite storehouse of highly inspirational stories showing the sages' sensitivity towards the feelings of their fellow men. Posters on bus stops and in shopping centers should ask Israelis whether they smiled this morning at their fellow men ("He who shows his neighbor the white of his teeth [who makes him cheerful] is better than he who gives him milk to drink," Ketuvot 111b); helped an old woman cross the road, gave charity to the poor, a lift to a soldier, dropped in to see an old acquaintance, said thanks to the waitress. While some Israelis will identify a person with sensitive character traits as a freier a soft-hearted sucker they can come to learn that these freiers are the backbone of a healthy society. Better an Abraham complex than a Narcissus complex. There is an extraordinary need for coherence and unity in Israeli society today. This can only come about when we return to our ethical and compassionate roots. The great question in Israel is not whether there will be a Palestinian state, but whether the State of Israel will be a Jewish state. The author is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem.

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