Heart and Soul: War of the sages against the prophets

How Orthodox Judaism is hastening the redemption of Israel.

lubavtich rebbe 88 (photo credit: )
lubavtich rebbe 88
(photo credit: )
Palpable perplexity at Jewish secular-religious division may better be understood when rabbinical adherence to Orthodox tradition is seen as divorced from lessons which history teaches. The sages of the Talmud were, after all, the same religious hierarchy upon whose heads the Second Temple collapsed. One of the most notable among them supported a rebellion that hastened banishing the Jews into exile, while they themselves took refuge in Yavne for the stated purpose of writing the oral tradition to save the people from a prolonged and dangerous Diaspora - and to remind the Jews to one day return to Israel. Perhaps, by any standards known from Babylon, they aspired to shorten the Roman exile to less than 70 years. History, however, chose to condemn their effort to resounding failure. The nearly 2,000-year exile and insurmountable Jewish suffering which accompanied it made the Babylonian one seem like a summer vacation by comparison. Not only did the Orthodox tradition they instituted fail to protect the Jews, but it also failed to instill within religious communities a resolve to return to the homeland. The spark of Zionism and first aliyot from Europe were thus led by secular Jews, under protest of most rabbinical leaders. This predicament is further exasperated by severe admonishment in Scripture, leveled at religious jurisdiction regarding hazards inherent in glorifying ceremonial worship. A well-known example in the Book of Isaiah emphasizes that it is not the formal procedure itself which elevates the people morally, but rather the spirit with which they conduct their lives and community affairs. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and Sabbath, the holding of convocations - I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hateth; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1:11-17). One must wonder why the sages ignored such divine reprimand as they compounded ritual decree in talmudic law, as if the moral value of the people is inherent in an endless preoccupation with fulfilling a voluminous array of halachic ordinance that holds little in common with essential precepts they're derived from. If such was the case with the prophet Isaiah regarding Temple sacrifices and sacrament observance of holy days, one can only imagine what he would say about today's obsessive emphasis on prayer services, the donning of tefillin or Shabbat prohibitions, among many others, practiced by Orthodox Jewry. Condemnation of religious overindulgence in Scripture was not limited to ceremonial adulation alone, but often extended into pretentions of wisdom by religious principals. Rebukes such as the following abounded: "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that change darkness into light, and light into darkness; that change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!" (Isaiah 3:20-21). "And the Lord said: Forasmuch as this people draw near, and with their mouth and with their lips do honor Me, but have removed their heart far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment of men learned by rote; Therefore, behold, I will again do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the prudence of their prudent men shall be hid" (Isaiah 29:13-14). "How do ye say: 'We are wise, and the Law of the Lord is with us'? Lo, certainly in vain hath wrought the vain pen of the scribes. The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken; lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?" (Jeremiah 6: 8-9). These are but a few of the myriad examples. Perhaps in this context, it is possible to better understand the sages of Orthodoxy. Entrusted with spiritual leadership, they did what they knew best and waged a war against the prophets for the disparagement they suffered at their hands. They spoke in their own name and not as divine messengers. They elevated their instruction above that of the prophets, claiming their wisdom to be greater than theirs. They forged a new Judaism of ceremonial array, saturated with commandments for the learned, as manifest in today's Orthodox education. All this came at the torrential cost of a burgeoning schism between secular and religious communities, drifting further apart in division and disarray. It came at the tragic price of relieving the Orthodox of their most basic God-given right to choose, reason and understand divine will through nurturing the heart and soul, based on each person's unique personality and ability. Throughout it all, however, the promise of redemption flickered through the volumes of written Jewish tradition. The sages knew their reign would be temporary. They impressed that all would change in the promised divine kingdom to come. They reminded that on that day, the burden of halachic law would be relieved. In doing so, they did what they knew best and magnified the deeds for which they were most stringently criticized: volumes of commandments, prayers and ordinances; honoring God with words through innumerable prolonged blessings and supplications; transforming knowledge of the divine into a regimented learning discipline; and many more. The purity and softening of the heart stressed by the prophets were pushed to the sidelines, buried deep under mountains of talmudic law. If this type of leadership was so calamitous toward the end of the First and Second Temples, so as to necessitate their destruction, then let the Lord look at the catastrophe they've wrought on the people now - and tarry no longer in sending His promised deliverer. The sages have, after all, prepared the way for his coming. Countless edicts and commandments await the divine envoy to reveal their mysteries. A shattered and divided people ripped asunder with perplexity of faith await his coming - and with it, the long aspired-for unity of Israel which his advent portends. In this, perhaps, lay the greatest wisdom of the sages of Israel. In disengaging the Orthodox Jew from personal divinity through halachic ordinance, they've helped bring the collapse of Jewish spirituality to a degree which can be tolerated no longer. So much so, that the cries for deliverance rise into the heavens. And the Lord hears - and remembers. The writer lectures on social activism through the entertainment and communications mediums, is a comic book artist/writer for DC and Marvel Comics, creator of Israel's first color comic book Uri-On, and resident of Ofra. www.michaelnetzer.com