The Jewish religious world seems to be consolidating. There is no longer a significant difference between Hasidim and non-Hasidic groups or between religious Sephardim and religious Ashkenazim. The ideologies are almost identical with only minor differences beyond custom. Whilst this is a good thing because it improves unity it also stifles new and more contemporary voices. And in today’s age new voices is exactly what is needed.
One of the reasons given for the creation of Hasidism in the mid 1700’s was because the Jewish world was in a state of tremendous weakness due to the Messianic failure of Sabbatai Zevi and pogroms that damaged Jewish life. It seems that we are yet again in such a period. I often hear people say that we live in an orphaned generation with no real leaders. People in our community are constantly yearning for the type of leadership that existed before World War II.
Yet no one wants to leave their own comfort zones and over the last sixty years a powerful religious (Haredi) community has grown out of the ashes of the Holocaust and has become very successful. Tragically, however, it has failed to grow up and mature. Instead of seeing the challenges or modern scientific and technological advances as something that can be used for its own advantage it has tried to shut out any modern thinking.
Whilst Jewish religious leaders in the Middle Ages such and Mainomides, Gersonides, Saadia Gaon, Abraham ibn Ezra and others embraced science, astronomy, philosophy, poetry and mathematics, much of today’s Ultra-Orthodox community frowns upon those same things. In fact they are seen as a direct affront to religious values. The message seems to be that science and other “secular” disciplines are irrelevant and incompatible with religious ideas, life and true service of God—an idea that is damaging, absurd and totally false. The fact that they don’t have the courage and wherewithal to show the compatibility and relevance is their deficiency.
Sadly, much of the contemporary religious leadership seems content with having recreated the shtetl in all its detail. And anyone in the community who does not conform completely is subject to social repercussions and sanctions. The religious and rabbinic leadership seem oblivious to the fact that whilst this was good strategy in the shtetl it cannot work in the twenty first century where alternative opportunities are easily available. This is in addition to the tragic fact that a Judaism which is seen as completely out of touch with reality and full of unreasonable social norms loses its relevance and becomes unattractive to most people.
There is little doubt that an open society is often a challenge to conservative religious values and ideals. And after the destruction of European Jewry in World War II and the rebuilding of religious life that needed to be undertaken, there was wisdom in sheltering the community from any outside influence until a proper approach can be developed. However, this has become its long term strategy. Just as a parent cannot keep sheltering their child from danger and harm—eventually the child needs to learn how to cope with those things on their own. Similarly these communities need to develop tools to cope with the realities of modern life—shutting them out as if they don’t exist will surely fail in the long term.
But people have become comfortable in the parallel reality that often characterizes Jewish religious life in the twenty first century and no one wants to change—in fact they fight against it. In the Torah the first conversation God had with Abraham he is told, “Go out of your land, from your birthplace and from your father house” (Genesis, 12:1). This is God’s call to every Jew at every time. The moment you get comfortable you get complacent and it is then that you miss out on opportunities and fail to see dangers ahead.
But each person thinks that this call is directed at someone else. It is always the other person who needs to leave their comfort zone and do something different. The same goes for communities. Few communities are able to look within and admit that they have become complacent and comfortable and need to change and modify to meet the new reality. Our post-World War II religious communities need to develop courageous leadership that will help it grow to maturity. This may involve some risk and discomfort—but the risk the status quo poses to Judaism as a whole is, no doubt, far greater.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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