The Speed of Life

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clock_topby R. Yaakov Ariel

1.The Problem

Rapid change characterizes, perhaps more than anything else, the modern age; and the rhythm of these changes is dumbfounding. Science is developing at a dizzying pace. Technology implements the achievements of science and changes the circumstances of life at a tremendous speed. It is pronounced in the conditions of housing, transportation, communication, dress, medicine and in the various gadgets that penetrate every corner of our lives. All of these things make life easier and longer and promise pleasure and comfort.

The price of such quick advancement is the loss of stability. The outstanding feature of modern times is change. Changes in all areas of life are occurring at a dizzying pace. Devices are invented, instruments turn over. The transformation and the communication of it work so quickly and carry people and information from one end of the earth to the other. Modern life is based on a lack of stablility and continuity. It is based on change and innovation. Style of dress is one of the symptoms of this perception.

Faith is perceived, erroneously, as if it were fossilized, stagnant and old-fashioned; as if it were disconnected from the movement of life which is advancing and changing

Religion, which emphasizes continuity, stability and conservatism presumably stands at odds with this modern, dynamic atmosphere. However, beyond all this lurks a serious danger, namely, that values are also likely to change and to shift- and not necessarily in a good way.

For example, sexual morality, which was still considered a value only one generation ago, has disintegrated completely because of the development of contraception. I doubt whether any value which is still accepted in civilized society, such as the prohibition against illegal drugs, will last much longer. Justice, ethics, aesthetics are changing quickly, and that which is considered beautiful by the older generation is considered ugly by the younger generation, and vice versa. The same applies to ethical values: values of homeland and nation, for instance, are changing all over the world, and so too the relationship between the individual and society. The world is passing from one extreme to another: from a totalitarian outlook of trampling the individual for the needs of society, to an extreme, egocentric outlook of elevating the individual and placing his comfort and convenience at the center, thereby turning society into a mere tool in the hands of the individual.

And from here emerges cynicism and scorn for the very concept of “values.” There is no such thing. It went up in smoke. There are only needs. There are no values in life. And certainly there are no absolute, immutable and permanent values. Values are considered, by a segment of our generation to be like fashion which can change from morning to night. And sometimes, the fashion is to discard clothing altogether…

One of the main points where the crisis of change is felt is in the inability of the modern religious individual to adapt, to reconcile the discoveries and transformations in attitude that are emerging every day, with the eternal principles. He is attached with stubborn conservatism to the explanations and opinions that he acquired in his youth and he sees in them a contradiction to his advancing knowledge. While in many areas in life he is prepared for advancement and change, in the area of spirituality, his development is arrested and his awareness is atrophied.

In light of all this, faith is perceived, erroneously, as if it were fossilized, stagnant and old-fashioned; as if it were disconnected from the movement of life which is advancing and changing. This negative image generates a response that is heretical.

2. The Solution

Though our presentation has been very severe, the problem itself testifies to a point of hidden faith. Among all the changes and transitions that are occurring throughout the world, there is one value that does not change: change itself; the dynamism which is the foundation of life itself. Life is not still, but lively. It is a continuous process, advancing, developing and ascending…

Halacha is the essential key, if not the only one, to modern man’s navigation through the stormy waves of the rushing flow of life

What is the destination of humanity’s development? Much of mankind may not even be aware themselves, but a serious, thinking person cannot escape from this penetrating question. Is there not here a hidden ambition of man for perfection, for elevation and inner improvement? There is no doubt that, deep inside, man believes with complete faith that there is purpose to life, there is a goal and significance–which is worth the mighty effort of billions of human beings.  There is something unlimited and infinite in the depths of man’s soul that does not let him rest, that pushes him constantly to be unsatisfied with being, with limits, with the existing reality, rather to climb upwards, to penetrate below, to uncover, to reveal, to improve and to advance.

At the end of this external process will come the turn for the internal process, the spiritual, the moral, the ethical and the religious. One who presents faith as opposed to advancement, whether he is among the believers or from those who oppose faith, is presenting a perverted, counterfeit picture. On the contrary, true faith advances, ascends and improves. It gives man no rest. It is prohibited for a believer to be satisfied with existence. It is always incumbent upon him to strive to rise higher and higher.

Ethical values change and certain beliefs are undermined, in order to allow superior values and greater faith to take their proper place. The period of transition is problematic and difficult and it breaks those who are weak. However, a true believer will only grow stronger and more resilient in his faith that the next stage will come and the world will reach its ideal form.

Moreover, regarding the loss of stability, Halacha is the essential key, if not the only one, to modern man’s navigation through the stormy waves of the rushing flow of life. It is the lighthouse that shows man the safe harbor in which he can feel solid, firm ground under his feet between each voyage on the storm-tossed sea. Halachic man is the most dynamic and modern personality. Every day new horizons are revealed before him. He engages new experiences at every moment. He constantly makes new demands upon himself. Torah study, in its dynamic form, is not satisfied with investigating the static past, rather in implementing the ancient principles, after uncovering them from their casuistic, historical background, to the ever-changing present. His is not a superficially traditional approach, freezing ceremonial forms with emotional nostalgia, for which wrestling with a new problem that demands changing one’s position or one’s style creates a serious crisis. On the contrary, his spiritual experiences are enriched with every new phenomenon and with every additional accomplishment. Throughout all the many transformations of the generations the eternal, intrinsic content is preserved and he becomes even stronger and bolder and he confirms, through this approach, the power of his vibrancy and the timelessness of his source.

Halacha apparently encompasses within it two opposite traits: a hard nail fixed in place on the one hand, and a flowering sapling on the other. It’s principles are eternal, however its application changes according to every new phenomenon that is revealed. The Halachic man in our era is a man who lives with a unique spiritual tension–which at the same time infuses him with serenity and confidence. On the one hand, he engages with different, shifting problems every day, and he asks himself continually at every moment, what is the position of the Halacha regarding each problem? On the other hand, he is obligated to dive into the depths of the Halacha and to uncover its parameters and  its principles in order to clarify its stance vis-à-vis each issue. This bridge between Halacha and reality inspires Halachic thinking on the one hand and sanctifies and elevates the given reality on the other. His spiritual experiences are enriched from each confrontation: both in terms of meriting to more deeply comprehend the Torah in theory and in terms of meriting to construct a new application of the Halacha in practice. In the midst of the transmutations of many external modes, the intrinsic, eternal principle is preserved–it is even strengthened and deepened–and it confirms through this approach the power of its vibrancy and the timelessness of its source.

Regarding this it is stated in Masechet Chagigah (3b): “’The words of the Sages are like spurs and like well fastened [literally planted] nails’ (Kohelet 12:11). Why are the words of the Torah compared to a spur? To teach you that just as a spur directs the cow in its furrow to bring forth life to the world, so too the words of the Torah direct those who study them from the way of death to the way of life. One might think that just as a spur can be moved, so too the words of the Torah can be moved–the verse teaches us:  ‘like nails.’ If they are likes nails, just as a nail diminishes but does not increase, so too perhaps the words of the Torah diminish and do not increase? It teaches us, ‘well planted.’ Just as a plant is fruitful and multiplies, so too the words of the Torah cause one to be fruitful and multiply.”

The concept of chidushei Torah (novel insights in Torah) acquires, in this way, a new meaning. The insight is novel both in terms of revealing the Torah’s intellectual content and its practical application. On this we recite the blessing over the Torah each morning, “He who gives the Torah” in the present tense, namely the One who, in His benevolence, gives the Torah anew each day despite the fact that it is the same eternal Torah given at Sinai, “with a great voice that did not cease.” (Our rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that the voice has not ceased even until this very day.)

This idea empowers us in terms of our faith and hope that out of the spiritual crises that are passing over our generation will emerge a better and more complete world, like the words of the great Jewish thinker of our generation, Rav Kook zt”l, in Orot HaTeshuvah: “Universal repentance which is the elevation and refining of the world and individual repentance, which relates to the individual personality of each person, are really unified, with one content” (4,3). “The spirit of repentance hovers over the world and gives it it’s unique form and the stimulus for its development” (5,4). “The world is not static, rather it proceeds and develops” (5,3). “And therefore, the world will, perforce, achieve complete repentance” (ibid. ).

This loose translation was undertaken by R. Moshe Schapiro with R. Yaakov Ariel’s permission but was not reviewed by the author. Please consult the Hebrew original here (23 Elul 5773).

About Yaakov Ariel

Rabbi Yaakov Ariel is the retired chief rabbi of Ramat Gan, president of the Ramat Gan Yeshiva and president of the Tzohar rabbinical organization. He is the author of six volumes of responsa, Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, among other books. His website is here

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