by R. Rafi Eis
טוב טעם ודעת למדני כי במצותיך האמנתי: (תהילים קיט: סו)
Teach me reason and knowledge, for I have put my trust in Your commandments. (Psalms 119:66)
Jewish Continuity As a Minority in the World
Successful transmission of Jewish values and traditions requires rabbinic leaders to clearly articulate the centrality of Torah. With ambivalent leadership, outside cultures disrupt the vitality of Jewish living, leading to catastrophic assimilation rates. The latest cultural challenge to Judaism is Wokism. And like many previous threats, rabbis must understand the nature of the danger and respond accordingly. In this regard, Wokism should be viewed as Haskalah 2.0. Just as championing our covenant with God, articulating the Torah’s vision of the life well lived, and expressing the limitations of reason and autonomy, successfully imparted Torah during the Haskalah, contemporary rabbis need to act similarly in response to the challenge posed by Wokism.
Jewish continuity has never been easy. There have been catastrophic losses of Jews: the midrash records that only 20% of Jacob’s descendants left Egypt,Mekhilta D’ Rabi Yishmael, Beshalach, Petichta, s.v. Vayasev. Ten tribes were lost at the hands of the Assyrians, many Judean exiles assimilated in Babylon and Egypt, Greek philosophy and culture split the Jewish people, and despite heroic resistance and martyrdom in some communities, numerous Jews converted to Christianity and Islam, especially when threatened with death.
Fidelity to Torah faces two main challenges. At the most basic level, being a minority in a dominant culture can make Jews feel like small “grasshoppers in our own eyes” (Numbers 13:33). But our perpetual minority status is a feature, not a bug, as God chose us as the “smallest of peoples” (Deut. 7:7).This description of Israel as a small nation reflects their charge to effect change through influence instead of power. Israel is confined to its sliver of land between great empires. It does not … Continue reading Therefore, in the face of more powerful cultures, maintaining Judaism requires continual trust and confidence in God’s commands. This psychological challenge requires a psychological response.
Perpetuation of Torah observance, however, faces a second, more substantive challenge from other societies. Every civilization makes claims about the life well lived, such as: How are right and wrong defined? What brings salvation? How should one organize one’s time? What is worth sacrificing for? What are one’s duties to God, self, and community? The answers of other cultures continuously infiltrate Jewish communities and disrupt the transmission of Torah.
A logical challenge to one’s worldview requires an in-kind response. Emphasizing confidence and faith is critical, but it is not enough. Therefore, throughout Jewish history, rabbinic leaders have endeavored to demonstrate that Torah offers a better life and a more enduring legacy than the dominant culture’s version of the good life.
Enlightenment – Haskalah 1.0
Today’s Jewish landscape reflects the aftermath of the Enlightenment’s spiritual devastation. Orthodox Jews account for just 30% of Israeli Jews and 10% of American Jews. Every place that the Enlightenment spread – Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States – the Torah observant/Orthodox population decreased by over 50% within a few decades.
The Enlightenment, whose ethical system served as one of the foundations of the Haskalah, successfully attracted so many observant Jews because of the unique nature of its worldview. It reoriented life around the human discovery of truth. Instead of humans following divine commands (heteronomy), it directs them to adhere to a human understanding of the world (autonomy).
In the natural sciences, it looked at the world empirically and rejected Greek idealism which had been subsequently reinforced by Christian ecclesiastical power. The Scientific Revolution’s new emphasis on curiosity, experimentation, and replication, set into motion significant advances, including the Industrial Revolution and eventually, the advent of modern medicine. These relieved much of the suffering of the Medieval period. Humans lived longer and had a greater quality of life than they did pre-Enlightenment.
While in the natural sciences Enlightenment thinkers embraced empiricism and rejected rationalist idealism, many of its philosophers like Rene Descartes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanual Kant took a rationalist approach to understanding the human condition. This undermined Torah observance since these Enlightenment thinkers required consenting to religious obligation. They further undermined religion by asserting that reason alone could direct proper human behavior and ethics and this relegated religion to the private spiritual sphere and to houses of worship. Enlightenment morality then required all people to abide by its understanding of reason and science which dramatically changed the human understanding of right and wrong. It was an Age of Reason that promised fewer obligations, fewer restrictions, with a better life than divine religion.They further undermined religion to assert the impossibility of the Bible. The Enlightenment “scientific method” did not allow for Divine revelation. Second, as they analyzed the Bible’s texts, … Continue reading
Responses to Haskalah 1.0
Because the Enlightenment demonstrated sustained human benefit in the sciences and critiqued religion with a new framing, rabbis struggled to find the right response. Prior rabbinic responses to Christianity were not relevant. This challenge was not unique to Jewish leaders, as religious leaders of other faiths similarly struggled. Some Jewish leaders tried to conform their observance to Enlightenment ideas. Enlightenment values were interpreted as Torah values and some commands and customs were rejected as archaic. These Accommodators included Moses Mendelsohn and the leaders of the new denominations. The numerous 19th and early 20th century Neolog, Conservative and Reform synagogues that were built to seat thousands of people testify to the large crowds that they attracted. Though the initial generation or two lived within the Jewish community, many of their descendants abandoned their denominational affiliation and intermarried.“Marriage, families and children among U.S. Jews.” Pew Research Center, 11 May 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/marriage-families-and-children/. Accommodation cannot endure.
In response to the Accommodators, a number of communities coalesced into Resistors. This second group came to be called ultra-Orthodox and rejected any change outright.See Responsa of the Chatam Sofer 1:28 as an example. These traditionalists established new institutions and communities. It is true that the yeshiva, mussar and Hasidic movements, either preceded the Haskalah or began as a response to internal Jewish developments, but they became more robust in order to prevent infiltration from the Haskalah. The success of their approach is seen today in their vibrant communities.
But it came at a huge cost. It established a barrier between them and other parts of their nation. At the most basic level, turning internally limited their own sense of duty to their people. As Jews emigrated to America in search of economic opportunities, Orthodox rabbis avoided establishing a firm presence there until the late 19th century. Some only cared about the rabbinic elite.Rav Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav MeEliyahu, vol. 3, p. 356. As the Torah observant world was collapsing around them, resistors built their own Noah’s Ark looking to save a remnant and restart.
Beyond that, they were ineffective recruiters. They relied on a psychological response of faith and confidence to combat the Enlightenment’s intellectual challenge. By not understanding the appeal of the new moral language, they limited the number of Jews who they could convince.
Not only did this hard resistance impact Jewish unity, it also limited the broader mission of Torah. Relying on belief alone and ignoring the intellectual appeal of the Haskalah removes reason from discussions of the Torah’s commands. Resistors either treated the commandments as if they were statutes, chukim, whose purpose was submission to dvar HaShem or imbued them with mystical and ethereal meaning, also not subject to reason. In Rav Saadya Gaon’s terminology, all commands became non-rational revealed commands (shimiyot). If obedience is the highest end of Torah observance, then Israel’s initial response at Mount Sinai “all that HaShem has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8 and similarly in 24:3) would suffice. But it is not enough. God really aims for the next, more celebrated, response of “all that HaShem has spoken we will do and understand” (Exodus 24:7). Some commands are chukim and beyond human comprehension and demand our obedience, but the majority of the mitzvot insist on our understanding as the Torah’s “wisdom and insight” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
Similarly, resistors rejected the entirety of the Enlightenment as they focused on internal spirituality. This leads to misrepresenting the Torah’s demands. God’s basic charge to “rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth” was ignored, even though this forms the essence of being created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), since only scientific discovery, exploration, technological innovation will be able to achieve these ends.This is developed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Adam I in his The Lonely Man of Faith. The ultra-Orthodox, therefore, reap the benefits of science, but do not understand it. These attitudes have persisted to our time, leading to increasing dysfunction. If math or the natural sciences … Continue reading
The Champions of Torah
The failure of the accommodators and the shortcomings of the resistors led to a third group, the Champions of Torah. Thinkers like Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser (Malbim), Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Dr. Azriel Hildesheimer, Rabbi Dr. David Tzvi Hoffman, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav), Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, and Lord Rabbi Dr. Jonathan SacksThis is, of course, not an exhaustive list and does not intend to exclude rabbinic leaders that are not mentioned. articulated the Torah’s worldview in dignified and positive ways. For these rabbinic leaders, the Torah contains its own independent system of moral right and wrong. Rather than just defending Torah from the Enlightenment and Haskalah, they explained how Torah offers a better philosophy. For example, when Judaism rejects the requirement of consent for all obligations, it is because covenant, family, community, and national continuity could not exist if individuals must consent to each new duty and have the choice to opt out as they wish. Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant did not have family duties; this contributed to their imbalanced perspective on the individual. Champions of Torah emphasized the limits of autonomy and human reason.
Enlightenment scientific and philosophical trends were then analyzed within a Torah framework to determine whether they can be adopted or rejected. The scientific revolution was understood and adopted, while some Enlightenment ideas were validated. Sometimes, these thinkers, especially Rabbi Sacks, demonstrated that some consequential Enlightenment ideas, like the separation of governmental powers, were not developed by human reason, but stemmed from Biblical notions. As Christian discourse dominated Europe for over a thousand years, Enlightenment thinkers unwittingly adopted Biblical notions and confused them for human reason.
Alongside developing an intellectual system to compete with the Enlightenment, these rabbinic leaders also placed greater emphasis on the history of Judaism and its foundations. God’s choice of Abraham, redemption of Israel from Egypt, and the Halachic obligations which stem from Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai not only provided a foundation for Jewish commitment, but imbued Torah observance with a critical sense of historical mission.
This championing of the Torah and expressing its full purpose led to a revival. The new commentaries on the Bible by Mecklenburg, Malbim, Hoffman, and Hirsch, initiated a broad and sustained effort in Orthodox Biblical scholarship that continues through today. Formerly non-Orthodox Jews joined Rav Hirsch’s rebuilt community in Frankfurt. The Rav and Rabbi Lamm each developed significant institutions, but especially Yeshiva University, which served as an incubator for the next generation of American Torah communities and teachers. Rav Kook set the path for Israel’s religious Zionism. Rav Lichtenstein’s Yeshivat Har Etzion served as the preparatory grounds for many Israeli and American leaders. Rabbi Sacks led a similar process in England, especially at the day school level, and attracted a worldwide following.
This strengthening of Torah sometimes led to further communal division as some members adopted standards that more accurately reflected halacha while others did not. Rav Hirsch created a separate community within Frankfurt. In the mid-twentieth century, Orthodox leaders required Orthodox synagogues to close their parking lots on the Sabbath and maintain a mechitza between men and women during prayers. Though Orthodox leaders had previously been more accommodating, they felt that the community now needed to more closely conform with the codes. Though these decisions initially divided communities, the new standards ultimately strengthened halachic observance in numerous areas of Jewish life. General Shabbat observance, synagogue participation, day school enrollment all increased. Thousands of Modern Orthodox students annually come to Israel for a year or two of study in yeshiva and midrasha testifies to their success.
Wokeness – Haskalah 2.0
The Enlightenment and Haskalah were yesterday’s battles. The current generation of rabbinic leaders face the challenge of Wokeness. Wokeness morality incorporates both postmodernism and neo-Marxism. The postmodern aspect reorients the idea of truth around each individual’s perspective instead of around facts, science, and history. Postmodernism prizes self-expression, emotions, and authenticity. Instead of appealing to tradition or truth, it prioritizes “lived experience.” Wokism’s social libertarianism grants each individual the right to live his or her life as he or she sees fit. Previously, morality reflected living together to bring about the greatest societal good and asked communal members to abide by communal standards with discipline and virtue. Woke morality now tells communities to lower their standards by accepting each person as each individual chooses to be, making communities diverse and inclusive. The Neo-Marxist aspect emphasizes the importance of equity in the material and psychological realms. Financial disparity causes pain and excludes.This pain has historically been described as jealousy, which is prohibited in the Ten Commandments. Earlier societies required personal discipline to minimize envy, like in the mishna’s dictum, … Continue reading It is therefore oppressive and immoral. In essence, Wokeness aims for diversity without disparity or autonomy without consequence.
The purported end goal of Wokeness is social justice.John Rawls’ “Justice as Fairness” supplies a philosophic foundation for social justice. He posits that “all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of … Continue reading Whereas traditional justice validates inequalities that stem from human decisions, social justice requires equalizing the outcome nonetheless.The Halachic concept of לפנים משורת הדין and פשרה do not aim for parity but look to infuse rigid justice with a sense of generosity of spirit, charity, and communal peace. See Baba … Continue reading Those perceived as marginalized will generally be given preference. For instance, though the Palestinians have chosen war instead of peace for the past 80 years, Wokeness demands a redistribution of power from Israel as the most significant way to alleviate Palestinian suffering. Social justice demands decriminalization, since those with a criminal record have fewer job prospects. The way marriage and the nuclear family play critical roles in a child’s achievement in school and in financial success is also deemed inconsequential, and these disparities must be equalized in the name of social justice.
Differences found within nature must also be made inconsequential. Wokeness demands removing these differences through implementing hormonal or surgical transgender treatments or providing homosexual couples the ability to create progeny. Alternatively, it requires the removal of standards that rely on these natural differences. Instead of citizenship and immigration laws, Wokeness creates a right to live in any country. It has redefined marriage and abolishes gender specific standards, since standards act as a filter to include and exclude. Some people meet the criteria; others do not or cannot. Wokeness therefore aims to dismantle these “unjust systems.”
In one sense, it is similar to the Enlightenment. Both Enlightenment and Wokeness metaphorically convey a state of before awareness and after it. There were things that we did not understand prior, and now we do. They also begin with the autonomous individual. But here is how they are different. While the Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution, Wokeness is an emotional and psychological one. Whereas the Enlightenment emphasized objectivity, Wokeness overcompensated for Enlightenment’s rigidity by asserting complete subjectivity.
Like all social and philosophical movements, the transition from Enlightenment liberalism to Wokeness occurred over a number of decades. Some Woke issues have already become more accepted in general society using the language of autonomous liberalism. These changes reflect the early stages of Wokeness.
Importantly, since its worldview stems from people’s emotions, the acceptable responses are validation, compassion, and empathy. Stating that a position is incorrect is insensitive and lacks empathy. One is also accused of judging from “privilege,” which means one has had an easier and different lived experience. These parameters make it close to impossible to debate Woke issues.
There are a number of areas of Wokeness that are particularly challenging to the Jewish community. These include: gay marriage, transgenderism, intermarriage, acceptability of tattoos, single women having children, egalitarianism and the roles of women in Jewish communal leadership, assisted suicide, abortion, the importance of the traditional family, and conversion standards. In all these cases, the individual wants to live according to their authentic self without impediment, where halacha restricts options.
The Orthodox world, therefore, faces a grave moral and cultural threat. Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin’s 1840 Project, correctly diagnoses that “we are once again faced with the choices and challenges society confronted in 1840 on an even greater level.” The Orthodox world is facing Haskalah 2.0.
As Wokeness develops, the areas of disagreement between it and Torah will expand. The traditional approach to intermarriage and conversion standards will not survive the onslaught in many communities. Jewish leadership will be redefined. Many community members will abandon Orthodoxy because they view it as immoral. Others will maintain their Orthodox affiliation while living in a halachically prohibited family environment (intermarriage, transgenderism, gay marriage). They will insist on being accepted into Orthodox synagogues and schools. Non-acceptance leads to further moral crises within a community (with the PR campaigns that come with it) while accommodation creates havoc on the halachic requirements of marriage and lineage.
Accommodators have worked hard over the past two decades. On the most basic level, they have already rejected an obedience approach by rebranding obedience as “Akedah theology.” They deem this immoral since the Akedah teaches “the dangerous implications of faith unchecked by ethics, especially when such faith is taken as license to harm others” and must be defeated.Koller, Aaron J, Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought, University of Nebraska Press, 2020, p. xxix. By claiming to prioritize people, Woke morality will always override Torah.
Accommodators then misuse traditional sources to prove the validity of their innovations. Halachic opinions that were previously rejected get relied upon, or accommodators twist the meaning of select mystical passages, Hasidic sources,Hefter, Herzl, “Why I Ordained Women,” Times of Israel Blogs, 19 July 2015, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-i-ordained-women/. or sections from Rav Kook.Ross, Tamar, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism, Brandeis University Press, 2021. That actual Hassidim and students of Rav Kook do not come to the accommodator’s conclusions does not seem to bother them. The point is to align halacha with Wokeness, not to understand the actual requirements of halacha or the intended meaning of these passages.
If the desired change cannot be justified, like a woman serving as shaliach tzibbur or ordaining women rabbis, they nonetheless find a workaround. They highlight pruzbul and heter mechira as a model to circumvent halachic norms. When the prohibitions are explicit, like with gay marriage, they diminish the Torah’s commands and insist that there is a higher moral level that God really wants. A small number of Biblical commands do not reflect an ideal ethic, but are the Torah’s compromises towards the troubling ethical realities of the Exodus generation. The command of the captive womanKiddushin 21b. is a primary example. Maimonides describes sacrifices in this way.The Guide for the Perplexed 3:32. An accommodator will turn these exceptions into a paradigm and insist that God truly wishes for humanity to override His ethical compromises from 3,200 years ago and live in an elevated moral state.Some accommodators employ “unfolding revelation” as a theological theory to include moral changes as reflecting God’s will. Both theories assert that God’s true will overrides the Torah’s … Continue reading Wokeness will be a new ‘Torah ideal’ and override any mitzva that it comes into conflict with. Approving of egalitarianism and gay marriage will be called “expanding the palace of Torah.”
The Talmud requires a scholar’s intellectual ability “to render a carcass of a creeping animal pure by Torah law,”Sanhedrin 17a. as a qualification be appointed to the Sanhedrin. But this level of acumen does not suffice. A member of the Sanhedrin must also limit himself when his reasoning has been rejected by his peers.Sanhedrin 86b. Human intellect also needs to be properly grounded and restrained. As Tehillim says, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of HaShem; all who practice it gain sound understanding” (111:10). This is why the Talmud was wary of the Greek mode of thinking.Sota 49b, Menachot 64b, 99b. Just because a logical argument can be made does not give it validity.
An additional complexity confronts rabbinic leaders in responding to Haskalah 2.0. During the first Haskalah, accommodators set up their own institutions and created separate denominations. In Haskalah 2.0. they refer to themselves as social Orthodox, Open Orthodox, or they redefine Modern Orthodoxy. They maintain their Orthodox affiliation and attend the same institutions.
This puts Rabbinic leaders in a bind. At the most basic level, gay couples and transgender individuals will show up expecting to be included. They likely observe Shabbat and kashrut. Beyond that, there are many community members who generally agree with the Woke worldview of equity, acceptance, and diversity. Addressing these issues could lead to a massive communal divide.
Further complicating a response are the personal and painful nature of these issues. A Jew’s natural compassion initially pulls them towards some degree of acquiescence. And this is generally a good instinct, since compassionShabbat 133b, Rambam, Laws of Prohibited Relations, 19:17, and Sefer HaChinuch 498. and inclusionBerachot 28a. are Torah values. Therefore, a forceful rabbinic response must nonetheless be precise and nuanced instead of categorical.
The Need For New Champions
To understand what is necessary and what is at stake, let’s look at the emerging issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide. Canada and many European countries have already expanded its legality from the terminally ill to the mentally ill and paralytic. They use compassion and human dignity as the moral values to support its legality. These are certainly Torah values as well, and almost all cases of assisted suicide are heart-breaking.
Unfortunately, compassion and human dignity create increasing incentives to end life. In Canada, those with chronic illness can end their lives.Subramanya, Rupa. “Scheduled to Die: The Rise of Canada’s Assisted Suicide Program.” The Free Press, 11 October 2022, https://www.thefp.com/p/scheduled-to-die-the-rise-of-canadas. Elderly people are given this advice when faced with a health crisis.Leffler, Brennan, and Marianne Dimain. “How Poverty, not Pain, is Driving Canadians with Disabilities to Consider Medically-Assisted Death – National | Globalnews.ca.” Global News, 8 … Continue reading Already, the media highlights numerous stories of distressing end-of-life suffering. Public intellectuals will remind people that numerous ancient societies, including the vaunted Greece and Rome, allowed for it. Anticipating the future means that as health care costs continue to balloon, countries will eventually allow health insurance companies to cease coverage at 75Emanuel, Ezekiel J. “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/. and offer assisted suicide. This could easily be offered to parents with autistic or Down’s Syndrome children in the name of compassion and human dignity.Holt, Jim. “Euthanasia for Babies?” The New York Times, 10 July 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/10/magazine/euthanasia-for-babies.html.
Jewish accommodators are already trying to overturn accepted halacha to allow for it.Staller, Leead. “Hippocratic Healthcare and Christian Absolutism: Can Halakhah Allow for Compassionate Euthanasia?.” The Lehrhaus, 29 Nov. 2022, … Continue reading If rabbis do not champion the Torah’s view about the sanctity of life, murder will become an accepted norm within the Orthodox community.
The work ahead is urgent. My sense is that rabbinic leaders are reluctant to take a clear stand because they do not view the threat as that large. It seems like gay marriage, transgenderism, tattoos and other Woke issues have not taken root. Furthermore, directly addressing the incompatibility of Torah and Wokeness could cause a communal split.
A quiet resistance might seem pragmatic, but it ignores the cost of silence. Many Orthodox Jews agree with Wokeness. Though the issues are currently underneath the surface, it will steadily grow. As rabbis delay confronting the competing worldviews of Torah and Wokeness, more Orthodox Jews will adopt the Woke ethical system. When addressing under the surface problems is delayed, it generally leads to larger public difficulties. This is because silence becomes interpreted as ambivalence and weakness, and because the intellectual arguments of fairness and resolving oppression are deeply appealing. More and more community members will move from uncertainty to Wokeness. Rabbinic leaders may not be interested in Wokeness, but Wokeness is interested in Jewish congregants and students. This is the process that occurred in the Enlightenment. The community will then break apart, with more members choosing Wokeness over Torah. Orthodox Judaism will certainly outlast Wokeness; the only question is how many followers it will have.
It is therefore critical that rabbinic leaders begin the difficult work of articulating the Torah’s vision of the good life and its moral outlook. In short, it is critical to champion our beloved Torah. This is not to cast out those who have already adopted Woke values, but to make clear that if they want to be part of an Orthodox institution, then it must be on the terms of established heteronomous halacha and not their autonomous terms. As we saw with Haskalah 1.0, only a champion type response succeeds in both the short term and the long term. The spiritual devastation of the first Haskalah is partially due to the delayed champion response, which began decades after the accommodators and resistors. To avoid a similar catastrophe, rabbinic leaders need to proactively begin championing the Torah.
For example, the most important issue with regard to transgenderism is not which side of the mechitza he/she should sit on, but that cross dressing, bodily mutilation, and sterilization are all halachically prohibited. Two Orthodox Jews, Dr. Miriam Grossman and Ms. Abigail Shrier, have already done incredible work towards rejecting transgender ideology, especially for children. Much of the onset of transgenderism stems from mental illness. However, ideology leads to it being validated instead of treated. Rabbinic leaders, therefore, need to explain the gendered orientation of Torah as leading to human flourishing.
Similarly, a sustained effort is needed to articulate the Torah’s vision of: justice vs. social justice, the accumulation of wealth and charity, the obligation and limits of compassion, emotion and logic, self-expression in halacha, the sanctity of the body vs. tattoos, sanctity of life vs. pain, and the centrality of the traditional family. On the other hand, the Torah’s commands of shemittah and Yovel do insist on some level of societal economic reset.Yovel resets land ownership and personal freedom, not wealth. It seems that its emphasis is on the means of production, not economic equity. It would better be described as a way to prevent … Continue reading Torah does not align with modernity or postmodernism. Some of its values do not overlap with either of these worldviews.
Though rabbinic leaders should formulate responses that promote Torah, they are not alone in this conflict. Other religious and traditional communities are similarly under attack from without and within. Here the Rav’s guidance can be helpful. In a letter to the Rabbinical Council of America he writes, “In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding and will enhance and deepen our knowledge of those universal aspects of man which are relevant to all of us.” He later specifies “such topics as War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man’s Moral Values, the Threat of Secularism, Technology and Human Values, [and] Civil Rights.”Soloveitchik, Joseph Dov, and Helfgot, Nathaniel, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, Toras HoRav Foundation, 2005, p. 259-261.
Most importantly, rabbinic leaders need to orient their communities within the long story of Jewish history, guiding them within Israel’s covenant with God. People will recognize that Torah is good by emphasizing the Torah’s vision of the moral, good and enduring life.
|↑1||Mekhilta D’ Rabi Yishmael, Beshalach, Petichta, s.v. Vayasev.|
|↑2||This description of Israel as a small nation reflects their charge to effect change through influence instead of power. Israel is confined to its sliver of land between great empires. It does not have imperial ambitions. At the same time, it is most effective at its broader mission of being a “light of nations” when it is larger, healthy, and robust. See my essay, “Israel’s Light: A Response to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik.” The Lehrhaus, 17 December 2018, https://thelehrhaus.com/commentary/israels-light-a-response-to-rabbi-meir-soloveichik/ for further discussion.|
|↑3||They further undermined religion to assert the impossibility of the Bible. The Enlightenment “scientific method” did not allow for Divine revelation. Second, as they analyzed the Bible’s texts, they claimed that textual contradictions reflect the Bible’s multiple authors, and proposed the Documentary Hypothesis as new Biblical theory, which further weakened the Bible’s authority.|
|↑4||“Marriage, families and children among U.S. Jews.” Pew Research Center, 11 May 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/marriage-families-and-children/.|
|↑5||See Responsa of the Chatam Sofer 1:28 as an example.|
|↑6||Rav Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav MeEliyahu, vol. 3, p. 356.|
|↑7||This is developed by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Adam I in his The Lonely Man of Faith.|
|↑8||The ultra-Orthodox, therefore, reap the benefits of science, but do not understand it. These attitudes have persisted to our time, leading to increasing dysfunction. If math or the natural sciences are studied, they are done under duress from government mandates. While almost all vaccinate their children, measles or mumps outbreaks occur in the ultra-Orthodox community because parents do not view those vaccines as urgent enough. Without a firm grounding in the natural sciences, they can also fall prey to conspiracy theories, like the growing anti-vax movement in the Haredi world, since the underlying workings of medicine seems mysterious to them.|
|↑9||This is, of course, not an exhaustive list and does not intend to exclude rabbinic leaders that are not mentioned.|
|↑10||This pain has historically been described as jealousy, which is prohibited in the Ten Commandments. Earlier societies required personal discipline to minimize envy, like in the mishna’s dictum, “who is rich? one who is joyous with what he has” (Avot 4:1). Postmodernism’s emphasis on equity, however, has turned this vice into a virtue. It validates the pain of jealousy as a reflection of injustice.|
|↑11||John Rawls’ “Justice as Fairness” supplies a philosophic foundation for social justice. He posits that “all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage” (Theory of Justice, p. 54). I am unaware of Biblical or Talmudic sources that advocate for economic equity as the goal of society or as a value of justice. In particular, his Difference Principle argues that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (p. 53). Rawls acknowledges a right to private property and allows for inequalities to develop. However, these inequalities should be directed towards incentivizing societal benefit. Since doctors provide greater societal benefit than hedge fund analysts, their salary should be higher to encourage more individuals to become doctors. Rawls’ incompatibility with Torah is obvious from the laws of inheritance. Rawls wanted inheritance highly taxed because it perpetuates inequality. Not only does the Torah insist on inheritance, its mandated double portion to the first born creates additional inequalities. The reason that equity is not the societal ideal is because righteousness and virtue are. Humans acting freely is a means to those ends. Upright behavior is expected whether one is rich or poor, healthy or sick (see Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 1:8). Thank you to Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Seif for this latter insight.|
|↑12||The Halachic concept of לפנים משורת הדין and פשרה do not aim for parity but look to infuse rigid justice with a sense of generosity of spirit, charity, and communal peace. See Baba Mezia 83a and Sanhedrin 6b. In fact, the arbiter of a compromise must guide the negotiation fairly (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 12:2). For a judge to favor the poor is explicitly prohibited as per Exodus 23:3 and Leviticus 19:15|
|↑13||Koller, Aaron J, Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought, University of Nebraska Press, 2020, p. xxix.|
|↑14||Hefter, Herzl, “Why I Ordained Women,” Times of Israel Blogs, 19 July 2015, https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/why-i-ordained-women/.|
|↑15||Ross, Tamar, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism, Brandeis University Press, 2021.|
|↑17||The Guide for the Perplexed 3:32.|
|↑18||Some accommodators employ “unfolding revelation” as a theological theory to include moral changes as reflecting God’s will. Both theories assert that God’s true will overrides the Torah’s commands.|
|↑21||Sota 49b, Menachot 64b, 99b.|
|↑22||Shabbat 133b, Rambam, Laws of Prohibited Relations, 19:17, and Sefer HaChinuch 498.|
|↑24||Subramanya, Rupa. “Scheduled to Die: The Rise of Canada’s Assisted Suicide Program.” The Free Press, 11 October 2022, https://www.thefp.com/p/scheduled-to-die-the-rise-of-canadas.|
|↑25||Leffler, Brennan, and Marianne Dimain. “How Poverty, not Pain, is Driving Canadians with Disabilities to Consider Medically-Assisted Death – National | Globalnews.ca.” Global News, 8 October 2022, https://globalnews.ca/news/9176485/poverty-canadians-disabilities-medically-assisted-death/, Rich, Motoko, and Hikari Hida. “A Yale Professor Suggested Mass Suicide for Old People in Japan. What Did He Mean?” The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/12/world/asia/japan-elderly-mass-suicide.html.|
|↑26||Emanuel, Ezekiel J. “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Jan. 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/.|
|↑27||Holt, Jim. “Euthanasia for Babies?” The New York Times, 10 July 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/10/magazine/euthanasia-for-babies.html.|
|↑28||Staller, Leead. “Hippocratic Healthcare and Christian Absolutism: Can Halakhah Allow for Compassionate Euthanasia?.” The Lehrhaus, 29 Nov. 2022, https://thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/hippocratic-healthcare-and-christian-absolutism-can-halakhah-allow-for-compassionate-euthanasia/. The author leaves out a number of critical sources like Rambam (Avel 4:5, Rotzeach 2:7-8, Shabbat 2:18) and Shulchan Aruch and Rama YD 339:1.|
|↑29||Yovel resets land ownership and personal freedom, not wealth. It seems that its emphasis is on the means of production, not economic equity. It would better be described as a way to prevent entrenched monopolies than a Rawlsian endeavor.|
|↑30||Soloveitchik, Joseph Dov, and Helfgot, Nathaniel, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, Toras HoRav Foundation, 2005, p. 259-261.|