Shaya Cohen -


How Can Jews Advance?

Here’s the problem: Judaism (the way it is practiced today) is not – quite – getting the job done. And it has not been managing it for thousands of years.

How so?

Ever since G-d gave us the Torah in the wilderness, the core ideas of Judaism have made quite an impression on the world. All the major Western religions claim ancestry to Abraham, after all. The Torah is the single most foundational text for all of Western Civilization.

And we are clearly doing something right, after all. Jews are still here, against all the odds. We have our own country, after thousands of years as strangers in strange lands. There are grounds for optimism.

But we, the keepers of the Torah, have so far not succeeded in our mission. If anything, Torah principles are in retreat in both the Western and the non-Western worlds. More than this: we are sliding back into widespread pagan nature-worship, into a world that no longer seeks holiness, populated by people who do not believe that a soul even exists, let alone that each soul contains a spark of the divine.

Jews still exist – and even, within enclaves, thrive. But on balance we have precious little to show for thousands of years of effort. Even those religions which spring from Judaism started with a deep ignorance of what the Torah is telling humanity – though they are hardly to blame for that: Jews ourselves are generally ignorant of Judaism!

I am not speaking of the core of Jewish Law – Halacha. We have a detailed and amazing mesorah that delves deeply into how we can and should do mitzvos, G-d’s will. We are good at that – our scholars have mastered deep and thoughtful recursive loops, starting from tests, and going through generations of opinions by gedolim. And I think, by and large, we have always been good at that. This is our Oral Torah, telling us, with incredible precision how one should do a mitzvah.

But where we have failed the world, other Jews, and, most importantly, Hashem Himself, is in asking why. Why does the Torah tell us about two rivers in Eden? Why can we eat grasshoppers? Why are all the commandments as they are? We shy away from that question, even though there are answers. And the answers are critically important, because they are the only way in which the Torah can be explained to the rest of the world, as well as to Jews ourselves.

In other words: we do not have a third bayis in Jerusalem, and we have not achieved national or worldwide geulah, and we remain depressingly inconsequential for most of the world because we have failed to read and share the Torah in a way that resonates with mankind.

Indeed, we have, for thousands of years, resisted even the idea of explaining the Torah, as if trying to understand G-d’s will is itself a sign of lack of faith. So the Jewish people who famously said na’aseh v’nishmah, “we will do and we will [seek to understand] have excelled at doing the mitzvos, and completely dropped the ball on understanding a key facet of the commandments: why they exist in the first place!

Our “nishma” failings are fundamental: we no longer ask the questions “WHY” for the mitzvos. Indeed, we have a strong intellectual tradition that insists that there are no answers we can understand. We criticize or even ostracize those who try to find those answers.

So we are left as a nation holding a very strange position: we do mitzvos because G-d says so, but we are completely in the dark about why He might have commanded those mitzvos. And because we are in the dark, we fail to effectively spread the ideals of Judaism to the world, as well as to our own people. “Because the Torah says so” is a limited argument that attracts only a pretty small subset of humanity. It is not getting the job done. And even with those who are shomer mitzvos, leaving the entire nishma problem out of the equation means that we are doing mitzvos “blind,” without any comprehension of what they are supposed to mean and achieve.

Think of it this way: We have a comprehensive instruction manual for building something new and wonderful, but we are so deeply involved in the particular details of each instruction that we do not know what we are even trying to build!

The irony is that the Torah tells us that the commandments are not far from us – they are not only accessible to learned scholars who have spent a lifetime mastering Halachic minutiae. Instead, they represent symbolism and concepts that can be relevant for any person. One just needs to take a step back, and see the Torah as a whole. For example, a “The Torah explained in one simple package” approach can be found here – and it is brilliant. I would – and do – quibble with many of the suggested explanations, but I concur wholeheartedly with the overall argument that the Torah sets out two options for mankind starting with Adam, and is consistent about that basic choice throughout the entire text. Indeed, my own work has trended in that direction for a long time – from arguing that the acts of our ancestors in Genesis provide Hashem with the mechanisms for core commandments like sacrifices and that the same approach even explains more peripheral commandments like returning the pillow of a servant at the end of each day. Similarly, for example, while understanding the precise actions necessary to bring a specific offering might take a lifetime of study, the reason for the offering itself – indeed, for all of the items of the tabernacle, are an explanatory primer for the meaning of holiness.

It is not that these ideas must be right – I am sure that even the best of them could use improvement, and the worst of them may be entirely incorrect. That is not the main point, which is considerably more basic: the only way in which we save this world is if we unpack the Torah so it can speak to each person who looks to find meaning in their lives and in this world.

Our other beliefs, of course, are also sometimes part of the problem. We have, to take two prime examples, the “superhero” Moshiach problem, and the “Olam Habah” problem.

The SuperHero Problem

Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than any mere mortal? People instinctively love the idea of superheroes, because people fear risk. Superheroes allow us to be passive, to cheer from the sidelines instead of taking the field.

Other societies take the idea of the superhero to even greater lengths, of course. Christianity’s superhero literally suffers for and atones for everyone’s sins. One result of this kind of superhero is that Christians are inherently more passive, uncreative, and risk-averse than are Jews.

Judaism has its own superheroes. One of the most obvious was the golem of medieval Prague, capable of doing things that mere mortals could not.

The ultimate Jewish superhero is, of course, Moshiach. The vast majority of observant Jewry believes that if they follow the mitzvos, then at some point, Moshiach will come and set the whole world straight, and all will be good. It sounds very nice – a deus ex machina at the end of days.

But if this is really how events are supposed to play out, then why doesn’t the Torah say so? Why, instead, does it keep insisting that we are responsible for ourselves and our world?

We know what happens when we refuse to engage with evil, when we do not take responsibility for the problems in the world: evil wins. Hitlers and Stalins and North Korea and Iran happen. Hashem does not stop these horrific events or the bad men or ideologies who are behind them; the task is ours, whether we embrace it or not.

The Torah makes it abundantly clear that it is the Jewish people who are to spread Torah in the world in both word and deed. The commandment to eradicate Amalek does not fall to our heroes or even to Moshiach: it falls on each and every one of us.

The Olam Habah Problem

Some claim that the reason the Torah itself never mentions Olam Habah, or indeed any afterworld at all, is because we are not meant to live our lives for the purposes of any world but this one. The Torah is a guide to life – not planning for death.

Nevertheless, it is quite common to hear people explain that they expect their reward in olam habah, the world to come. And because of hopes for a reward in olam habah, they can bear whatever suffering comes their way.

There are two key aspects to the olam habah perspective that are concerning. The first is, of course, that someone who has olam habah in mind is not actually living in, and for, the world we inhabit together.

The very fixation on Olam Habah leads to passivity, the belief that whatever Hashem sends our way is something we should accept “for the sake of the next world.” And so people risk less, and suffer more, but do so secure in the knowledge that it surely will work out for them eventually – even though believing in fate or destiny is not commanded at or suggested in the Torah itself. Our greatest leaders did not accept G-d even at His own word – Avraham and Moshe argue with G-d, and often even changed His mind. They set the tone for resistance to the idea of a divinely-set Fate. We should be following their example.

The second is the problem of selfishness. So many of our mitzvos have to do with caring for others, for gratitude and appreciation towards other people as well as toward Hashem. Whether this is done in a marriage or as aids for all of society, the Torah does not seem to see people as hermits in individual bubbles. People are meant to interact, to build holy families and communities and even nations.

Yet Olam Habah seems to be a place of individual reward. It is a strange idea that a lifetime of being involved with others should come with a reward that is unique for a single neshama.

Together, the Superhero and Olam Habah problems make it much harder to spread Torah into the world.

Comments are welcome!

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