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Friday, September 17, 2010

Insight 5771-02: Communal Teshuva

For Yom Kippur

Not yet available on the Nishma website.


  1. I believe that my words in the Insight need further explanation.

    In referring to a collective Jewish consciousness that focuses on form, I am obviously referring to an emphasis on action rather than thought. The challenge is, of course, that Halacha in itself focuses on action -- so how can a collective Jewish consciousness focusing on form, i.e. action, be problematic? The answer may lie in a distinction offered by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger between the Vilna Gaon (i.e. Mitnagdim)and the Baal Shem Tov (i.e. Chassidim) in regard to the generic religious drive found in all human beings.

    The Gaon discounted this drive or feeling as having no real spiritual value; how can a person feel God through the senses of this world? The Gaon contented that this emotional drive that was categorized as religious or spiritual does not really have this value. Human beings cannot feel close to God. The spritual nature of God cannot be felt by the physcial human. The only way a human being can be close to God is in through the observance of mitzvot and we know this because God told us so. It is not something we feel -- in fact any emotion is irrelevant.

    The Besht believed otherwise. He maintained that there was a value in the generic desire of human beings to reach for God and indeed there is a spiritual value in what human beings feel in this regard. Our emotions, and developed consciousness, are not irrelevant. It is within this focus that we have to consider the state of our Jewish consciousness. If we describe the actions of Torah within the framework of the Gra, indeed action, the form of Halacha, is the sole basis of a Jewish consciousness. It is, though, a consciousness that is totally defined by the action. An intermarriage, for example, is Jewishly problematic because the Halacha defines it as such. Any further development of a consciousness in this regard is irrelevant. The challenge is that we do not solely apply such a standard of consciousness. We try to find meaning, emotion, expression in our Jewishness. We may lean towards the view of the Besht. Yet, in the development of this consciousness we are leaving the realm of form, of action -- and that is the challenge we now face.

    (continued in next comment)

  2. An Orthodox individual who wishes to define his/her Jewishness solely through action, indeed, faces no problems. The actions do define Jewishness -- solely pursuant to the view of the Gra. But once an individual attempts to give a further meaning to an action, he leaves that realm -- and therein lies the potential problem. In developing a further understanding of Jewishness beyond the action itself, there is a potential for the new idea or meaning to, at some point, challenge the defined action itself. That is the dilemma that we may now be facing and this may be perceived in the perceptions of Rabbi Ponet. Rabbi Ponet is a Reform rabbi who, over the years, has adopted a very traditional lifestyle. He is not Orthodox and he openly admits to not fully being bound by the Halacha -- as such the view of the Gra would not be applicable to him Yet his observance of Halacha does indicate that the expressions of Jewishness that have been presented to him by his Orthodox teachers has touched him to the effect that he became more and more observant. This is precisely the point. We, the Orthodox world, has presented a Jewish collective consciousness that has encouraged halachic observance. We gave meaning to the actions of Halacha, both for ourselves and in reaching out to the world to advance the performance of mitzvot. It is this collective consciousness that is now being challenged. We may have said that Torah was solely about the actions but in reality we gave a meaning to these actions and, as such, defined Torah beyond these actions. We effectively were stating that there was a meaning to Jewishness and that mitzvot were the action manifestation of this meaning. What Rabbi Ponet basically argued was that this meaning of Jewishness -- one that he gained, to some extent, from Orthodox teachers -- would now be served, to some extent, outside the realm of Halacha, i.e., in this case, through Jewish expression in an intermarriage. The call in my Insight is to investigate this meaning of Jewishness, the collective consciousness of Jewishness, that we imparted to the world especially in the last few decades that could have resulted in such a conclusion. Not being bound by the full parameters of Halacha, this may still be a reflection of the collective Jewish consciousness accepted by Rabbi Ponet. As Orthodox individuals, we do not have that option -- yet we have to accept the responsibility that Rabbi Ponet's present view was heavily influenced by Orthodox individuals and, as such, if such a conclusion could have been reached, we must look at ourselves to find how such a perception or stand could have developed.

    (continued in next comment)

  3. This is where a Jewishness, as we perceive it, being defined by action alone could yield challenges. In the world of the Gaon, there is no problem because indeed Jewishness is solely defined by the Halacha. There is nothing else -- just Halacha and action. Yet, we do not operate in that world. We do define Jewishness as an entity outside of action and then turn to action to express the uniqueness of this Jewishness. For example, we may state that Jewishness includes an expression of spirituality -- and that the uniqueness of Jewishness is in the actions undertaken to express this emotion of spirituality. The result is that we, in many ways, are just like anyone else -- the distinction is indeed only in form. Again, for example, Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mezvinsky may actually share may concepts, ideas, values and perceptions; the distinction of their faiths is simply how they may express them. This is the expression of action, which take on a value of form not substance. An intermarriage can actually work on this level because there is no real distinction in the substance of life's meaning and purpose -- the only distinction being in the form undertaken to reach this purpose. Mark's tallis simply becomes his way of expressing a value that is really shared by both of them. Such an action indeed is only form.

    The call must be to find, if we do wish to find a meaning of Jewishness beyond the solitary actions of the Halacha (and, as one committed to the study of Hashkafa, I believe it is important that we do), we have to not solely define our uniqueness by form, i.e. action. We must not just describe how an action expresses a certain value but we must also declare that just as this action is unique, the value it is expressing is also unique. And even when the action is not so unique, we must always strive to understand and define the uniqueness of our substance. We have to think differently and make it clear that our concepts, ideas, values and perceptions are different. Our argument against intermarriage cannot be because we do things differently. It has to be because we think differently and an attempt at marriage where the two parties occupy different head spaces is inherently problematic.

    Of course, the challenge of intermarriage is not why we have to develop this Jewish consciousness that defines us substantially as unique. It must be recognized in the very description of our nation as goy echad b'aretz, one, i.e a unique, nation on Earth. It is not because we act differently. It is because we think differently. Jewishness is more than form. It is a staement of substance.

    Rabbi Ben Hecht