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December 2, 2016 3:30 am

The Past, Present and Future of the Jews

avatar by Harry Zeitlin

Email a copy of "The Past, Present and Future of the Jews" to a friend
Jewish men at a wedding ceremony, Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Jewish men at a wedding ceremony, Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Ki Ani Hashem Lo Shaniti (Malachi 3:6), “Because I am God, I do not change.” A close reading of the very final words of the official prophetic era indicates that absolutely everything except The Creator is subject to change.

Judaism and the Jewish people have lived and evolved in several distinct periods and modalities (often with transitions where two or more modes existed concurrently). Traditionally, we trace the transition from a close family/clan — the age of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov — through Egyptian slavery, to a nation as we left Egypt. From a wandering band in the desert to a sovereign nation in our own land, culminating in the era of Prophets, Kings and the First Temple. From the Babylonian captivity to the Return and the Second Temple to the almost-two-millennia Diaspora. And now, today, from the seeming-endless exile to Jewish sovereignty, with approaching a majority of the world’s Jews, in our indigenous and eternal land.

Although The Creator, and by extension, the Torah, are unchanging, our ways of attaching ourselves to Him, by means of our relationship with the complex, yet eternal mitzvot (“commandments” is a barely minimal translation, which obscures much of the word’s true essence) has, quite obviously, demonstrably and uncontroversially, been expressed by a number of modalities, some gradual developments from an earlier form, but some quite abrupt phase changes. Although the stock example is the switch from the ritual animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple to the rabbinic study of same once the Temple was destroyed, that was not a singularity.

Although Judaism does, indeed, exist today both in the Diaspora and in the land of Israel, these two forms of Jewish practice/observance/life are, relatively in an historical sense, rapidly diverging. Although both modes are the means for the people as a whole and individual Jews to forge and reinforce our intimate relationships with God, they differ in more than mere custom (such as one-day/two-day holiday observance), but in goal and purpose.

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Throughout the long centuries of exile, our unique survival as an intact people, something unknown to the rest of humanity, depended in an empirical sense on our religious observance and our stubborn adherence to it. As the cliché goes, “More than the Jewish people kept Shabbat (v’Shamru Bnei Yisrael et Hashabbat (Shemot 31:16), Shabbat kept the Jewish people.”

Many of our laws and rituals could be described as “defensive,” as a “circle the wagons” relationship with the surrounding, non-Jewish cultures among which we lived. One could say that Jewish survival in frequently hostile environments was the first, and not infrequently only, priority. After all, there is no Torah observance if there are no Jews to follow its paths.

While we were minimally, at best of times, equipped to combat physical threats, our leaders clearly saw that the greater danger to our future was run-away assimilation. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on rules and rituals that forcibly separated us from our neighbors. Discouraged by kashrut laws to eat and drink with them, social interactions were minimized. Isolating ourselves within our own communities once a week on Shabbat also forced us to keep to ourselves. Obviously, all our mitzvot also contained paths towards individual and communal spiritual development and intimate attachment to God, which I argue were almost luxuries in determining halacha.

Today, in the land of Israel, we have not only an historic opportunity, but a transcendent responsibility. As longed for over countless generations, as mandated from our earliest days, as a theme repeating throughout our Prophetic period, rabbinic teachings beginning with the Talmud, the vast literatures of halacha, machshava (philosophy), kabbalah (mystical/spiritual exercise), chassidut and mussar (morality), perhaps culminating in the relatively recent writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, we are to be not merely a light unto the nations, but to usher in the ultimate redemption, with all of creation reaching its highest potential.

Though this may sound pretentious, it is only the case for those of us who have lost the dream, the vision of what our destiny is and what our potential for good in the world can be. However, to begin work towards that goal, we in Israel need to recognize that our change is not merely geographical. Even though the details have yet to be understood/revealed, our relationship with Torah and our participation in mitzvot need to be re-calibrated towards this goal of redemption. While of course, not everyone in Israel is “religious,” or even Jewish, the gradual self-destruction of radical assimilation is no longer a threat here, and combating it is no longer the primary goal of our lives as Jews.

Mitzvot are the only path we have to reach this goal, but, just as halacha has adapted throughout our history to respond to changes in our situations, the way we perform many mitzvot will not be the way we have in our most recent places of exile. This requires letting go of the past mode of fighting assimilation and finding the courage to discover how we can perform our mitzvot, perhaps in entirely new ways, to power our journey from here to the reality that we’ve yet to experience. We also need the courage to believe that all of the talk of redemption wasn’t merely a placebo to help us endure and survive the millennia of pain and torture, but that it describes an actual reality and promise to achieve it.

While the array of minhagim (customs), nusachot (liturgies), niggunim (melodies), cuisines and more which make up the cultural fabric of our people add beauty and richness, if we are to move forward, they must yield normative authority and power-of-obligation to make room for what is to come.

Herein lies another great challenge. Since we don’t yet know what forms all of the above will take, can we find the courage to let go of the security blankets of our past — successful as they were — before we’ve found something new to grasp hold of? Without certainty that there will be “smooth sailing” — in fact, with certainty that there will be difficult, unknown and terrifying challenges — must we or can we depend on the emergence of a new generation of leaders, scholars, teachers and visionaries to blaze the trail?

Although there are limitless lessons to learn from our past leaders, perhaps even without a new one, we in all our diversity, can rise to the challenge of bringing the ultimate redemption not only to our people, but to the universe as a whole.

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