The halakha – Jewish law - has always epitomized the Jewish norm. The “Jewish” behavioral blueprint is defined in the books of halakha, and the Jew who wishes to live a full Jewish life subordinates himself to the 613 mitzvot. In the same way that observing the Torah's commandments embodies the Jewish norm, Torah study embodies religious excellence. Over the past 2,000 years, the cultural hero put forth by Jewish tradition was the scholar – the talmid chacham. The Jewish individual expresses his belonging to the Jewish community by means of the halakha, while the wish to strive toward Jewish excellence is expressed in making Torah study a priority.
Jewish history is full of frequent attempts to defiantly challenge halakha as a basis of the Jewish norm, from Christianity to Sabbateanism. Accordingly, our history has also seen backlashes against the view that holds Torah study as the exclusive model of “religious excellence.” Creators of the Halakhhic literature in ancient times posited the mystic as the spiritual alternative to the scholar. In the modern era the Mussar movement held up the virtuous as the paragon, while in Chassidism, it was the devout individual. Still, the ideal of the intellectual archetype seems to have rebuffed these counterattacks, leaving the status of the talmid chacham intact as the outstanding representative of religious excellence in the Jewish tradition.
The Zionist idea had the objective of fomenting a double revolution: dissociation from the Halakhic-religious norm and institution of a new model of Jewish excellence, one that would replace Torah study. The aspiration of the Jew would no longer be to excel in Torah, but rather in power and strength. In place of dominance of Talmud, the new prototypical Jew would dominate land; in lieu of a Torah war, he would fight the national war.
One of the critical phenomena in current Israeli society reflects the extremely significant historic synthesis between secular Zionism and Jewish tradition. Its progenitors continue to repudiate halakha as the Jewish norm, although there are attempts to see Torah study as a fulfillment of the aspiration for Jewish distinction. The innovative beit midrash programs that are being established throughout Israel, and which are drawing a large public of devotees, embody an important and original paradox. The Torah does not define the Jewish norm, but familiarity with it makes it possible to give expression to Jewish excellence. This, then, is the synthesis: The secular Zionist spirit continues to define the norm; Jewish tradition points the way to realization of excellence.
This raises a complex philosophical question. A society in which it is customary to observe the laws of the Torah is one that grants importance to the leading scholars of the Torah. However, what is the meaning of raising a talmid chacham who knows the deepest lessons and secrets of the Torah, in a society that does not uphold halakha? What value does the student of Torah have in a society that does not observe what is written in it?
The love for Torah is a basis of our language's existence.
At one time, the source of this love was faith.
Now, the source of it is nationalism (Ahad Ha'am, Letters II)
The failure of secularism
Not all of the Zionist thinkers aspired to repudiate the scholarly archetype. The theological roots of the revolution that is now underway in Israeli society may be found in the philosophy of Ahad Ha'am. Ahad Ha'am sought to preserve the lofty status of the masterpieces of Jewish tradition. In the dream of Ahad Ha'am, scholarliness is not renounced by secularism; even after faith is abandoned, members of the Jewish nation would continue to engage in Torah study. As the Midrash put it, “Would that they had left Me and kept My Torah.” However, the ignorance that permeates Israeli society reflects the failure of Ahad Ha'am's vision. Ignorance and superficiality have triumphed over the deep, reflective secularism. It is possible that we are now witnessing a renaissance of the vision of Ahad Ha'am.
The great works of Jewish literature, such as the Scriptures, the Talmud, Jewish philosophy and the Kabbala, draw their value, according to tradition, from their linkage to revelation. The assumption that all of these works are the result, near or far, of divine revelation is what invests them with authority and status. According to Ahad Ha'am, these works should not be seen as the revelation of the Jewish God, but the revelation of the Jewish people. The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds are the authentic expression of the national spirit; philosophy and Kabbala embody the finest of Jewish wisdom. The change in status of the sacred literature – from divine creation to creation of the nation – does not take away from the commitment to learn them. On the contrary, this change is supposed to establish a new type of scholarly zeal/passion. When a Jew learns Torah, the Jewish wisdom amassed in the national literature is revealed to him. The motivation to study Torah is from now on national, not religious. This philosophical perception can serve as a common platform for a scholarly encounter between religious and secular Israelis. Both sides burn with the zeal for Torah study; for the religious, it is a religious zeal/passion, for the secular it is a patriotic passion, but the text is the same text. The sacred literature, which in Israeli society constitutes an abyss between the sides, can thus become a bridge between them.
Secular and the religious alike learn the text in order to be changed by it. But while the religious Jew learns Torah in order to obey, the secular Jew learns it in order to contain within his world the voices that break forth from the deepest recesses of tradition, and to authentically decide how to enable them to shape his or her world. The religious person sees the sacred text as monologue; on the other hand, the secular person carries on a dialogue with it. There is a yawning chasm between them. When the text is interpreted as monologue, the individual's role is subjugation to the text. He has to concede his world, thoughts and desires to the will that arises from the text. Herein lies the power of tradition, says Yeshayahu Leibowitz. Herein lies its weakness, say the Zionist thinkers, who argue that tradition dwarfs the spirit of the individual who submits him or herself to it. Conversely, when the text carries on a dialogue with the reader, the individual is not dwarfed to its dimensions, but preserves his subjective world as he embraces the text. The encounter between the two does not swallow up the student but empowers him, freeing the individual who is locked into his world and enabling him to move beyond his own boundaries, powered and inspired by the wisdom of generations of Jewish scholars. Ahad Ha'am wished for a society without a legalistic relationship to the sacred literature, one that would well forth naturally from talmid chachams who had mastered its secrets. From his writings, one may educe a model that neatly describes the part that Torah scholars should play in a society that does not keep the Torah, one that mediates between traditional scholarly excellence and the “rebellious” secular norm.
Secularism failed. It was unable to produce talmid chachams fluent in the sacred literature, attentive to the voices hidden in them, spurning some and espousing others, and incorporating them into the Israeli public discourse. The Israeli Jew deserted the texts. In his wretched state, he is not even capable of offering a coherent criticism of tradition. The aspiration to rebel against religiosity ended in the abandonment of secularism. The processes that are now taking place in Israeli society reflect a deep yearning to awaken secularism from its deep slumber. Many Israelis are interested in studying Torah not in order to become religious, but in order to become secular. To become human beings who grow from the encounter with tradition without being threatened that their personalities might shrink to the dimensions of halakha. This spirit is embodied in the beit midrash programs that are cropping up throughout Israel, and that herald the revival of Ahad Ha'am's spirit.
Thus far, we have referred to the secular ideal and the religious "real" as expressed in the present. Yet in my estimate, the difference in the secular perception of the text, as posited by Ahad Ha'am, and the perception of the text by the religious person, as reflected in the Talmudic literature, is insignificant. Based on a comparison of the ideal models of these two archetypes, the gap between the realistic religious Jew and the realistic secular Jew may in fact be shrinking. This observation arises from the analysis of the Halakhic Man, as represented in the world of the Talmudic sages, made by one of the most important theologians of our times, David Hartman.
Through his sophisticated homiletic interpretative techniques, the Sage seemingly gained dominance over the text. (David Hartman, “A Living Covenant From Sinai to Zion”.)
The Victory of Beit Shammai
“How should one dance before the bride? Beit Shammai says [one should dance and sing about] each bride as she is, and Beit Hillel says, [to use the standard text, i.e.] ‘A beautiful and gracious bride.' Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: If she is lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride?' After all, the Torah says ‘Keep yourself far from a false matter.' Beit Hillel challenged Beit Shammai: 'According to your opinion if someone has made a bad purchase in the market should [his friend who sees it] praise it in his eyes or criticize it? Surely, he should praise it!'" (Tractate Ketubot, 17a).
We have before us a difference of opinion as regards the desirable response of a person in a very human situation. There is a mitzvah to compliment the groom on his bride's beauty; but what if she is not that beautiful? According to Beit Hillel, one should lie and compliment him. According to Beit Shammai, anyone who does so is transgressing a command from the Torah “Keep yourself far from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7), and one should therefore adhere to the truth and not compliment the groom on his day of joy. While Beit Shammai draws proof from the Torah, Beit Hillel draws proof from common sense. According to Beit Hillel, common sense is sufficient to counterbalance a verse of the Torah. The hidden assumption here is that the human conscience carries a weight equal to that of the scriptural verse.
The idea that the human conscience does not automatically have to subjugate itself to the revealed word but can measure up to it originates with our Patriarch Abraham, in the story of Sodom, which carries special significance in the Talmudic literature. As David Hartman demonstrated, we can understand the immense interpretive freedom demonstrated by the Sages in the discussions of the Talmud and the Midrash only if we assume that the object of the interpretive effort is not to elucidate the knowledge transmitted in revelation, but to establish the significance of this knowledge. Therefore, the interpretative enterprise invites the learner to take part in the creation of Jewish law. This is the heart of Beit Hillel's victory. We must not subjugate our subjective world to the text; we must bring our world to it. The independent spirit of the student should not fade as he contemplates the verses; on the contrary, he must shape their meaning. The Talmudic hero differs from the hero spawned by the yeshiva culture in the modern era. As the historian Jacob Katz has argued, the greatest innovation of modern Orthodoxy is de-legitimization of innovation. The idea that anything new is forbidden by the Torah is itself an idea that is not new. But the innovative Talmudic spirit that overrode it has vanished, and the path of Beit Shammai, which was in the Talmud shunted to the sidelines, has taken center stage in the modern era.
Contemporary secularism abandoned the path of Ahad Ha'am and Bialik; contemporary religiosity abandoned the path of Abbaye and Raba. The return to traditional secularism and to traditional religiosity would create the infrastructure for a joint beit midrash, in which either side would build its world in the light of the sacred literature and in a profound dialogue with the text. The return to the Talmud, in tandem with a revival of the spirit of Ahad Ha'am, is the most important educational and spiritual objective facing Israeli society as it strives for renewal in our generation.
The study of Torah, Halakha, Aggadah, pilpul [a dialectical method of Talmudic study] and every word of Torah brings into our souls the light that may be found in the life of Israeliness (Rabbi Kook, “Orot Hatorah”)
An Israeli beit midrash
In the summer of 1998, thousands of young university students went out into the streets, with the aim of generating change in Israeli society. The leader of this movement, Erez Eshel, dreamed in those days that the new student spirit would succeed in expressing a new Israeli idealism that would break down the apathy that has permeated society in recent decades. Israeli society is a society engaged in a search; the energy of this search burst out in that student protest. The call for significant change reverberated through the air, the desire for a better Israel was a desire that suddenly, even in cynical Israel, people were not embarrassed to express.
Although the struggle did not ultimately succeed in extending beyond the narrow boundaries of the students' interests, Eshel says, “The spirit of the struggle sowed a belief in the vitality that exists, but is usually dormant, in Israeli society.” Since then, Eshel has made efforts to rouse this spirit, not by charismatic revolutionary means but through graduated educational processes: evolution, not revolution. The inability of the struggle to rise above concern for the students' narrow interests convinced Eshel that change in Israeli society must be generated in informal educational frameworks. Over the past few years he has established pre-army preparatory programs throughout Israel. I met him five years ago, when he was founding the pre-army preparatory program in Kfar Adumim. Three years ago, we together established a new Israeli beit midrash, with the aim of tapping into the searching energies now stirring in Israeli society – the Israeli Academy for Leadership.
The effort of establishing this beit midrash parallels the pursuit of my own academic life. Essentially, in the past few years I have had the good fortune to be part of two frameworks that engage in the study of Jewish tradition, study that is not limited to any one profile: the university and the leadership academy. In both places, religious and secular men and women learn together, but there is nevertheless a great difference between them. As a university lecturer, my role is to mediate between students and knowledge in a phenomenological manner. In the same way that a zoologist can teach about the effect of paving new roads on the lifespan of foxes, a researcher in the field of Jewish philosophy can lecture on the effect of the Crusades on the philosophy of Ashkenazic Hassidism. The question of identification with the subject matter is not an academic question, which is how it should be. Conversely, in the yeshiva world, identification with the syllabus is inherent to the study. The accomplishment of the student who learns Mesilat Yesharim or The Kuzari is not reduced to an understanding of the text, but is reflected in the internalization of their contents. The question is not only how The Kuzari expands the student's knowledge base, but mainly how it upgrades his faith.
Conversely, at the Israeli Academy for Leadership, we are seeking to set a new prototype, one that is inspired by the yeshiva and the university alike. The object of study extends beyond gaining familiarity with the content; but in contrast to yeshiva students, students at the academy do not necessarily learn in order to obey. They learn in order to expand their spiritual world and their personality strengths. We seek to foster an ability to embrace texts that are capable of sparking inspiration, while not necessarily viewing them as a source of authority. It is not the function of the texts to place the reader under their authority, or to subjugate him to what is written in them. Our object is to enable texts from the sacred literature to expand the student's subjective world and make it possible for him to articulate his own private world through dialogue with the traditional texts. The academy embodies the experience that has transpired in Israeli society in the past decade: revival of the spirit of Ahad Ha'am, and renewal of the dialogue with tradition, out of motives that are not necessarily halakha-based.
The need for a new type of beit midrash is as imperative for secular Israelis as much as it is for the religious. The yeshiva world, in which fidelity to the Talmud is expressed in study of the Talmud without its spirit of dialogue, is not the Talmudic world. Freedom of thought should not fall victim to the staunch observance of halakha for which I, as a religious person, advocate. Moreover, the yeshiva curriculum that was composed in Volozhin in the 19th century continues to shape the academic agenda in the yeshiva world today. The intellectual agenda in these institutions is blind to the cultural, scientific and political changes that the world, and the Jewish world in particular, has seen in the past century. The yeshiva student who learns only Talmud and the early commentators may be able to function in the Jewish society of Lithuania of the 19th century, but he is irrelevant in Israeli society of the 21st century. The secular Jews may have forsaken the vision of the 19th century thinkers, but the religious Jews are still locked up and secluded in the same century.
In the Beit Midrash that we founded, we are striving to shape a new scholarly agenda, one that is compatible with the spiritual needs of Israeli society, in order that it spawn talmid chachams capable of addressing the fundamental dilemmas of Israeliness. The religious individual who is seriously committed to halakha will be exposed to a new curriculum that, aside from Talmud, Bible and Jewish philosophy, also includes general philosophy, classical literature and political thought. In addition to Talmudic erudition, the new student will have a deep understanding of philosophical categories, scriptural idiom and poetic language. The broad horizons and strength of character of the Halakhic individual will instill in him the confidence to stand before Jewish tradition and not be swallowed up into it. Rather, he will be built up from it. Through the reinforcement and broadening of the student's world, we can once again carry on a dialogue with the Torah.
Israeli society is locked into a degenerative dichotomy between “religious” and “secular.” These coarse categories are the instruments with which society judges the behavior of its members. A secular Israeli who learns Torah, or who expresses his Jewish belonging through the practice of some ritual, is considered as having begun a process of “returning to Orthodoxy.” By the same token, a religious Israeli who renounces the observance of a certain mitzvah is seen as having taken a slippery slope that will lead to “un-seriousness” and from there to secularism. When our sole categories are “religious” and “secular” there is no room for a secular Jew to express his connection to Judaism without it being interpreted as part of a process of exchange of sociological identity. This artificial division arrests spiritual processes that might take place were it not for our adherence to these vile categories. The new “secular” talmid chacham offers a different model of secularism, in the same way that the “new” religious talmid chacham offers a different model of religiosity. The affinity between the two may be greater than that existing between them and the societies in which they were raised: the religious society that forsook the Talmud, and the secular society that abandoned profound secularism.
Essentially, these students are, sociologically speaking, no longer religious and no longer secular. They represent a new Israeli phenomenon that is the herald of an important spiritual awakening. On second glance, however, there is not that much new about it: we are witnessing a reversion to the oldest model of all. The traditional secular model described by Ahad Ha'am is once again shaping the secular agenda. It is our earnest hope that this return will reaffirm the path of Beit Hillel, acting to restore and reshape the religious agenda, in the sense of: “Is there a thing of which it is said: ‘See, this is new'? – it has been already, in the ages that were before us.” (Ecclesiastes 1:10)