5 Chapter 5. Contemporary Problems in Judaism

 1. Running off the Road in our Century: the Religious Inadequacy of the Judaism of Galut for Life in Israel

We will now turn our analysis to a second turning point in Jewish history: the present day. Let us examine the problems of the past hundred years.

The twentieth century saw a sharp turn in the reverse direction from that of the second century. Thanks to the Zionist movement and the creation of the State of Israel, the Jewish national dialogue with God has been revived. As a result of this, just as before, many “big, heavy trucks” veered off the road. Only a very few of the great rabbis of the beginning of the twentieth century supported the Zionist movement, and almost none understood its essence. There were, of course, some who supported it and who even initiated the idea of a return to Israel (Rabbis Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, Yehudah Ben Shlomo Chai Alkalai, and Samuel Mohliver). There were also those who opposed it. But for the most part, the religious establishment at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries was in confusion and did not know how to react to this unprecedented phenomenon. Rabbi Kook and, to some extent, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik were among the few who were able to grasp not only the practical, but the spiritual meaning of Zionism, and they laid the foundation for what is now known as Modern Orthodoxy. In this sense, they were able to round the bend, while many other great scholars of the Torah were not. Within Orthodox Judaism, there was a division between the Haredim, who recognize no change of direction, and who believe Judaism should continue to follow the course it took in Galut, and the Religious Zionists.

(To be more precise, it may be noted that today many strands of Haredim in Israel, often in opposition to the Haredi establishment, are gradually turning towards Zionism. However, this is a long, complicated social and religious process, which demands a separate discussion.)

The fact that the main body of Haredim does not recognize this dramatic change in the world, in Jewish life, and in the Jewish dialogue with God is the root of the major problem faced by them in Israel: their religion is inadequate to address the surrounding reality. (We note that the first impression a nonreligious person has upon seeing the Haredim is that they are not adapted to the modern world. However, we are examining this lack of adaptation not in the everyday, but in the religious sense.)

Before continuing this analysis, I would like to emphasize that it would be entirely incorrect to mistake any of my critical observations for a rejection of the value system of this religious group. On the contrary, the Haredim have a great many virtues, and, to some extent, I believe that the religious Zionists have much to learn from them. Therefore, the critique which follows addresses specifically the problem of the inadequacy of their religion in those situations where it must address not classical problems, which have existed unchanged for two or four hundred years, but contemporary ones. These are problems of reconciling religion with science, with the values of today’s culture and civilization and, above all, with the entire national, social and spiritual complex of problems pertaining to the State of Israel and the gradual rebirth over the last 100 years of independent Jewish life in the Holy Land.

As an example of this inadequacy, let us examine the position taken by several of the major religious leaders of the Haredim in the 1970s and 1980s regarding the Halakhic approach to the question of the territories of Judea, and Samaria.

As we know, after the Six Day War, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, which the Israeli media preferred to lump together under the impersonal term “the territories,” were under Israeli control. The media suggested that by holding the territories, we were exposing our soldiers to danger. As the situation was presented, we were faced with a choice between possession of the territories and a threat to lives. Therefore, it was suggested, we had best return the territories and avoid the risk. The value of life was to be weighed against the value of the territories. This dichotomy took hold in the general consciousness. Those on the left advocated giving away the territories to protect lives; those on the right, advocated holding onto them at the risk of lives. (In reality, of course, there was no such dichotomy, and at the end of the 1990s it was clearly demonstrated that it was not keeping the territories, but attempting to give up them that would result in terrorism, creating far more danger to many more lives. However, in the 1970s, this had not yet been shown in practice.) The majority of rabbis took the right-wing position, saying that the territories were the most important historic and religious part of the Land of Israel, that through them we were linked with our Jewish history and with God, and that they must not be sacrificed. Almost all those who advocated giving them away were antireligious.

In this situation, the religious leaders of the Haredim argued that according to the Talmud, there are only three commandments that take precedence over life (in other words, that must not be broken even under threat of death): the prohibitions against killing, idol worship, and incest and adultery. In all other cases, preserving life is more important than adhering to the commandment. The commandment to dwell in the Land of Israel, important as it is, is not among these three. Therefore, they said, life is of greater value than the territories, and if holding them poses a risk, they must be given away.

At first the leftists seized upon this declaration, rejoicing. They pointed out that here were rabbis calling for peace, for the return of the territories. But they quickly realized that while they used the word “territories” in the political sense, referring to the lands occupied by Israel since 1967, according the religious ideas of the Haredim it must be extended to all “territory” in the State of Israel. If the principle were true under Halakha, then it must be applied not only to Judea and Samaria, but to Jerusalem, Haifa, and Tel-Aviv. In fact, if we proclaim life more precious than territory, then we cannot retain any piece of the Land of Israel, as doing so would always entail a risk to soldiers’ lives. The only thing to do would be to give away the entire country as fast as possible and leave. In other words, we could not keep even the part of the country that the majority of leftists would not wish to cede. The leftists quickly silenced their enthusiasm for this Halakhic ruling.

But let us put aside the political implications of this principle, and return to its essence. If there are in fact only three commandments for which life can be risked, then we cannot have our state at all: under any circumstances it would have to be protected at the risk of soldiers’ lives.

(Later, several of these rabbis changed their views and stated that, as we have observed that ceding territories leads to terrorism, we must not give them away, again in light of the danger to lives. But this shift was brought about by political circumstances; there was no essential change in the Halakhic principle.)

Those rabbis who adhered to religious Zionism immediately pointed out that this Halakhic analysis was inadequate, as the Talmud, identifying three commandments that take precedence over life, refers only to commandments addressed toward individuals. In individual life, there are indeed only three such laws; but the commandment to keep the Land of Israel is not an individual, but a national one, and the risk to soldiers’ lives is inherent in it.[1] It is not included among the three discussed in the Talmud because the Talmud, as a rule, is concerned with the individual aspects of Judaism.

To this, the Haredi rabbis respond: “We studied at the very best yeshivas, our teachers studied with the very best teachers, and their teachers with the wisest men of the last generation, and nobody ever said such a thing.” And they are right. Only Rabbi Kook noted the distinction between individual and national commandments. For many centuries before him, no such analysis was carried out. Although “dwell in the Land of Israel” was numbered among the commandments, it was not studied in detail. And although it is obvious that if such a commandment exists, it will be necessary to fight and risk life to fulfill it, in all the centuries of exile, this question was never discussed at the formal Halakhic level.

In other words, we see that the Halakhic analysis of this question was carried out according to all of the formal rules, yet it is inadequate to the actual situation. Arising from the norms of Judaism in Galut, it fails to take into account the real political life of the Jewish State of Israel today. This is at the root of the religious inadequacy of the main body of Haredi thought.

Of course, the majority of traditionalist (particularly Sephardic) Jews, recognizing the authority of the Haredi rabbis, still serve in the Israeli army, risking their lives for the country. And if they were to be asked whether, in light of Halakha, they must really risk their lives thus, they would answer: “Of course! Who else will defend Israel?” They do not ponder the fact that the Talmud names only three commandments worth risking one’s life to fulfill because, to use our earlier analogy, they are small, light cars, not overburdened with knowledge and the certainty of their ability to make a decision based on thorough knowledge of Halakha.

The “average” religious person is focused not on a book but on real life, and has a natural (and usually correct) intuitive reaction to the problems surrounding him. And because he does not believe he knows everything, he does not draw conclusions based on a book he has read or a phrase from the Talmud that contradicts what he sees in the life around him. Only an overeducated person, who believes himself to know all, can draw from the Talmud conclusions so far-fetched that he runs himself off the road.

This is a typical illustration of the fact that what occurred in the second century is repeating itself today, at an analogous turning point in Jewish life.

2. The Problem of Applying Halakha
to National Questions

Note that the problem discussed above is, unfortunately, not a private one. It is not simply a matter of the inadequacies of Haredi Judaism, but a much broader issue.

If we take note of the dates of Halakhic literature (that is, literature that breaks down the law in detail) we see that it was nearly all written during the second era in Jewish history, in the time of Galut. A possible exception is the Mishna, which was begun during the period of the Second Temple, but which took its final form during the period of transition between the first and second eras. Therefore, almost all Halakhic literature, like nearly everything created by Jews in Galut, pertains only to the individual commandments. For this reason, we know a great deal about the details of Halakha regarding the individual commandments, but very little regarding the nationally oriented ones.

Let us examine the following illustration. What does the Jewish tradition say about the prohibition against mixing milk with meat? The Torah contains only one verse on the subject, repeated three times: “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” The oral tradition explains that the repetition of the commandment represents three separate prohibitions: against cooking, eating, and use. The sages added to this the separation of dishes. That is the entire history of the matter. How, then, does Halakhic literature end up with countless volumes on the problem of the separation of milk from meat? What do they all say? They discuss such cases as what to do if a milk spoon falls into a meat pot – can it be made kosher, and how? In other words, the greater part of Halakha is devoted to post-factum problem solving – responding to situations that fall short of the ideal. The ideal separation of milk and meat is described in four principles: do not cook, use, or eat meat and milk together, and keep separate dishes. It is the non-ideal situation that is the subject of volumes.

However, such detailed analysis was undertaken by the Jewish tradition only for the individual commandments, as only they were being carried out and observed during the period of exile, so questions arose regarding them. As for the national commandments, the Jewish tradition at best described only their ideal observance; there was no discussion of how to approach them in a less than perfect situation.

Let us assume (although this is far from evident) that we know what the ideal Israeli government should be: fully observant of the commandments, with a king, a Temple, etc. What, then, is to be done about the fact that we do not have such a government today? Our government does not fulfill the ideal, nor is it in opposition to it. It is not religious, but neither is it antireligious. How should we regard it? Is it kosher or not? If the government were like a meat spoon that had fallen into a milk pot, we would ask if its volume were less or more than 1/60 of the contents of the pot. Or do some other principles of kashrut work here? Should we participate in elections for the Knesset of this government, serve in the army, take part in its life? All the countless Halakhic studies of all the centuries of Galut speak not a word on this question. We have no developed tradition to guide us in the contemporary political and social realm. There is almost no Halakhic discussion of the national commandments. This is one of the reasons why rabbis cannot run the government: not a single yeshiva has taught them how. (I refer not to individual rabbis voting democratically in the Knesset, but to the rabbinate as a social institution.) Sadly, we have seen in practice that it is false to assume that spiritual leaders are prepared to take on political leadership. They have studied individual, not national Halakha. Therefore, we cannot assume that rabbis know the correct solutions to contemporary national problems. In fact, they themselves are only just learning, along with the rest of the Jewish people.

In a certain sense, the Jewish people is only now beginning to bring the national commandments to life and, in the process, we have taken the first steps toward the creation of a corresponding Halakha. In realizing Jewish national life in the context of the State of Israel, we participate together in working out principles for Halakhic solutions to national questions. This is an element of the turn in Judaism’s road.

The processes that have been taking place in the Jewish religion since the middle of the last century signify a transition toward the realization of the concept of the national dialogue with God. As with the individual dialogue, we dare to hope that we may someday pass on this understanding to the entire world.[2]9 This is the role of the Jews as the chosen people today.

Such a transition is not painless. In essence, many of those who consider themselves nonreligious left the faith because life, and they with it, had already rounded the curve, while Judaism had not. They find a gap between the demands of life and what is offered by classical Judaism. Because life is always stronger than theory, they reject religion.

In this sense, too, I would note that our primary religious task is to take Judaism around the bend in its road. Only that can bring back those who have left.

3. The Four-Millennia Scope
of this Historical/Philosophical Concept,
and the Historical Process Today

Rabbi Kook’s model is a unique historical/philosophical conception that embraces four millennia, analyzing the spiritual development of humanity over that period and offering an understanding of the current point of historical development. Beginning its examination with the forefathers and the giving of the Torah, it identifies the relationship between the national and individual dialogues with God during the biblical period; the loss of one of these during the period of the Second Temple; the transmission of the other to humanity and its gradual adoption by Western civilization; and the future rebirth in Jewish life of the national dialogue with God, leading to the eventual transmission of this higher level of monotheism to all humankind. The scope of this examination and the historical meaning it reveals is astounding. It serves as our guide as we participate in the current stage of development of Judaism.


  1.   Here it should be mentioned that the position of the religious Zionists does not automatically entail a right-wing political stance. Although the majority of religious Zionists do hold rightist views, there are those who take moderate left-wing positions. Our analysis here is not a discussion of who is correct – right or left – but a demonstration of the inadequacy of attempts to solve modern national problems with classical methods of Talmudic analysis. 
  2.   The question of the need for this concept in today’s global world (which in many ways opposes it) is a subject for a separate analysis. 

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