Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
I carefully read your response to D.A. Both her words and your reply are
very well phrased. I commend you for your lucid and sensitive approach. But
after finishing the entire exchange I was left with a gnawing feeling that
something is missing.
With all due respect, there is another side to the coin. That side is called
kabolos ol, naaseh v’nishma – the general acceptance of Torah
authority, Daas Torah. The basis of faith is accepting an authority
that is beyond you.
By suggesting that uneducated Jews returning to their roots should “own their
choices,” and go at their “own pace,” you run the risk of allowing every individual
to just follow their heart and not submit to any authority at all – a conclusion
I am sure you did not want anyone to reach.
In my opinion, we live today in a time when there is far too little respect
for authority. Nothing is sacred. Everyone, including children, declares their
“rights” to be autonomous. There is too much permissiveness. What we need
is a call for more obedience, not less.
Perhaps you should have suggested to D.A. that she should not be so involved
with herself and her needs, and instead learn to serve G-d.
This, I believe, is what her Rabbis were trying to tell her. Not that they
know what’s best for her, but that the Torah knows what’s best for her. As
such, she should be submitting and surrendering to Daas Torah and the Torah
leaders that have the authority to render Torah-based opinions.
Instead, you are encouraging her and others to just follow their own subjective
whims, which goes counter and actually undermines the entire power of Torah,
the Divine instructions how to live our lives.
Given, some Rabbis are incompetent or untrained to apply Torah in a way that
addresses today’s needs and challenges. But is that enough reason to undermine
the entire authority of all Rabbis?
Dear Rabbi xxx,
Thank you for writing and for making some very legitimate points. However,
as you can imagine, I disagree with you – not about our generation’s lack
of reverence, but about who is to blame and what we are to do about it. Above
all, your call to D.A. and others to simply submit with obedience to Daas
Torah is precisely the crisis I was addressing, and demonstrates how detached
you are from the problem. I wonder how much experience you have in this area.
While what some of what you say may be correct on paper, in real life things
are far more complex. And the Torah, being a Torah of life and for life, not
a book on paper, addresses life in all its complexions.
Some argue that there are actually two schools of thought how to deal with
so-called “Baalei Teshuvah.” Let’s call them the “authoritative school” and
the “individualistic school,” or the “school of self-abnegation” and the “school
of self-actualization.” The former argues that the entire purpose of life
is self-abnegation. G-d demands of us to subjugate our own self-interest and
will to His Divine will. The latter contends that the purpose of existence
is that we not lose our personalities and individuality, but rather that we
become instruments of G-d’s will. Yes, we must subjugate ourselves to G-d’s
law, but the ultimate goal is not self-abnegation but self-actualization.
A more radical version of the first school suggests that men are basically
brutes, and left to their own resources they will gravitate to self-interest
and narcissism. Thus, the need to subjugate oneself and one’s desires to the
Divine law in the Torah. The only reason, some claim, that we were given our
own minds and personalities is a test – in order for us to suppress
our individuality and surrender to G-d. The second school is repulsed by this
concept and sees it, in effect, as a form of self-annihilation. Why would
G-d create us with such unique and beautiful features, only to have us suppress
it?! They in turn profess the Divine Image in which we all created. Though
we have selfish traits, we are not mere beasts, but Divine souls. And our
focus should be not on the inferiority of man, but on the majesty of the Divine
spirit within us.
In Chassidic thought both these viewpoints have some legitimacy. The first
perspective can be justified by the distance between us mortal creatures and
the Immortal Creator. The second perspective is driven by the fact that the
Creator shaped the human being in His Divine Image, thus creating a relationship
between the human and the Divine, allowing for integration, not just abnegation.
But the ultimate objective is the fusion of both perspectives.
Yes, Torah comes to lift us up to a higher plane, and as such we are required
to have kabolos ol and subjugate our selves, our desires and interest,
through utter bittul, to the Higher Will. To “lose ourselves” in the Divine.
But at the same time, Torah was not given in Heaven or for Heaven; it was
given on and for Earth. “Torah speaks in the language of man” is not just
an issue of language but context. Torah speaks to us as we are on Earth and
addresses the full spectrum of our material lives and its real challenges.
This explains an entire slew of Torah laws and idioms that emphasize the
importance of applying Torah to the needs and parameters of the people, not
just their abnegation.
Just to name a few examples: One should always begin keeping Torah and Mitzvos
out of ulterior motives (shelo leshmo), because from these ulterior
motives one will come to perform them with pure motive (leshmo) (Pesachim
50b). Educate the child according to his way, so that as he grows old
he will not waver from it (Proverbs 22:6). A person should always study where
his heart desires (Avodah Zorah 19a). Which is the correct path for man to
choose? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious
for mankind (Avot 2:1). A decree should not be issued that the public cannot
comply with (Avodah Zorah 36a, Baba Basra 60b). The Torah speaks to pacify
the yetzer hora (Kidushin 21b. Sifra, Rashi Kedoshim 19:25). The halachik
concept of “compromise” (peshoreh) (Sanhedrin 6b-7a. Rambam Sanhedrin
22:4. Tur and Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 12:2).
These and more such statements underscore how important it is that Torah
be applied to the limitations of the human condition; to enhance life, not
destroy it. “You shall live by them [Torah edicts],” not die by them.
One could question all these Torah principles, with the seemingly logical
argument, as you suggest: Since the Torah presents absolute truth where is
their room in an absolute system for relative and subjective, personal applications?
How could we give any credibility to “your way,” your “hearts desire?” Truth
is true regardless whether the public can accept it or not. Since when does
an absolute Torah have to accommodate individual needs?
On a simplistic level, absolute truth and relative application can seem irreconcilable.
But when you appreciate the complexity of life, all its nuances, the diversity
of people, human subjectivity, and above all, the fact that human nature begins
with self-interest – all these features created by the same G-d that gave
us the Torah – it becomes quite obvious that the whole point of Torah is that
we should use it’s absolute principles to guide us, but guide us in a way
that we can contain and grow with, as we slowly acclimate our lives and align
ourselves to the Divine will, moving from self-interest to a Higher calling.
Up top the point where we can recognize that our self-interest is to
live up to our calling.
Not unlike the basic principles of education, in which certain truths have
to be conveyed to a child at his/her own level. Is it a compromise of absolute
truth if one has to offer a child an incentive (a candy or toy) to study?
No less than an analogy compromises a deeper truth that cannot be appreciated
without the analogy.
In effect, the commitment to Torah and the embrace of the spiritual path
consists of two stages: Acceptance and integration. First there is the need
for suspension of self and acceptance of a Higher calling (naaseh).
Then one has to integrate and internalize the experience (nishma).
All this is true even in the best of times. Even when Rabbis, teachers and
authorities were impeccable role models of selflessness and wisdom, sensitive
to the needs of their constituents. How much more so in times when leadership
is sorely lacking. Then it becomes absolutely imperative that the commitment
to Torah be integrated by the individual, being that we cannot ride on the
faith of authorities.
So though we can bemoan today’s lack of submission to Torah authorities and
see it as our shortcoming, yet, upon reflection, it may be the other way around;
this element of “chutzpah” may also be a blessing in disguise: Because today’s
authorities are so lame, G-d made sure that they will not be listened to.
“One who has no awe of G-d will not be heeded.” Authorities will be honored
in direct proportion to their level of integrity. Undeserving authorities
will not garner respect nor obedience.
The same is on a collective level. Perhaps G-d in His Divine benevolence
and Providence choreographed it so that in our times – ever since the Holy
Temple was destroyed – there is no central Sanhedrin (Rabbinic Supreme Court),
which regulates law for the entire nation, lest it be abused. Today each community
has its own respective Torah authorities. Recognizing that we are living in
a time when “hearts are diminished” and “the awe of G-d” is weaker, a built-in
immune system ensures that centralized power will not be abused. “G-d did
charity with Israel by dispersing them among the nations.” Why is that charity?
Because their dispersion ensures their survival, that they can never be all
destroyed all at once.
Today, more than ever, with the breakdown of authority, it is absolutely
critical to ensure that each of us “own” our choices; that the path of faith
become your path, not someone else’s; that our life choices, though initially
driven by all types of influences, ultimately are not driven by superficial
reasons to please others.
I would also add: Using your argument for the need of obedience to Torah
authority, I would venture to say that if Torah leaders today would demonstrate
their own obedience to G-d with the appropriate humility (and not just pull
rank as scholars and authorities), I have no doubt that their constituents
and students would learn by example and reciprocate. But can we actually expect
that an arrogant or insensitive teacher will inspire humility and obedience
in his students?
So though there is always a need to accept the truths and authority of Torah,
much can be learned from the skeptics and cynics of our time. Though many
may go overboard and others may use it as an excuse for their own unwillingness
to be accountable, the fact remains that you learn most from your critics.
They help illuminate what is wrong with the system, so that we can repair
To indiscriminately demand blind obedience from our generation may be appealing
to some. However, I am sorry to be the one to rudely remind you, that 1) it
won’t work. And 2) It shouldn’t work, because sustainable commitment
is only possible when total acceptance is coupled with internalization. And
we are all the better for that, because if we were able to secure blind obedience,
our systems would never heal. The status quo would continue on, in a self-perpetuating
vicious cycle of obedience feeding unhealthy authority and vice versa.
This may be one of the reasons why in the end of days “chutzpa will reign.”
Reverence for unholy and corrupt structures only makes them more corrupt.
In unhealthy times it is only through irreverence that we can ever hope to