Veatchanan: A New Religion

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Trouble in Zion

This week’s Torah chapter opens up with Moses’ begging G-d to allow him into the Promised Land. This article explores the personality of the first true Zionist and the greatest one of them all: Moses. And what we can learn from his passion in today’s crisis in Zion.

It’s time to create a new religion.

I knew that line would get your attention. Some of my “friends” would say “We knew it all along. The guy is a nutcase. He’s out to establish a new religion. He never had it in him to accept authority (kabolot ol) and embrace (or conform to) our tradition.” Others will tell me, “You have always been on the edge. But now you’ve gone over the line.” Yet others will berate me: “You’re into sensationalism. You just like to make noise and get attention.”

Now that I’ve aroused your interest, let me explain.

As Israel goes through an identity crisis and we wonder about the meaning of Zionism today (see last week’s The Death of Modern Zionism), one can’t help but be intrigued by Moses’ 515 prayers beseeching G-d to allow him to enter the Promised Land. “Please,” Moses pleads, “please let me cross [the Jordan] and allow me to see the good land.”

What drove this Divine man’s desire, the greatest man that ever lived, to enter Israel?! And why would G-d allow Moses to pray in vain 515 (!) times for a dream that would not be fulfilled?!

For that matter the same question can be asked about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivkah, Rochel and Leah, and so many other great men and women throughout history: Why were they so single-mindedly obsessed with the Promised Land?

And above all, the question is about G-d, Who promised the land in the first place to the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. What exactly did G-d have in mind with choosing this small parcel of land, which has evoked more wars over the span of history than any other piece of geography on this earth.

When Zion is embroiled in crisis, the best way to find direction is to retrace the steps of history, and look at the first pioneers who gave their lives to enter the Holy Land. Moses and before him Abraham are the first true Zionists – and much can be learned from their journey.

Essentially their quest was a spiritual one. In the Promised Land they recognized (as its name implies) the promise of their lives: the ability to achieve a full and complete integrated life. The Holy Land (as its name asserts) contained for them the purpose of all existence: To sanctify material life, and hallow the physical world and transform its matter into Divine energy.

The Promised Land was for Moses not a retirement village or a tourist attraction. It represented the essence, the very purpose of all life. He lived with the land and it lived within him – in every cell of his being. Such a man cannot rest, and will not stop praying to enter the land. Thus Moses pleads with G-d: “O G-d, What force is there in heaven or earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts as You do? Please let me cross” and enter the Promised Land.

But it was not to be. The sins of the people did not allow Moses to reach spiritual utopia.

Moses however, the true leader that he was, instructs the people how they can earn the right “to occupy the land that G-d is giving you.” Follow the Divine laws and rules, “Do not add…and do not subtract from the commandments.” By doing so you will merit to live peacefully in the Holy Land.

What about the other nations of the world? Without missing a beat, Moses continues:

“Protect and keep these laws, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say: ‘This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people. What nation is so great that they have G-d close to it as G-d is when we call Him? What nation is so great that they have such righteous rules and laws?”

“Only take heed and watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not forget the things that your eyes saw. Do not let [this memory] leave your hearts all the days of your lives. Teach your children and children’s children abut the day you stood before G-d at Horeb [Sinai]”.

Can you think of any words more prescient, more relevant to our times?

But let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. 3277 years have passed since Moses stood at the River Jordan and declared these words. These three and half millennia have shaped the world in which we live in today. To appreciate the power and the significance of Moses’ words today, we must put these years in context and understand how they have collectively shaped and colored virtually every aspect of life today.

The world of Moses was very different than our own. When Moses implored G-d to enter Israel, he was coming off of 40 difficult years of leading the people through a hostile wilderness, followed by eighty agonizing years under Egyptian bondage. As a man of G-d he was of the highest saintly caliber and saw the Promised Land as the ultimate destination of all spiritual endeavors. But at that point, the time had not yet come for Moses to enter the land.

That was then.

The big question is what happened in the interim? What transpired over these 3277 years that created the mess we are in today both in Israel and the world at large? Why do we find is do difficult to reach moral and spiritual clarity of the sort that Moses had mastered? What is the root of our own spiritual and emotional crisis, and overall lack of psychological seamlessness?

So let us turn history’s clock fast forward, and in sum we have the following story: The children of Abraham and Moses – the Jewish people – do end up settling Israel and building the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But their peace is short lived. Ultimately, due to their own spiritual bankruptcy, inner strife and divisiveness, the two Temples are destroyed (by the Babylonians and Romans respectively) and the people are expelled from their land.

In the subsequent 1936 years, known as the Common Era, all of life changed in regard to religion and G-d. With the appropriate disclaimer of not wanting to sound over simplistic, the last two millennia can be broken into two general stages of religious history:

For the first 1500 years religion and monarchs ruled much of the world. Freedom and basic human rights as we know and cherish today simply did not exist. Individuality – so powerful of a force in contemporary life – was not seen as a virtue (see Individualism and G-d).

The primary point that is relevant to our discussion is that during this extended period corrupt and arrogant forces hijacked religion and G-d. For close to two millennia religious authorities dominated and wreaked havoc. Multitudes were killed in various religious crusades. First the Christians, then the Muslims determined that their Divine mission is to conquer the world with their beliefs, by sword if necessary.

Over the centuries this religious dominance took its toll. We can, and may, never fully understand our attitudes today to religion and G-d without deeply analyzing the damage endured by the abuse of religion over the centuries. Even one individual is irreparably scarred by religious (or any form of) abuse. How much more so the scars that we collectively carry by the religious forces that have affected the critical mass?

As a result of this authoritarianism and other factors, there was finally a backlash, which leads us into the next stage of religious history. Some ascribe the Enlightenment to this backlash; a reaction to years and years of relentless suppression of the individual spirit. Obviously, no change happens for one reason alone. Yet, no one can deny the powerful influence of religious control on the breakout of free spiritedness.

However, though driven by some healthy impulses, this rebellion also went too far in many circles. In face of the newfound science and freethinking atmosphere, religion began to be seen as at best an idea whose time had passed. It may have served the needs of a primitive people, but is no longer necessary in our rational world. Even if it serves the fragile human need for hope and comfort, religion, the Bible and all matters of faith feed the emotional part of us, and should not be seen as empirically true, as say, science. At worst, religion was denigrated as foolishness embraced only by imbeciles, not by any rational, logical person. Some even claim that religion is plain dangerous or even a form of psychosis.

In short, in the new progressive world, G-d was rendered either optional, unnecessary, irrelevant or non-existent.

Today many thinkers acknowledge that the Enlightenment went too far. The reason for going overboard may be justified due to the centuries of religious abuse. However, it’s still gone too far.

Why too far? Because it is clear – and becoming clearer each day – that rational science is not enough to live a wholesome life. We have spiritual needs, which are far deeper and more necessary to find meaning and higher purpose in life than any scientific pursuit. Indeed, some assert that science and spirituality complement each other, and should not be seen as two opposing forces.

Another case for religion is called ethical Monotheism. Morality needs to have an absolute, Divine backbone, lest it be rendered into an arbitrary, relativistic system driven by whims or consensus, which can often be quite horrendous (Nazi Germany is a blatant example).

Essentially, we are evolving into a much more sophisticated place regarding our attitudes to spirituality, religion and G-d.

But the battle still rages between the two extremes, and we are resultantly trapped today between both sides: Religious bigotry on one end and, its bastardized child, secular bigotry, as Edward Gibbon, the 18th century British historian jibed against those French thinkers who “preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists.” Sadly, this line of thinking strongly influenced many so called emancipated Jews, which helped define some of the founding principles of Modern Zionism.

This distorted backlash – and the confusion resulting from being trapped between both extremes – lies at the heart of today’s confusion and crisis:

The fallacy – the tragic myth – of many of our contemporary secular leaders is that we can cut out the soul of life. Not Zionism, not Socialism, not religionism, not any of the isms, can survive without a soul.

Many of the Enlightenment – which influenced the founders of some of the isms – believed that with time religion would either die out, at least for the thinking elite, or it would be relegated as an “opiate for the masses,” for “la canaille” [the rabble], a phrase used in disdain by the French Enlightenment to denigrate the masses. Religion, Voltaire wrote to Diderot, “must be destroyed among respectable people and left to the canaille large and small, for whom it was made.”

They were half right: false religion would die. But not the real thing – which beats like a heart inside every fiber of existence.

Yes, many of the 17th, 18th and 19th century free thinkers did not believe that religion would be so alive today, albeit distorted. According to their grossly mistaken – and contemptuously condescending – viewpoint, Israel by now would have been a totally secular state; the Arab world would be moving toward secularism, as they embrace Western values, McDonalds and Coca Cola (not to forget Google and Microsoft), and some sort of vague democratic politics would be the governing force.

Well, wake up. It’s now early 21st century and religious passion is alive and well – often to our dismay. A billion plus Muslims will not let us forget that religion is a powerful force. Neither will over a billion Christians and billions of others who embrace various religious/spiritual beliefs.

Mind you, much of this religion still smacks of the bigotry and radical dogmatism of the last two millennia. But that doesn’t diminish its power. And on the other side we have the forces of Enlightenment, many of which take on an equally radical anti-religiosity.

And we are left crushed in the middle trying to pick up the pieces.

The only way out of this mess is to return to the beginning. Moses’ words say it all: Embrace your Divine calling and all nations will respect you. And this calling is so just that all nations will recognize that these are the most “righteous rules and laws.”

Indeed, I submit a bold premise: The exclusively secular version of Zionism or any ism will not fully respect the sacred, inalienable rights of all people, including the Arabs living in Israel and its surrounding territories. This also includes religionism: A distorted view of religion will always discriminate against others.

Ironically, or perhaps logically, the obnoxious elitists of the Enlightenment, in the name of their so-called forward “march of the human spirit,” felt a deep contempt for the masses. Diderot believed that we must distrust the judgment of the “multitude” in matters of reason and philosophy because “its voice is that of wickedness, stupidity, inhumanity, unreason and prejudice.” “The multitude,” he concluded, is “ignorant and stupefied.” As Tocqueville sardonically observed about the French, “I could mention several who despised the public almost as heartily as they despised the Deity.” They adored the human intellect and had supreme confidence in its power to transform laws, institutions, and customs. But the intellect they adored was only their own. This was very different, he added, from the respect shown by Englishmen and Americans for the opinions of the majority of their countrymen. “Their intellect is proud and self-reliant, but never insolent; and it has led to liberty, while ours has done little but invent new forms of servitude.” (See America Speaks).

The one and only way that all humans will be treated with the highest level of respect – is by embracing, as Moses spelled out so clearly, the highest standard of Divine law, a law that will be recognized for its “wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations.”

Interestingly, the Founding Fathers of the United States appeared to have grasped the need to balance the two forces – of the Divine and of personal liberty – in their Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

So, my initial call for a new religion is actually about a religion that is not new at all. It is a universal belief system that was in place from the beginning of time. Our challenge is to transcend the distortion of history and go back to the original, presented by Moses.

As a group of great thinkers commented on a professor’s brilliant paper, “it’s both good and original.” Before the professor could celebrate, they added: “Problem is that the part that’s good is not original and the part that’s original is not good.”

You want to know what true lasting Zionism is? Don’t go to Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann or Ben-Gurion. Go visit Moses, Abraham and the hundreds of others that gave their lives to enter the Land from the beginning of history. They will tell you what life’s mission is all about. They will explain to us the meaning of the Promised and Holy Land.

515 prayers is a big number. And Moses would have continued praying were it not for G-d telling him “enough.”

Our sages tell us that had Moses entered the Promised Land no destruction of the Temple would ever have been possible. So G-d, in effect, tells Moses: Sadly, the time had not yet come for Israel to be at peace. The world is not yet ready for you to enter the Holy Land. But do not dismay. Your prayers are not in vain. Each one of your 515 cries will help your people in generation to endure their growing pains as they earn their right to enter and settle the Holy Land.

Coming off the saddest day of the year (Tisha B’Av) when we relive the destruction of the Holy Temple and all subsequent destructions, we are profoundly consoled by reliving Moses’ passionate appeals. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we can today learn to merit our spiritual right to Zion.

What we need today is nothing less than a revolution. Not one that begins from the top (from the establishment), but from the grass roots.

We need to reject all the false gods and religions that have plagued us throughout history and continue to haunt us.

We must ask ourselves, as Moses reminds us this week: Have we forgotten the things our eyes have seen? Are we holding on to the spiritual memory in our hearts all the days of our lives? Are we teaching our children and children’s children abut the day we stood before G-d?

Are we demonstrating to the world that we are a great nation, a wise and understanding people; A nation close to G-d with the most beautiful righteous laws and guidelines?

Time has come to rediscover our eternal truths. Time has come to display the virtues Moses, so long ago, expected of us.

Time has come for the true G-d to rise.

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