(Originally posted on Rabbi Fink’s blog here. A PDF of the original post is also available on his site.)
In my personal experience, I have come across a lot of people who would somewhat fit into the following broad category. All of them know others in the same situation as well. Those people feel a general malaise about religion. Some are apathetic to their plight, and others are anguished by it. The apathetic ones are resigned to a marginalized relationship with God and their religion. The ones in anguish wish they could turn back the clock to their yeshiva days when they felt something special, or they dream of living up to the lofty goals of dveykus and spiritual nirvana.
There is a need to discuss this issue. It is a legitimate problem and is definitely causing discomfort among many Orthodox Jews. Would I call it a crisis? I don’t know. It concerns me that the issue is framed as an issue of perception. The question implies that happy, fulfilled Orthodox Jews are looking at others and are concerned that others are not feeling fulfilled. That is what perception means. I would prefer if the question focused on the actual people who are feeling burnt out of religion and not the assumptions or judgments of others. I would rather adjust the question: is there a significant group of orthodox Jews who feel under-fulfilled by their Judaism?
The answer to that question is, undoubtedly, yes.
The second question is much more interesting. What is the source of this spiritual melancholy?
It is hard to pinpoint a consensus among the journal writers on this point. Most writers attribute the problem to a flaw or misstep in Avodas Hashem (religious observance). As I remarked on my blog, Moishe Bane pointed more toward phenomena outside mitzvah observance that affect one’s spiritual psyche. While I agree in form, I have a different twist on the substance. I think something that is being overlooked in these discussions: the historical context of Orthodox Judaism’s rise and its place in the modern world.
Taking a big step back and looking at Orthodox Judaism from a bird’s eye view gives one an interesting perspective on the theology of Orthodox Judaism. We have the canonized books of Tanach. The stories in Tanach are replete with miracles, divine communications with man, complex heroes and villains, struggles with idol worship, violence and war, and stories of high drama. Orthodox Judaism views these stories through the lens of chazal and then through the eyes of the rishonim who elucidate the teachings of chazal.
Later, we have the mishnah, talmud, various midrashic sources, and their numerous commentaries. The world of chazal was a fantastic world that talks of miracles brought about through acts of the saintly tanna’im and amora’im, an awareness of angels and demons, a hybrid of folk medicine, real medicine, faith healing, and many other ideas and expressions that were appropriate for Ancient Greece and the Medieval era.
More recently, we have the writings of the Arizal and his students. Somewhat related, we have the works of the ba’alei mussar and the chassidus which paralleled it. These teachings focus on a transcendental version of Judaism. Their focus on perfection of character and mind hearkens the typology of a superJew: the person who is complete control of his life, thoughts, and actions, all of it with cosmic proportions. One misstep and worlds are affected. These works ultimately aim to elevate the Jew from man to [almost] angel, and the payoffs are lofty. Interpreting dreams, granting powerful blessings, and wielding practical mystic powers are part and parcel of this genre.
Over the centuries, the vast Orthodox tradition has been summarized in various codes of halacha. The primary sources used today are the Shulchan Aruch and the Mishnah Brurah on Orach Chaim. The status of halacha has been cemented for several hundred years. Leniencies based on a rishon or ga’on not quoted in the Shulchan Aruch are considered unacceptable. Removing statutes that were based on mistakes or incorrect assumptions is not really permissible. Historical social norms that helped establish halacha are not considered when analyzing halacha today.
I believe that this is a fair overview of the basic corpus of Torah that is studied today by Orthodox Jews. I also believe that the descriptions of those general bases of knowledge are accurate, and I do not mean them in a disrespectful or cynical way.
Herein lies the problem.
The kind of life a Jew expects his religion to provide for him is completely unrealistic in modern terms. We are not going to debate or discuss the veracity or meaning of the fantastic claims made in each of these genres of Torah study, but we are going to assume that they form the world which the average Orthodox Jew associates with his religion. Years of studying about open miracles, direct communication with God, demons, angels, mystical universes, and practical kabbalistic feats have an effect on the one doing the studying: the person begins to associate religion with these things.
We hear about stories of great Jewish leaders who made incredible things happen. The stories Choni HaMa’agel (drew a circle and brought rain), of Rav Yochanan (turned people into bags of bones with his eyes), of Rashi (born after his father tossed a diamond to the sea), of the Ba’al Shem Tov (flew around Europe), of the Arizal (located ancient graves by “sense”), of my great-great-grandfather Reb Elya Lopian (met Eliyahu HaNavi), or of the Chazon Ish (knew how to do brain surgery) reinforce the idea that Jews would be able to do supernatural things if we could just get to that level.
American Orthodox Jews are generally smart and well educated (at least in comparison to the majority of the rest of the world). They generally find themselves in the middle to upper classes of society, and they generally come from communities which emphasize family and stability. In my experience, most people who believe the type of legends, stories, and anecdotes that are taught in yeshivot are less advanced in every other way.
In ancient times, everybody believed the kinds of things that are described in the talmud. In medieval times, everyone believed in the kinds of things of which the rishonim speak. In early modern times, almost everybody believed in the same kinds of things we find in mussar works and chassidic tradition. The folk cures and superstitions that have crept into halacha were common for the people of their time. Today, the people who still believe such things are perceived as backward and their ideas are considered relics of the past.
I am not currently judging whether these traditions are true or whether they are essential to our religion. I am only making the following point: many of the very basic assumptions of Orthodox Jews were prevalent in the rest of the world in their times, but they have since been discarded by smart, successful, happy people in the wider world. Everyone used to believe similar ideas and stories but no longer believe them.
In other words, belief in these fantastic abilities and tales used to be the norm. It was their way of life. It could be explained by pointing to all the unanswered questions that were prevalent in their understanding of the universe. They had no better explanation for various everyday phenomena. They had to believe in the supernatural on a regular basis. God was responsible for everything because they had no other explanation. Now, only religious fanatics, naive people, those who live in undeveloped countries, and other indigenous groups still maintain these kinds of fundamentalist beliefs because, for the most part, they are either wrong or unnecessary.
At this point, the Orthodox Jew is confronted with two basic options. Either he espouses that the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism (the ones that stand at odds with modern sensibilities) are true, and the beliefs of everyone who was not an Orthodox Jew, which were nearly identical in substance and identical in form, were not true in the first place (and therefore it is still reasonable to believe in Orthodox Jewish beliefs, and we would chalk this up as an example of the people of the world “not getting it”); or he argues that Orthodox Jews and everyone else believed in the same kinds of things a long time ago, and the fact that society as a whole has moved on is indicative of the fact that their beliefs were flawed and that, perhaps, many of them were untrue.
Again, I am only pointing to the options, and not to the validity of either position. I am merely stating what I believe are the reasonable options available to a modern Jew who considers traditional Orthodox Jewish beliefs in our modern times.
This is the underlying, unexpressed issue that lies beneath the surface and causes the most internal angst and frustration regarding spiritual success. The goals are impossible to achieve. None of my friends from yeshiva will experience ru’ach hakodesh. None of my rebbeim from yeshiva perform miracles. The universe of our heroes simply does not exist anymore. None of us has experienced or witnessed the kinds of things that are such an integral part of our lore.
Nonetheless, the majority of what we learn today was born out of that universe. The kind of relationship the historic greats had with the Almighty is not able to be reproduced in a modern society. Every nook and cranny of life was once a connection to something Greater due to a lack of sophistication, a flawed understanding of science, or a general mood of superstition. The world in which our ancestors lived displayed an incomprehensible Divine presence at all times. It was so easy. In those days, it was stupid to not see God in everything. However, in our modern times, when we have reasonable explanations for many things that were mysterious in the past and when we know that superstition is bunk, all that seems so distant, so impossible, and so different from our world.
This feeling causes one of two things to happen. For some people, the ideals become too lofty. If all your life you’ve been striving for something that simply does not happen anymore, the frustration is going to be overwhelming. The result is apathy toward religion.
For others – the skeptics among us – it can cause people to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It all goes down the drain. If chazal were wrong about some things, maybe they were wrong about everything. If our religion has similar characteristics to ancient pagan cults, to other religions, and to medieval folklore, which parts are original? These people will by and large either leave orthodoxy, become orthoprax, or live in the agony of what they believe to be two mutually exclusive truths.
If I were asked to point to the cause of spiritual malaise among Klal Yisrael, I would point to this. Jews have begun to realize that our religion has many characteristics that are similar to clearly false beliefs and acknowledge that the world of our religious heroes, for the most part, no longer exists.
What is the cure?
It’s not simple, nor is it something that I see happening anytime soon. I think that Rav Soleveitchik was on the right path in this regard. A new, modern understanding of Judaism and our culture needs to be cultivated. We cannot base our theology on ancient Greek methodologies, or on Muslim and Christian approaches from the Middle Ages. If we are confident that we have the truth – and I believe we do – we must believe that it is can be reconciled with modernity with absolute fealty to the words of chazal which are binding and the halacha that flows from those words. I am not advocating that we abandon halachic Judaism, chas v’shalom. I am advocating a new approach to Torah that uses modern ideas, the same way that chazal and every Jewish thinker from the past 2000 years used ideas from their time.
It can start with our education system and approach to the non-Orthodox and non-Jews in our world. We have transplanted a model from a time of blood libels, pogroms, and hatred of Jews that led to the Holocaust in Europe and are trying to implement it in a free, safe, and friendly United States of America. It’s just more of the same. We can’t expect those models to work anymore. It’s a brave new world. It’s a different world. Just as we can’t expect the old style of chinuch (education) to work on these shores, we can’t expect the fascinations of a European water carrier or farmer from 1730 to inspire an accountant or an attorney today.
On an individual level, I strongly recommend that people trying to find their place in Orthodox Judaism by singling out the things that they like. Exploit them. Enjoy them. Focus on what makes you feel good religiously and what inspires you. All the while, maintain strict adherence to halacha and conform to the standards of one’s community, but don’t expect the kinds of returns that our great-great-grandparents experienced. It was a different world with different challenges. You should expect a 2012 type of relationship with God and Judaism. Set that kind of realistic goal, and a lot of disappointment and apathy can be avoided.
I really believe that this is not only possible, but necessary. I think we can do it, and that we must do it. Each era of Judaism had its challenges and configured a form of Orthodox, halachic Judaism to meet those challenges all while remaining strictly adherent to the daled amos shel halacha. We can do the same for the future of our Judaism. We can move past the model of early modern history based on the romanticization of European pre-war shtetl life and forge our own beautiful, successful, passionate Orthodox Judaism of the future.
This method is certainly not proven. It is a suggestion, and I am confident that it has some merit. I hope that we can make the adjustments that we need to ensure that our children and grandchildren feel a similar, yet different, passion, as our parents and grandparents did before us. I think we can.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, J.D., is the rabbi at the famous Pacific Jewish Center | The Shul on the Beach in Venice, CA. Connect with Rabbi Fink through Facebook, [facebook.com/eliyahu.fink], Twitter [twitter.com/efink], or email [email@example.com].