JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 1999 /18 Teves, 5760

Love sweeter than wine

By Jonathan Rosenblum

OUR DIMINSHED sense of G-d's presence in the external world forces us to discover Him through the echo, or image, of Him within ourselves.

Imagine someone observing a house in which all the blinds were drawn.

Any conclusions concerning what is taking place inside, based solely on the comings and goings of the inhabitants, are sure to be wide of the mark.

Yet most Jews today are consigned to precisely such outsider status with respect to Torah Judaism.

Those who attempt to communicate an understanding of Judaism to fellow Jews find themselves confronted from the outset by a lack of shared experience and common spiritual vocabulary. Econophone

In no area is that absence more keenly felt than when one attempts to provide some taste of the richness of Jewish thought to those who have little previous exposure and who lack the linguistic skills to study original texts. Talk about the depth of Torah thought, and the response is likely to be "Deep? You mean like the Grateful Dead?"

Over the past decade, however, there has developed a body of Torah works that are both thoroughly grounded in the greatest modern Jewish thinkers -- for example, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Maharal of Prague, and the Vilna Gaon -- and written in a modern idiom. Not since the days of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th-century Germany has the general Jewish public had access to so many works in the vernacular that are both faithful to Torah tradition and startlingly original in exposition and style.

Many, though by no means all, of those works have been produced by ba'alei teshuvah, who combine secular academic backgrounds with a decade or more of in-depth Torah study. (The creation of this literature is but one example of the profound impact of ba'alei teshuvah on the Torah world over the lpast quarter of a century.)

These "returnees" to Torah observance have proven uniquely qualified to spread Torah in our time. Their own religious faith was of necessity achieved only after profound intellectual struggle, for they grew to maturity in a world whose underlying assumptions are profoundly hostile to religious faith and practice. TrakdataThey have had to confront all the big questions and challenges themselves, and have thus proven uniquely suited to guiding others. The former chairman of the philosophy department at one of America's most prominent universities once told me that he is almost never asked a question about Torah with which he had not previously grappled himself.

Akiva Tatz's Worldmask and Jeremy Kagan's The Jewish Self are two outstanding examples of the body of literature being described. Rabbi Tatz was a top South African medical student in his day; Rabbi Kagan a Yale-trained philosopher. They both deal, in very different ways, with the issue of faith in a world in which G-d's presence is hidden.

To help others gain access to that faith, Kagan embarks on nothing less than a history of self-awareness. In his account, all societies, until roughly the time of Alexander the Great, were worshipping societies, in which men experienced their existence as an expression of G-d's will and located the root of their being in the realm of Spirit.

Modern man, by contrast, denies reality to all that is not subject to sensory observation, leading to a constricted sense of both the external world and self.

That transformation in the nature of self-awareness, Kagan argues, reflects a change in our objective historical situation and the way G-d manifests Himself in the world. We no longer live in a world of prophecy and open miracles, in which worship is experienced as a natural act.

By demonstrating that modern man's lack of faith is "a necessary consequence of our historical placement and cultural experience," Kagan seeks to again open modern man to the possibility of faith.

One of his signal achievements is to show the role of G-d's hiddenness in the Divine plan. Just as the mother must, to some extent, sever the bond of intimacy with her infant if he is to mature, so too must G-d do this with us. Before we can truly enter a relationship with G-d, we must first become independent individuals, capable of freely choosing that relationship. Too overwhelming an awareness of His presence nullifies our independence.

The end of prophecy and open miracles, then, allows the attainment of true selfhood, and the development of that selfhood permits a transition from self-effacing Fear of G-d to self-creating Love of G-d. Our ancestors in the desert experienced faith; for us, it is the result of a positive act.

Our diminished sense of G-d's presence in the external world forces us to discover Him through the echo, or image, of Him within ourselves. We are in the same position as our forefather Avraham, who, our Sages tell us, saw a world of death and decline - "a burning castle." But when he looked within himself, he found something meaningful and infinite. He "learned Torah from himself," in the words of the Sages. At that moment, he discovered both his true self and G-d.

Torah is the conduit through which we form our deepest relationship with G-d. And as the nature of that relationship changed, so too the nature of Torah. From the period of the Written Torah, which is prophetic and comes from a source outside ourselves, we have moved into a period in which the Oral Torah dominates. The latter depends on the nature of the recipient and his own active participation.

Oral Torah demands of us the discovery of self. It is available only to one who "kills" himself in its pursuit. Killing oneself involves not the end of individuality, but its discovery through the destruction of all external drives foreign to one's elemental self. In the process, one's essential unity, derived from the unity of the Creator Himself, is laid bare.

The Oral Torah is even dearer to G-d than the Written Torah, for it is dependent on the our active participation. In the words of Song of Songs, "Your love [the words of the Sages] is dearer than wine [the Written Torah]." The latter is a stimulant to Love, the former Love itself.

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post. He can be reached by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum