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April 24, 2013
Jewish World Review
The survival of society
Rabbi Berel Wein
Misunderstanding the individual's role in the world around him
All societies are governed by standards of behavior, accepted norms and the setting of goals, both societal and personal. In dictatorships these norms, goals and challenges are set by the ruler or by an oligarchy that rules. In a democratic society the setting of standards must spring from the society itself. But what standards does such a society set for itself? Are these standards to be changeable, shifting, temporary of limited time and effect? Are they to cater to what the reality apparently is now? Or, perhaps they are to be those of long-standing tradition and historical perspective, standards that have been of proven value and inspiration. Perhaps standards should address how things should be.
This choice is, in my opinion, what lies at the heart of many of the internal conflicts that continue to divide our society and cause anguish to all concerned. The Jewish people for centuries on end always recognized that the standards, social, personal, religious and national, that they lived by were the standards set in the Torah and in the words and ideas of the Talmud, Midrash and other rabbinic writings. While it is true that the Jewish people as a whole and individual Jews as well, many (if not most) times failed to live up to those standards of morality, piety and inspired behavior, nevertheless the standards themselves were never tampered with.
No one dared to rewrite the Ten Commandments or revise the Torah rules of the sanctity of life, person, family, marriage. The bar may have been set very high for all Jews to reach at all times, but the bar was nevertheless never lowered in order to accommodate those of us who could not reach it. The Torah and its way of life remained as the ultimate challenge in Jewish existence, something always to strive for no matter how weak in flesh and spirit the Jews were.
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With the coming of the ideas of the Emancipation, the Enlightenment, Haskala, urbanism, secularism, Marxism and other utopian schemes in the eighteenth century and thereafter, this attitude towards immutable standards began to change. In essence, standards were compromised; the bar was lowered to accommodate the public's behavior. And once that process began it has never been arrested. Under the protective slogans of academic freedom, artistic expression, pluralism, alternate lifestyles and liberalism, the traditional standards for Jewish society and life were lowered and in many cases completely eliminated.
The assault on the Jewish home and family that these new standards encouraged has wreaked much havoc in the Jewish world. The disappearance of millions of Jews from our society because of rampant assimilation over the last decades, when added to the destruction of the Holocaust, has created a demographic problem in the Jewish world of almost unparalleled proportions. Standards once dearly kept and with great personal sacrifice are today merely options and not very popular ones at that. Sabbath, family, marriage, tradition, moral behavior and sexual probity have all been sacrificed on the altar of a modernity that no longer maintains any absolute standards and treats every problem evenhandedly and with moral equivalency.
Standards by their very nature oppose the concept of unlimited personal freedom. The entire structure of Halacha and Jewish tradition is meant to create a sense of balance between the required personal freedom of an individual and the challenge of standards that order society and enhance personal behavior. High standards can lead to better societies and a life of greater quality.
I once had a teacher in college who gave everyone high marks no matter what their performance in class and tests warranted. Having also received a high mark, I nevertheless felt cheated since my high mark in no way reflected my valiant attempt to achieve a goal commensurate to a high and demanding standard. I think that much of the frustration, stress and dysfunction that so characterize modern Western society can be traced to the inner realization that our so-called achievements are not really being measured against any true standard. We therefore feel cheated because of the very laxity of standards that we craved and created.
A study of traditional Jewish standards of education, social behavior and faith would certainly help us all regain a sense of pride in ourselves and in Jewish society as a whole
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© 2006, Rabbi Berel Wein