Enlightenment, education, and freedom from religion
Hebrew Russian English French Yiddish


Weekly Portion
Talmud Issues
Torah Text
Religion & Ethics
Books & Studies
About Us

Need answers

search: -and -or   

Respond Print version

Question: Publication date: 19-02-2006
Title:   Need answers
Content:   On your site you mention how the rabbis have monopolized yiddishkeit for their own purposes and surpressed any interpretations other than their own. I am not disupting this. My question is, assuming a non-literal (i.e., fundamentalist) understanding of our mesorah (i.e., as not being literally the word of G-d) what do you posit in place of that? In other words, if the Torah/mesorah is not emes l'amito, then why bother at all? What type of yiddishkeit do you suggest as a "legitimate" alternative? I've got a wife and children. What do you suggest I teach them about our heritage?

Please respond.

Answer: Publication date: 19-02-2006
Title:   Need answers
Content:   Dear Isser,

You are asking reasonable questions that are not by any means exclusively Jewish. On the contrary, they have been raised in every place imaginable and virtually in every time. Allow me to cite merely one out of countless examples. Relatively recently – a century ago in some places, two centuries ago in others – European aristocracy earnestly debated the burning question of what to do with the time-honored knightly code, with the traditional way of life of the nobility. Doing away with it altogether would be a pity, especially since it does have undeniable virtues. On the other hand, practicing it in the modern age would be impossible, not to say ridiculous. In fact, how can barons exist without vassals? What is to be done, then? How are the children to be raised and educated?

In one interpretation (of the above debate), the matter ended with the jolly story of Don Quixote. In another, it culminated in the rather dismal guillotine. Ultimately, the rejection of aristocratic civilization demanded drastic and lengthy measures, wars, executions, adopting constitutions, changing the concepts of the nature of power and human rights. Yet, strangely enough, this same question – whether we should consign knighthood to oblivion, its very memory erased from our mind – may very well be asked today. What is more, in this day and age – when the ideas of aristocratic duties and privileges have become a matter of culture rather than social order practically everywhere, including today’s European monarchies – this issue has become especially absorbing and relevant. We are no longer tied to feudalism by either law or industrial relations. Does this mean that it has lost all relevance for us? If so, why does the change of guards at the royal palace in Stockholm draw such crowds, and why are so many young men dreaming of joining this colorful and, objectively speaking, comical guard? Then again, what does ‘objectively speaking’ mean?

It is plain to see that feudalism is far from irrelevant.

First of all, even its vestiges of authority are hard to eradicate. Italy, for example, with its perfectly democratic constitution, is a democratic country by any standard. Nevertheless, Italy’s titled aristocracy wields enormous influence over the country’s life. In England, the royal family still remains above the law. Even in France, with its hard-won republican system, an ancient title guarantees success in every area.

Secondly, the aristocratic code in its virtual, refined form continues to have an impact on our customs and tastes. We all have a bit of the knight in us. Almost all civilized Europeans, voluntarily and with no external pressure, continue to a large extent to “play” by the knightly rules.

Thirdly, even in those cases where following these rules is out of the question, they frequently become an object of study, of adjustment, of comparison – in short, cultural material. Even when dead, many symbols of feudalism continue to be interesting or even instructive. When all is said and done, by abandoning the rituals of the past we do not free ourselves of their influence, at times direct at times oblique.
There is a dual rule: nothing, let alone a cultural phenomenon, arises of itself, in a vacuum, without sufficient preparation and prerequisites; on the other hand, even after becoming obsolete, it does not disappear without a trace. Having eliminated its functions, feudalism gave way to another social order. However, the feudal culture did not vanish; it survived and continues to exist, not so much in the heart but in the overtones of the new social culture. The same may be said, strangely enough, about older, and thus more obscure, layers of human culture. Patriarchal relationships, traces of slavery, and even relics of the matriarchal system have survived in the realm of our symbols, and can be discerned quite easily. We must admit that they are here to stay. Thus we must learn to come to terms with them – preferably peaceful terms.

Accordingly, our attitude to any narrative is equivocal at the very least. In France, feudalism as a social order triggered hatred and a bloody revolution. In that country, it took the entire nineteenth century to eradicate the feudal vestiges, painfully and in tears, which soon turned to tears of regret; while in the twentieth century it became clear that the aristocracy, stripped of its legal privileges, can play an interesting and even positive role in society.

Let us now return to our mesorah.

Have no fear: mesorah is definitely not the word of God. What is more, it is rather flimsy as scientific theory. Everything that is verifiable about it is either erroneous or trivial. The rest is tame and unoriginal irrationality, rooted in primitive magic with a somewhat transparently borrowed dollop of mysticism. Mesorah has no predictive power; it is patently ambiguous, reflecting a hodge-podge of conflicting views and clashes from different times. It is not a picture of the world, not a broad theory that may be relied on when encountering a new problem. It is a tribal ethos.

As was to be expected, mesorah is little different from the ethnocentric traditions of others. Very similar mesorot are easily found among the American Indians, the African bushmen, the Alaskan Eskimo, or the Australian aborigines. At one time, the majority of Western nations also had such mesorot; however, being more dynamic, they managed to leave them behind. The new mesorot are well known to us and are no longer ethnocentric. Then again, all these innovations conceal lingering vestiges of the past.

Our mesorah is a fairly commonplace tribal religion, which, as is the custom for all such religions, seriously aspires to comprehensiveness. European feudalism harbored the same aspiration – until it was swept aside by the winds of change. As a theory – scientific or social – our mesorah offers nothing unique. What makes it unique is its bearer, namely ourselves. It is our history, our historical experience, our endurance that draw attention to the Jewish religious tradition, to the Jewish ethos. Were our biography any less abiding and complex, our mesorah would have long been forgotten by everyone – ourselves included.

Therefore it is not the richness of our mesorah that enhances our existence, but, on the contrary, our historical achievements (which merit a discussion in their own right, but that will have to be postponed for now) that transform it into an object of current interest. Everything is turned topsy-turvy.

We do not endeavor to abolish the law of universal gravity for the sole reason that it does not require our approval in order to be correct. Alas, our mesorah lags far behind the law of gravity in this respect. That is why its comprehensive aspirations must be categorically rejected – just as the social norms of feudalism were rejected once. The droit de seigneur, serfdom and the bonds of vassalage have long lost their functional relevance and been mercilessly removed from the social fabric.
However, having lost their comprehensiveness and left the daily reality established by law, they did not disappear without a trace. Many of the outdated norms acquired a new form; some of them have remained in self-imposed usage while others linger as sacral traditions. The regrettable – or wonderful, as some would have it – tradition of duels outlived feudalism, endured through the purely bourgeois times, and has not been completely eradicated to this day.

As we have said, Mesorah is not the word of God, not a code of enlightened moral laws, not even a picture of the world. It is a tangle of social experience, clumsily (like anything that came into being through an evolutionary process) wound together by our ancestors. As such, it is a formative element that had a considerable influence on our development. Exactly like the feudal social tangle, which had ceased to be a thread in the web of European history, mesorah continues to affect us obliquely, by means of its overtones.

Thus the question of how to approach mesorah and how to present it to our children should be answered as follows: depending on the situation. Every situation demands a different approach.

To begin with, there is absolutely no doubt: the comprehensive, religious, and social, not to mention political, ambitions of mesorah must be put to rest. No more teaching mythology instead of history. We do not live in a world created by the Jewish God, Joseph never ruled in Egypt, no Torah was even given to anyone on any mountain, halachah is a multi-layered and rather clumsy product of human social activity, the Jews were never chosen by anyone, and most importantly, for any sort of mission; and no Messiah is coming to redeem the world with a wave of his hand. This is what we tell our children when they come home after a lecture read by a rabbi or after a Tanach lesson and it is these educational talks that we recommend to you as well. Mind you, as strange as it may seem, this is education in the context of mesorah. After all, rejection is an admission of existence. We teach our children to reject the Jewish God rather than the Scandinavian gods; we criticize the Jewish halachah rather than the Yasah of Genghis Khan. By rejecting mesorah, we absorb its language. Since we do so, we find it instructive to learn it in a thorough manner.

As soon as mesorah changes from an all-embracing, total theory that precedes practice into a transparent cultural background, it is treated differently. We believe that it should be mastered the way we master a language, a dance, cooking, music, or oral folklore. After all, we will still have to speak some sort of language, to employ some symbols, to communicate with our interlocutor using images he recognizes and understands. The French have the Gaelic rooster, the Song of Roland, Francois Villon, and a hundred kinds of cheese, the Italians have the Roman forum, Augustus, spaghetti, and the Divine Comedy, we have David and Goliath, the egg hatched on a holiday, tefillin, and the Passover matza. We have a reason to preserve our cultural legacy, without forgetting, however, that we live alongside it rather than within it. Then this legacy of symbols becomes a valuable and – precisely because of its uniqueness, i.e. in the context of others – an enriching asset. It would be a pity if the French lost their authenticity – even though in terms of function, they have practically the same lifestyle as the Germans or the Italians. This, of course, provided that authenticity is relegated to its proper place – in the kitchen.

Let us cite a helpful example.

Soon after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a certain businessman placed a simple ad in Israeli newspapers. Printed inside a black rectangle were the words addressed by Elijah the Prophet to Ahab king of Israel: “Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?” [Kings 1, 21, 19] Nothing else. These words were not aimed at anyone in particular, yet they had a devastating effect: many Israelis stopped talking to Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, and returning his calls. For a while, he found himself in a state of semi-ostracism. How justified this reaction was is another question. What concerns us is its mechanism. In itself, this biblical sentence may well appear clumsy; in order to feel its appeal, one must have at least a comprehension, if not a profound knowledge, of several layers of biblical Hebrew, i.e. a large portion of mesorah. Next, it is only in the biblical context that one can grasp its precise literary meaning. In a word, this ad expected its readers to have a considerable knowledge of mesorah.

This, however, is only one side of the matter. Another, no less important side is that the assassination of Rabin was motivated by lofty Jewish ideals, that is to say within the framework of mesorah. This refers to the same mesorah as in the ad, albeit interpreted in a different vein, a practical vein, the way the feudal rights of barons were interpreted once. The assassin viewed the biblical texts as a manual for action, as a knife; the person who placed the ad viewed them as a system of symbols that have no separate existence but are capable of expressing a thought. As a language, in fact. Or rather, as a crucial, integral part of a language that must be learned before we can consider ourselves civilized people.

In other words, in keeping with the spirit of this example, we are struggling to finally make mesorah in traditional Jewish consciousness what is has actually been for a long time: a unique language of Jewish symbols, existing side by side with other unique languages, which we are duty-bound to preserve – and at the same time to learn its proper use. Like the highly educated writer of the ad – and not like the culturally illiterate, as we believe him to be, murderer.
We consider the majority of rabbis to be badly informed people with a poor grasp of the material they attempt to work with. We have no aspirations to replace them; in fact, their activities are for the most part pointless. All we do is systematically point out their mistakes. Frankly speaking, we did not have to invent much. Even the Talmud attempted to prohibit the use of mesorah as a spade, a tool for transforming the real world. Its purpose, the same as that of any culture, is to serve as a passive instrument, the symbolic language of human interaction. Two millennia ago this appeal was largely misunderstood. Today, fortunately, its time has come.

Thus we play the difficult, often thankless, yet always indispensable role of a translator, one who renders mesorah to restore its true meaning. We are helping mesorah to regain its proper place. Naturally, we are not the first; we are merely completing the vast undertaking set in motion by the Enlightenment and the cultural revolutions of the twentieth century. We are often called destroyers, yet in fact we are the ones who are preserving Jewish culture for the future. Without us and others like us, it will simply disappear in a matter of decades. It will be rendered irrelevant.

Naturally, we would be overjoyed if you joined our cause.

Sincerely yours,

Daat Emet

Back to Questions and Answers