A Light Unto the Nations v2.0

This article first appeared in the JTNews, Seattle and the Pacific Northwest’s Jewish bi-weekly newspaper.

Judaism has contributed a great deal to world civilization.  We introduced the concept of ethical monotheism and were among the first peoples to encourage universal literacy.  Our tradition speaks of freedom and liberty for all, not just for an elite, a society based on law rather than power.  We have much to be proud of.

But, have we run out of gas?  Does our tradition today offer anything more than a private and temporary “shelter in the storm” from an increasingly material-oriented, crisis-torn world?  Is there anything in our millennia-long story that makes any difference any more?  Is our charge to “be a light unto the nations” now obsolete, part of the distant past or is the best yet to come?

Perhaps our least-appreciated resource (outside, of course, Yeshiva enclaves) is our talmudic tradition.  Among the many ways we can describe it is a two-millennia cooperative art project, a living system which continues to develop.  It’s also a systematic unfolding of the Infinite into the physical world of boundaries and limits.  It serves as the the foundation, source material and methodology for deriving Halacha, defined as “a going” (i.e. a path towards spiritual development), ritual and liturgical law, as well as Jewish civil and communal law.  The detailed descriptions and analyses of the written Torah text and of our Temple services have inspired us and fired both our imaginations and our yearning, contributing greatly to our miraculous and unique survival as a homeless people.

But, is that really all it is?

Beyond the various “internal” (limited to religious/ritual/halachic) benefits Talmud study provides, the process itself is unique, powerful and multi-layered.  Transcending all specific subjects, it trains our minds to think in very advanced ways.  As we zero in on a point, we suddenly find ourselves examining other phenomenon which might share only one non-obvious similarity to our original subject.  Some times we’ll return to the main point, other times we’ll continue exploring and examining a chain of associations.  We examine everything from multiple points of view, both in isolation and in relation to other ideas and opinions.  Some times we’ll solve the puzzle, but other times we’ll just leave the question for the time being, marking it as, indeed, difficult (kushiya (that’s a hard one) or teyko (we’ll wait for Elijah the Prophet (announcing the imminent arrival of Mashiach) to explain).

If we take a step back, something even more curious emerges.  Although Talmud is based on questions and answers, it soon becomes apparent that the answers were already well-known before the discussion even begins.  For example, the very beginning of Oral Torah, the first perek (chapter) of the first masechet (tractate), Berachot, begins asking from what time can we begin to say the evening Shema.  Obviously, the rabbis of the mishna davened every day of their lives, as did their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers.  They knew exactly when to say the Shema.

In fact, this is really our first clue that something much more important is going on–we’re being taught and drilled in an advanced methodology of thinking.  Daily Talmud study resembles nothing so closely as daily gym workouts or daily musical scale practice.  Intense immersion in Talmud study, in addition to the religious and even the spiritual benefits, develops our minds to work linearly and laterally, empirically and intuitively, serially and associatively, all at the same time!

Although the Gemara (Berachot 6b) defines its actual benefit as learning how to reason, I have no quarrel with those who want to limit their study to questions of halacha, nor with those who study in order to, in indescribable but actual ways, merge their intellect with the Divine Intellect in order to deepen their relationship with God.  But I want to propose an entirely additional direction.

Our world is a mess!  Between almost universal economic meltdown, endless environmental disasters, continual wars and culture clashes, starvation, resurgent disease and probably more people living under slavery than at any time in the past, we’re all in a heap of trouble!  To add even more urgency, our former problem-solving strategies no longer seem effective.

One reason, I propose, for this crisis is our exclusive reliance on science, based entirely on empiricism.  Even ever-advancing computing power doesn’t really help since it’s the same binary-only fallacy, just at much higher speed.

I propose applying Talmudic methodology to these challenges.  Let’s introduce rigorous Talmud study to our finest science, economics, law and government students, Jewish or not, with or without religious belief, in order to learn and master this powerful tool.  By this I mean serious, yeshiva-level, immersion training in Talmud–I’m not talking about a superficial overview nor an academic survey class.  The goal is not to be able to talk about “talmudic methods”, but, rather, acquiring an entirely new modality of thinking, a true working knowledge.

Let’s also try to engage our finest Yeshiva scholars, with lifetimes spent already honing these skills, in real-world issues.  Not only would that be a significant step in healing divisions within our people, it just might, from an unexpected direction, rekindle the fire that will allow us, once again, to become that “Light unto the Nations”.

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4 Responses to A Light Unto the Nations v2.0

  1. shaynanaveh says:

    Very good food for thought. Thank you. The Light Unto the Nations aspect is one I have wondered about ever since I became shomer Shabbat almost 30 years ago. Honestly we are lacking greatly in this aspect of our existence. I also have issues with reconciling the fluidity of halacha with the halacha that I have been taught (which does not seem to be at all fluid). And I have extreme issues with the judgmental and small minded attitudes so prevalent in our communities. I have never studied Talmud ( I started to take a women’s class in Efrat when I was living in Israel many years ago but became ill and had to stop) though there was a time that I studied a bit of mishna. The last year or so I have been going through what I term, a crisis of religion (not emunah or any other personal issue as I feel I am closer than ever before to my Source and understanding why we are here). I need to figure out how my Jewish, torah-based connection to and understanding of Hashem interrelates to my religion. I can no longer call myself orthodox yet I don’t accept myself as “non=orthodox” either. And to just continue on a path because I once chose it is not good enough. To accept Judaism 30 years ago I had to change internal belief systems that I grew up with. In order to do this I had to open my mind and accept the possibility that many of my beliefs were erroneous. Somewhere along the line my mind got closed again in certain areas based on my new beliefs. Yet now I question whether many of the new beliefs were not erroneous also – and that subconsciously I continued some old beliefs just in a different form. There are many things that I accepted in the past in order to “take on” the mitzvoth properly that I can no longer accept. We are not all as learned as you and many others yet I see so many “learned people” living and acting in ways that I don’t approve of that it is too much to ask that I just follow the example of those who know more. There will always be those who know more as everyone is continually learning and (hopefully) changing. Here on Maui I am considered learned by many– which is kind of a joke = but it is relative. And in some ways I feel I am more learned, or at least evolved (please don’t take this as chutzpa but as honesty) than the rabbi. How do I stay true to my inner truth (or be in my Allness as R. Yitzchak says) and allow myself to grow as a person, a woman and a Jew without sacrificing my basic values (ie straying from the principles of Torah and mitzvoth) or “putting my brain in the back seat”? And how do I find others like me to commune with. Just a couple of easy questions for you!


    Shayna Nechama

    • If only I had a few easy answers…..
      The great danger of complacency threatens everyone equally. While it’s intellectually obvious that we will never posses “the answer”, it’s all too easy to become comfortable with our tentative insights each step of the way. This is just as true for “religious authorities” as it is for the rest of us. Likewise, the same fears and insecurities which drive us to do stupid, self-and-other-destructive things occur to these leaders as well.
      One of the reasons we repeat everything in a yearly cycle is to have the opportunity to move beyond last year’s insights and revelations. It’s not that they’re necessarily “wrong”, but they are, at best, incomplete. And they run the risk of becoming yet another set of unthinking habits.
      We have an ambivalent relationship with the concept of “keviut”. We’re told to organize our practice into regular, set times and to hold them in set places, but we’re also warned to never allow our prayer to become “fixed” and petrified.
      Striving for balance, we constantly fall. But, perhaps, we can use that experience to learn flexibility, dedication and humility.
      We’re charged to “know God” at the same time told that, ultimately, we never fully can.
      From our point, at any time, on our journey, our vision is too limited to see beyond the next bend in the road.
      But we persist.
      I share your struggles and hope that I also do.

  2. Don Adams says:

    I would not be able to understand even what you are talking about, Harry, were it not for the years you and I and David (and occasional others) invested in this work while I was living in Seattle. They have enlightened me to this day, at a very dark time in my own life and indeed for our nation and for the world of which we are a small but important part.

    Having wandered in the Midwestern wilderness for the past 4-1/2 years, that dim light still shines in my heart, from the work we were able to do before I left Seattle at the end of 2002. The Bay Area offered me more opportunities to sustain my practice than I have found here in Kansas City, but here I find myself isolated in the process of trying to sustain anything like my former daily practice — un es iz nit keyn yiddishe leyb! I pray, however irregularly, for our redemption.

    Our potential contribution to the nations remains huge, and will be a vital part of any solution to the universal challenges we face and to which we contribute through our small-mindedness. The wrestling involved in Talmud study — as opposed to juridical issues of observance — is essential to our entire spiritual growth, individually and as a people. We cannot and should not settle for mere private observance. Our tradition has been built to sustain our active participation in tikkun olam, and of course this is no accident. Will we step up and act? Will we allow our tradition to sustain us?

    I cry out for help in navigating the wilderness-world that threatens to swallow our hope and our faith. I’ve been a “lurker” on your list, but I hope that you have somehow known that I and others are out here reading, Harry, and how much I value all that you have to say about the challenges we face, and all the help you have given me in understanding that there is a larger mystery at work here. We must study our way out, and I applaud your efforts at reminding us what this means. Chazak!

    • Thanks, Don. Good to hear from you. I also have fond memories of our studies and meditations together.
      While we can’t content ourselves with only individual practice, we do need to start there, developing the skills and sensitivity and insights required for further work.
      As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that while we do start at the center, we need to constantly move out from that center, bring the love and efforts to ever expanding circles.

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