Is Judaism merely just one of many “opiates of the people”, as Karl Marx infamously described religion? Even if we stipulate that it goes beyond merely offering succor to otherwise bleak lives, how far are we willing to go? Does it offer a unique prescription to make our lives at least slightly less bleak? Even if we stipulate that Torah presents a blueprint to eliminate all the bleakness, to bring joy, peace, brotherhood and love to our world, to create an ideal society, are we seeing Judaism in its fullness or merely a single facet?
Is it possible to fully embrace an authentic Judaism while rejecting core principles such as belief in a non-corporeal, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present God, the other-worldliness of Torah, the possibility of prophecy, a Mashiach-based future and the ultimate Resurrection of the Dead? Does Judaism open a door for us to a non-empirical reality, Olam HaBah, which transcends our everyday physical or is that merely wishful thinking and delusion, at best just more of the same-old same-old succor? Is this world, Olam HaZeh, really all there is? Can they coexist?
Starting with at least a provisional acceptance that there is a deeper reality, you soon reach a point where the gap between these worlds becomes irreconcilable. The goal of perfecting this world for its own sake increasingly leads to our shirking our responsibility as Jews to prepare the conditions in this world to actualize the transition into the next. This exclusive focus ultimately denies the reality of the world to come, and thus our primary purpose which is to enable its attainment. On the other hand, Olam Hazeh is not unimportant. It is, after all, the only arena we have in which to work. We’re not an ascetic, pleasure-hating people, but at the same time we cannot be allow ourselves to become so attached to the pleasures of this phase-of-being that we’re unable to let it go at the proper time.
Of course, this reflects the frequent conflict between the two goals of maximizing the material present or planning for a future promised to be exponentially better. It can also be seen as a clash between the competing world views of a zero-sum (your gain is my loss) game versus a positive-sum (m’lo kol ha’aretz b’kvodo–He (continuously) fills the entire universe with His renewed and renewing energy–we can (and do, eventually) all win) game. Ultimately, it’s a test of belief. Are only those things we can experience with our physical sensory apparatus “real” or is reality infinitely richer than that with the inclusion of a spiritual realm, as yet unrealized, that The Creator reveals in His Torah?
While there may be situations where, if we’re clever and have finesse, we can act to maximize both goals, most times we must make a decision and choose only one.
Torah provides the fundamentals of a civilized ethical system, the seven Noahide Mitzvot. Assuming we follow them, for the most part we’re then trusted to fully develop the potentials of This World. Most of us are equipped, to one degree or another, with a complete physical/neural/cognitive package (our sensory organs), to experience the visible world, as well as the “software” (our brain) to process these observations. We can, and must, independently develop science, medicine, technology and also the social structures such as a market economy and a justice system, that make our bodily lives not merely survivable, but pleasant and which are necessary for people to live together cooperatively and in peace. At the very least, we create a positive feedback reward/punishment system to encourage our moral and ethical behavior. Surprisingly, we can do all of this without the Torah (beyond these seven mitzvot) at all, even though it often feels hopeless to build an equitable world on our own. However, can we honestly declare ourselves completely Torah-based if we venture no farther than Olam Hazeh? What can possibly be the purpose of the other 606 mitzvot?
Granted, we only have Olam Hazeh in which to live and work–it is also all we can perceive. But even if we accept the future possibility of Olam HaHabah, do we assume (or require) that there is a continuous transformation from this world to it? In other words, is Olam HaBah merely a fully developed version of Olam HaZeh or is it something entirely different? Perhaps when we reach a certain stage while working in this world (and not necessarily the maximized one!) we are taken on an entirely new path, totally different and disconnected from Olam Hazeh (except for this single point of transition), and enter a completely new reality. In other words, it might well be that applying our ideas and values of what is ideal for this world, and trying to physically transform it into that ideal, we might never see and, therefore, entirely miss that new path. Instead of branching off at this perhaps otherwise unremarkable point that can lead us to actualizing Olam HaBah, preoccupied with our false preconceptions of “perfection”, we completely miss it! This is the classic fallacy of “missing the forest for the trees”, but this time with catastrophic results.
In our contemporary world where a large segment of Jews see little value in mitzvot and Torah, but rather join the currently popular bandwagon-definition of “Tikkun Olam” and proclaim this, largely unrelated to actual mitzvot (except by painful stretches of logic), to truly be “Jewish Values”, there appears to be just a tiny minority of us who take the opposite view. Most “humanistic” dreams of Olam HaBah are limited to the material world because that is all they acknowledge. Greater prosperity and more “equitable” distribution of material, consumer goods, become the end, rather than a provisional, goal. While these values will likely make things much more pleasant in Olam HaZeh (and perhaps we do need a relatively stable and peaceful Olam HaZeh in order to focus on our more holy work) we don’t want to become too comfortable lest we become so invested in the empirical that we forget that there are other, much more transcendent realities open to us. In many ways, this is a restatement of the Chanukah conflict–the clash between a culture which rejoices in a complex world which contains both the material and the spiritual, and a culture which admits only the empirical.
Merely acknowledging this balance, however, is insufficient. Gloating over recognizing that there is a spiritual dimension of no positive value. The real challenge is to navigate the tension between these poles. It’s inevitable that conflicts will arise when faced with real decisions of how to behave. If we brutally ignore the value of the material world, just as much as if we brutal deny the very existence and priority of Olam HaBah, either way we’re on a path to disaster. Is there a real-world opportunity to explore tipping the balance towards the future?
The starkest illustration of this distance between the short-term (assuming that Olam HaZeh is all that exists) and the long-term (faith that another reality, Olam HaBah, awaits us) is Bayit Shlishi, the Third Temple. (There are other, perhaps less drastic, primary steps we can take in the meanwhile such as migrating from our current, Galut (diaspora)-centric, largely defensive, halachic practice to a Geula (Redemption)-centric, largely transformative one. While this also guarantees substantial resistance, it would be on a “local” inter-Jewish scale.) Quite obviously, neither can we build nor can a Third Temple descend from Heaven (a mystical vision of how it might come into existence, but one that nevertheless requires a physical structure on a physical geography) while that specific real estate is occupied by another buildings. Likewise, no one can deny that the mosques currently standing on Har HaBayit, The Temple Mount, are very important to Muslims. Nor can one deny the centrality of an actual, real-time Bet HaMikdash, within the parameters of our tradition, to enable the transformation of this world to its highest possible state.
I have no doubt that any Jewish attempt to clear the site for the Temple, “a House of Prayer for All Nations“, would be met with world outcry, opposition and, most likely, explosive violence. I also have no doubt, and our entire tradition leaves no room for that doubt, that if the Temple were, indeed, in place and functioning as intended, the entire nature of the world would be transformed to the benefit of all of Creation–in other words we would have transitioned (or would transition soon) to this new reality, Olam HaBah.
One’s willingness to even consider this requires a literal “leap of faith”. Is our tradition really true, that beyond our visible, predictable, Olam HaZeh world there is a higher reality where all that has up to now been created truly exists at its highest potential, waiting for us to usher it in?
While there are no direct empirical techniques, no Olam HaZeh tools, we can utilize to test beforehand if Olam HaBah is real or just an insubstantial dream, perhaps there is a “baby step” to test the water. Unfortunately, this would also provoke international outrage and probably violence as well–but enabling Tefilla and Torah-study to resume after two millennia, on Har HaBayit could function as an effective “lab experiment”.
I, for one, am not satisfied with mere survival, although that itself will be a great thing. The return of the Jewish People to Eretz Yisrael, wonderful as that is, must be more significant that mere refuge. Perhaps it’s time to tip the balance to the ultimate future.