Ki Ani HaShem Lo Shaniti (Malachi 3:6), “Because I am God, I do not change”. Among the very final words of the official prophetic era, a close reading (diyyuk) implies that absolutely everything except The Creator is subject to change.
Judaism and the Jewish People have lived and evolved in several distinct periods and modalities (often with transitions where two or more modes existed concurrently). Traditionally, we trace the transition from a close family/clan (the age of Avraham/Yitzchak/Yaakov), through Egyptian slavery, to a nation as we left Egypt. From a wandering band in the desert to a sovereign nation in our own land, culminating in the era of Prophets, Kings and the First Temple. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Return and the Second Temple to the almost-two-millennia Diaspora. And now, today, from the seeming-endless exile to Jewish sovereignty, with approaching a majority of the world’s Jews, in our indigenous and eternal land.
Although The Creator, and by extension, the Torah, are unchanging, our ways of attaching ourselves to Him, by means of our relationship with the complex, yet eternal Mitzvot (“commandments” is a barely minimal translation which obscures much of the true essence of mitzvot, but is a convenient one-word designation in English) has, quite obviously, demonstrably, and uncontroversially, been expressed by a number of modalities, some gradual developments from an earlier form, but some quite abrupt phase changes. Although the stock example is the switch from Karbanot, the ritual animal sacrifices in the Holy Temple to the rabbinic study of same once the Temple was destroyed, that was not a singularity.
Although Judaism does, indeed, exist today both in the diaspora and in Eretz Yisrael (and might well for a long time into the future), these two forms of Jewish practice/observance/life are, relatively in an historical sense, rapidly diverging. Although both modes are the means for the people as a whole and individual Jews to forge and reinforce our intimate relationships with God, they differ in more than mere custom (such as one-day/two-day holiday observance), but in goal and purpose.
Throughout the long centuries of exile, our unique survival as an intact people, something unknown to the rest of humanity, depended (in an empirical sense–obviously in a deeper sense our survival, along with everything else in the universe, depends only on The Creator) entirely on our religious observance and our stubborn adherence to it. As the cliché goes, “more than the Jewish People kept the Shabbat (v’Shamru Bnei Yisrael et HaShabbat (Shemot 31:16), the Shabbat kept the Jewish People”. Many of our laws and rituals could be described as “defensive”, as a “circle the wagons” relationship with the surrounding, non-Jewish cultures we lived among. One could say that Jewish Survival in frequently hostile environments was the first, and not infrequently only, priority. There is no Torah observance if there are no Jews to follow its paths.
While we were minimally, at best of times, equipped to combat physical threats, our leaders clearly saw that the greater danger to our future was run-away assimilation. Therefore, the emphasis was placed on rules and rituals which forcibly separated us from our neighbors. Discouraged by kashrut laws to eat and drink with them, social interactions were minimized. Isolating ourselves within our own communities once-a-week, Shabbat, also forced us to keep to ourselves. Obviously, all our mitzvot also contained paths towards individual and communal spiritual development and intimate attachment to God, I submit that these were almost luxuries in determining halacha.
Today, in Eretz Yisrael, we have not only an historic opportunity, but a transcendent responsibility. As longed for over countless generations, as mandated from our earliest days, as a theme repeating throughout our Prophetic period, rabbinic teachings beginning with the Talmud, the vast literatures of halacha (observance and ritual law), machshava (philosophy), kabbalah (mystical/spiritual exercise), chassidut and mussar (morality), perhaps culminating in the relatively recent writings of Rav Kook (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Chief Rabbi of The Mandate of Palestine (which has evolved to The State of Israel) and our most recent, perhaps last, visionary leader), we are to be not merely Or L’Goyim, a Light to the Nations, but to, again via Torah and Mitzvot, albeit in necessarily re-calibrated forms, usher in the ultimate Geula, Redemption, with all humanity, the world in all its many aspects, the entire Creation, reaching it’s highest potential.
Even though the previous paragraph risks the illusion of pretentiousness, this is only the case for those of us who have lost the dream, the vision of what our destiny is and what our potential for good in the world can be. However, to begin work towards that goal, we in Israel need to recognize that our change is not merely geographical. Even though the details have yet to be understood/revealed, our relationship with Torah and our participation in Mitzvot need to be re-calibrated towards this goal of Geula. While of course, not every Jew in Eretz Yisrael is “religious”, not to mention that not every person in Eretz Yisrael is Jewish, but the gradual self-destruction of radical assimilation is no longer a threat here, and combatting that is no longer the primary goal of our religious/spiritual lives as Jews.
Mitzvot are the only path we have to reach this goal, but, just as halacha has adapted throughout our history to respond to changes in our situations, the way we perform many mitzvot will no be the way we have in our most recent places of exile. Of course, this requires letting go of the past mode of fighting assimilation and the courage to discover/develop how we can perform our mitzvot, perhaps in entirely new ways, to power our journey from here to that reality that we’ve yet to experience. We also need the courage to believe that all of the talk of Redemption wasn’t merely placebos to help us endure and survive the millennia of pain and torture, but that they describe an actual reality and they promise us that we will achieve it.
While the array of minhagim (customs), nusachot (liturgies), niggunim (melodies), cuisines and more which make up the cultural fabric of our people add beauty and richness, if we are to move forward they must yield normative authority and power-of-obligation to make room for what is to come.
Here, of course, is another great challenge. Since we don’t know yet the forms Torat/Mitzvot/Minhag Eretz Yisrael will take, can we find the courage to let go of the security blankets of our past, successful as they were in their times and places to bring us, thriving and burgeoning with yet-to-be-formed energy and creativity, to our miraculous existence in sovereign Eretz Yisrael, before we’ve found something to to grasp hold of? While it’s true that the ladder that has brought us so far has, all too often and in too many cases, now turned into an anchor, stranding us here and blocking our striving to fulfill God’s ultimate goal for us, we only have faith, emunah, and trust, bitachon, that a truly bright, infinitely suffused with light future really is inevitably awaiting us? Without certainty that there will be “smooth sailing”, in fact with certainty that there will be difficult, unknown and terrifying challenges between our imperfect present and the promise of Olam M’Taken, Olam Shalem, a finally complete, rectified and perfect world, yet to even be empirically describable, must we, can we depend on the emergence of a new generation of leaders, scholars, teachers, visionaries to blaze the trail?
Although there are limitless lessons to learn from our past leaders, from Avraham Avinu, from Yitzchak and Ya’akov, from Moshe and Yehoshua, from out Prophets, Kings and Sages, from our prodigies and geonim (geniuses) and visionaries like Rambam, Ramban, Ramak, Ari, Karo, Ramchal, Baal Shem Tov, Vilna Gaon, our Rebbes and Ravs, through Rav Kook, insightful and inspiring, but all in our collective pasts, pointing to the future but no longer here to lead us, perhaps even without a new leader, but, rather, following Rav Kook’s observation that we, Am Yisrael, The People of Israel in all our diversity, must rise to the challenge of bringing the ultimate Geuala not only to our people, but to the universe as a whole.
Can we rise to this challenge? Can we not?