Tradition Confronts Modernity ‎

What is the Meaning and Purpose of Life? | Total Comments: 0 | Total Topics: 8

			The year is 1812. Napoleon leads the seemingly invincible armies of the French Empire deep ‎into the heart of Russia. Nothing really stops the French as they march across the Europe all ‎the way to Moscow. They already control most of continent as a result of earlier conquests. ‎Wherever they control they bring the reforms of the French revolution – emancipation of all ‎peoples, equality, enlightenment culture, a legal system, even the use of surnames. Europe, as ‎a result of these changes, will never really be the same. Despite Napoleon’s defeat, the genie ‎of change has been let out of the bottle and nothing can fully restore the old system. ‎
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The Jews are not immune to these changes. In Western countries such as France, Germany, ‎and the Papal States, the changes are welcomed with open arms. The long-awaited freedom ‎from the ghetto has finally arrived. Napoleon organizes a Jewish Sanhedrin (high court) to ‎facilitate the assimilation of the Jews into the national culture. Napoleon is viewed as almost a ‎messianic figure. Jews name their children after him. In the German and French communities, ‎the ghetto and tradition are the past; assimilation and reform are the future. ‎
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But in the Jewish population centers of Eastern Europe the winds of change had not yet been ‎felt. It was only with Napoleon’s march into Russia that reality hit home. So, in the summer ‎of 1812 a great debate captured the attention of the Jews of Eastern Europe.  The army of ‎Napoleon was poised to capture the territory where they lived, and with it, bring what the ‎Jews had craved for almost 2000 years - freedom and equality with their Gentile peers.  They ‎would be free of the evil Czars who had persecuted them for centuries. Great rabbis and ‎leaders welcomed this process. They foresaw the advancement of the Jewish way of life ‎through the emancipation that Napoleon would bring. ‎
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But unanimity wasn’t to be on this issue because unexpectedly, ‎Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidut, remained loyal to the evil ‎Czars who brutally ruled Russia at that time.  In addition to remaining loyal to the Czar, he ‎spoke out about his great fears of the future of the Jewish people under the rule of Napoleon. ‎Surprisingly he felt that Jewish continuity would somehow survive under the Czars, but was ‎sure to fail under the freedoms of Napoleon. In the end, Napoleon was defeated, but his ‎ideas slowly made their way into society. However, the fear of those ideas caused ‎Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s position to become the mainstream rabbinic reaction to modernity. ‎
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Looking back 200 years later, we can see that the events in that summer of 1812 set Judaism ‎on a course that was almost ordained by fate. The next two centuries of Jewish history ‎revolved, to a great degree, around the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Whether all that ‎happened would have happened regardless of Napoleon and his military campaign is a matter ‎of historical speculation. That he was at least a catalyst is definite. ‎
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Historically, we can see no less than five different pathways that were forged in the European ‎Jewish world. The first of these was certainly in place long before 1812. This was the path ‎that Rabbi Shneur Zalman advocated, the path of Orthodox insularity. Prior to Napoleon this ‎path was enforced on the Jews from outside, while being exactly what most Jews desired. ‎They were almost exclusively Orthodox and had little need or want to integrate with their ‎goyish neighbors. The gentiles looked on the Jews with a combination of scorn and envy, ‎always restricting Jewish prosperity and occasionally fomenting pogroms. The Jews, despite ‎their poverty and precarious position, survived, and to a limited degree, thrived. These were ‎the European Jews - mostly Ashkenazi, almost 100% religious, many ignorant and devout, a ‎small percentage incredibly learned and brilliant. ‎
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The 19th century products of this group have been seen in three of our ‎sections: Mussar, Hasidut, and the Yeshiva. Each of these three subcultures sprang mainly ‎from Eastern Europe out of 18th century roots that grew rapidly during the 19th century. All ‎three advocated insular Judaism, though the way they pushed it differed ‎considerably. Mussar, to some degree, used enlightenment thinking to create a Jewish ‎approach to internal spiritual growth that foreshadowed secular psychology. The Yeshiva ‎system, though basically an expansion of earlier local systems of teaching Talmud, paralleled ‎the secular university system. Hasidut, perhaps, was the only one of the three that can really ‎be called purely Jewish. It was the simple Jew celebrating his faith through the guidance of a ‎revered master. ‎
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By the end of the 20th century, these three groups, though frequently at odds with each other ‎over doctrinal fine points, combined both politically and socially to form large and rapidly ‎growing communities in Israel and in the Diaspora. Beginning in the 1980’s they, along with ‎their Sefaradic peers, have become known as the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews. They openly ‎advocate an insular lifestyle, whenever possible avoiding social contact with anyone, Jewish ‎or not, who they deem an outsider. To the Haredim, the threat was Napoleon’s tempting ‎emancipation that had materialized all over the world, and the only defense against it was, ‎and is, staying away. They reject as much as they can of the secular world. They live in the ‎modern world and use many of its technological advances, but breathe the air of the Eastern ‎European shtetl. ‎
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The second of the five paths also existed long before Napoleon though it was hardly ‎recognizable among the Jews. This was the secular path. It saw in the enlightenment and ‎Napoleon’s campaigns as nothing but opportunity. Secular knowledge became openly ‎available to these Jews and they took to it like a thirsty man in the desert takes to water. ‎Whereas only a minute percentage of Jews had access to the arts and the sciences before ‎‎1800, by the late 19th century vast numbers had acclimated in these fields. During the early ‎‎20th century, despite their considerably smaller numbers, Jews were dominating many areas of ‎science. It was obvious that artistic and scientific talents had been lying dormant for centuries ‎in the Jewish mind, emerging immediately upon being given an opportunity. The Jewish ‎pursuit of the secular invariably led to abandoning of religion. But it didn’t necessarily lead to ‎abandoning of God. Those two avenues, maintaining some belief and giving it up altogether, ‎are represented by the parallel streams of pantheism and atheism. ‎
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The list of Jews who made major contributions in secular fields is enormous. Among the most ‎prominent are Marx, Einstein, and Freud, arguably the three most influential individuals in ‎intellectual fields of the modern era. What made Jews so adept in advancing secular ‎knowledge? There is, of course, no definitive answer to this question. However, it is possible ‎to speculate. In a sense, Jews had gained a collective ability from all their centuries of Talmud ‎study to pursue a subject intensely. They also had a long tradition of advancing their own ‎religious studies in new directions. Philosophy and mysticism are examples of this. When the ‎opportunity opened up for them to break out of religious restrictions, they simply turned these ‎abilities to others areas of knowledge. The results are everywhere. ‎
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The third path was to remain within the religious fold but to gradually drop all elements that ‎didn’t fit in with the modern view of the world. This was the path of Reform. It was already ‎in the works before Napoleon, but only in theory. It began in earnest with the Jews of ‎Germany receiving their long-awaited emancipation. Within a few years, the first Reform ‎temple was functioning. Of the paths that emerged from the upheavals of the early ‎‎19th century, Reform was the most immediate direct outcome.   ‎
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Though Reform was radically different from the long tradition of Orthodox that it competed ‎with, its goal was never to abandon Judaism. In this regard, Reform can be seen as a ‎compromise between Orthodox and secular. The secularists, both atheist and pantheist, never ‎claimed to be the spiritual heirs of Judaism. They knew they were dropping Judaism lock, ‎stock, and barrel. Reform, on the other hand, maintained that their version of Judaism was the ‎logical extension of tradition as it met the modern world. The results were evident over the ‎next 150 years – well over 90% of Jews had nothing to do with Orthodox by the 1960’s. ‎There was a corollary to this result, however. By the 1980’s the majority of those Jews were ‎no longer Reform either. They were thoroughly assimilated secular Jews with no religious ‎affiliation. ‎
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The fourth path would appear to be the predicted outcome of the clash between tradition and ‎modernity. This is the co-called Modern Orthodox movement.  Like Reform, it was a direct ‎outcome of the influence of enlightenment. Modern Orthodox was really a response to ‎Reform, which was spreading rapidly in the first few decades of the 19th century. Primarily ‎the creation of one man, Samson Raphael Hirsch, it is the bold, and, some would say, ‎hopeless attempt to synthesize authentic Jewish tradition and secular knowledge. ‎
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Modern Orthodoxy invariably requires a compromise in interpretation of tradition. The easiest ‎step in this process involved the jettisoning of the superstitious and mystical elements of ‎Judaism. A more difficult step was to reinterpret the Bible to fit into the current standards of ‎science and history. This was always fraught was danger. The problem is obvious: once one ‎idea or assumption is dropped, what is to prevent dropping everything? No satisfactory ‎answers have ever been given for this question, but that hasn’t stopped Modern Orthodox ‎scholars from continuing their chosen path. Modern Orthodox is really the latest ‎manifestation of Judaism’s search for meaningful life in a changing world. ‎
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The final path sprang not from the Napoleonic Wars, but from their aftermath. Though it had ‎been gestating for centuries, the birth of Zionism was the practical result of Jewish tradition ‎attempting to keep stride with contemporary political trends. In its early stage (1860-1880), it ‎was largely restricted to the minds of a few religious and secular idealists. It only became ‎palpable with the adventures of a small number of dedicated secularists backed by wealthy ‎Jewish financiers. During the last two decades of the 19th century it transformed from a pie-‎in-the-sky movement with little chance of success to a worldwide project that required all the ‎ingenuity and determination that had built up over 2000 years of exile and persecution. ‎
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The Religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, saw the rebirth of Israel, of the ‎Hebrew language, of a Jewish army, and the gathering of the exiles, as nothing less than ‎messianic fulfillment. Inevitably, this belief created clashes with both the secularists and with ‎the traditionalists. The clash with the secularists was over what direction the new nation ‎would take – would it be a modern secular state or would it have religious underpinnings and ‎overtones? With the traditionalists, the clash was over doctrine. Was it permitted for man to ‎push what God had promised to bring in due time? Neither of these clashes is anywhere near ‎being resolved. If anything, they are both deeper than ever and dictate the very fabric of ‎Israeli society. ‎
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Where will all this lead? Nobody really knows, and we no longer have prophets to clue us in ‎on the future. Will the secularists win out in the end and the religious be relegated to the ‎dustbin of history? Or will Haredi and Modern Orthodox somehow create some ‎amalgamation that satisfies the religious needs of the 21st century Jew? Zionism will certainly ‎play a major role in whatever direction Judaism takes, though it will likely alienate as many ‎Jews as it activates. Napoleon probably thought the Jews would disappear within a few ‎generations. Little could he imagine the impact and new life he would breathe into this ‎eternally stubborn and remarkably flexible people. ‎



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