The great Rabbi Kook, first Chief Rabbi of the Jewish settlement in Israel, once declared that “The old will be renewed and the new will become old.” Like most of Rabbi Kook’s writings, this statement is poetic, perhaps more cryptic than usual. Rabbi Kook’s intent is understood to mean the following: That which is old, the traditions and values which are the bedrock of our heritage, will be infused with new life when applied to a modern setting, a setting different from that in which the tradition developed. Similarly, the new setting of modern society, different in so many ways from ancient civilization, will gain purpose and legitimacy when anchored to the values of yore, to the solid foundation of our timeless tradition.
Life in our modern society has placed new challenges before civilization, and to Jews in particular. In previous centuries faith in God was axiomatic; no one entertained a possibility of a world without a creator. To be sure, there were different faiths among humanity, but the concept of a religious belief was taken for granted.
All this changed during the enlightenment age, when individualism and secularism were introduced and promoted throughout European civilization, subsequently spreading beyond Europe and into the new world. This posed new challenges for the Jew, and many Jews embraced the new philosophies with both arms. At the same time, Jews who revered the tradition held tenaciously onto their own culture and traditions, grasping it more tightly in the face of turbulent opposition. Still others straddled the fence, valuing their traditions and holding them close while still engaging with the new and different society. These tensions remain among today’s Jews, and our choices of lifestyle continue to span the spectrum, from complete immersion in our traditions to complete rejection of it. Most Jews fall somewhere on the spectrum.
The establishment of the State of Israel impacted strongly on our sense of identity. Religion and tradition were the primary bases of our identity until that time. Over the seven decades of Israel’s statehood Jews have increasingly integrated Israel as an element of their Jewish identity. Argumentation over Israeli policies and politics – even over its right to exist – have become the hallmark of Jewish life. We all feel strongly, in some sense, and look to Israel, whether as a land or as a state, as the center of Jewish life.
It became apparent to me during this season that we have woefully failed in imparting this sense of identity to our community and children. In our Hebrew school, returning after a three week break, none of the children could name the holiday we just celebrated, although Yom Ha’atzmaut was just the day before. We live in a secular society and it is not surprising (although no less disturbing) that our children are not very familiar with our religion. But one would think that at least we could retain a sense of Jewish identity through a connection and awareness of our bond to Israel. In this too, we have evidently failed. Why are we so unprepared?
The Torah instructs us to be holy. Moses gathered the entire assembly of Israel and said to them “you must be kadosh, holy.” What does it mean to be holy? Do we have to walk around in a spiritual trance with a halo round our heads?
A definition of the word appears in an unlikely place. Elsewhere the Torah forbids a Jew (male or female) from being a prostitute. “There shall not be a kedesha (female prostitute) among the daughters of Israel and there shall not be a kadesh (male prostitute) among the sons of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 23:18) The word for prostitute is the same as for holy! The commentaries explain that a prostitute is prepared and available for all. In a typical, monogamous relationship, the two partners are exclusive to each other. The ceremony of betrothal, called kiddushin (again, holy) consecrates the two in an exclusive relationship wherein they are dedicated to one another.
Holiness, therefore, means being dedicated, prepared, designated, for a particular purpose.
We know what it means to be prepared. In our little island country we live under the threat of natural disasters which can occur at any time. Every household has an earthquake kit with supplies to last at least a few days. We keep bottles of water handy and warm clothes available and accessible for such an event. Every public building and workplace has a designated assembly point should the building require evacuation. We have clear instructions for various contingencies. We have a plan B and often a plan C. We keep a defibrillator for a medical emergency and we have fire alarms set up to alert us in case of a fire. We are well-prepared, we are holy.
Why are we so “holy” when it comes to all these matters but we are so unprepared for being Jewish? Is it because the former are “real” to us and the latter not so much? We would hate to admit to that, but there is certainly a great deal we take for granted when it comes to being Jewish. We have fallen into a comfortable complacency in regards to our Jewishness. We have our routine, participating in whatever we are accustomed to, without rocking the boat or striving for more. We don’t have a culture of learning.
It is nice to be comfortable, but we are missing our train as a result. Preparedness for being Jewish means constantly grappling with our faith and engaging with the teachings of our tradition. In this we are lax. In this we are “unholy,” unprepared.
We have a wonderful opportunity over the coming weeks to create a sea-change and jump-start a culture of learning in our community. This coming Shabbat a Shabbaton has been organized along with an incredible personality who will challenge us on our understanding of Jewish tradition. Rabbi Blackman’s visit has been made possible thanks to the support of the Deckston Trust, a legacy of a family devoted to saving Jews, and now saving our Jewish identity. In a few weeks, over the festival of Shavuot, the WJCC and a few other donors have invested a great deal of resources to host a scholar in residence to enhance our celebration of the festival and learn more about who we are. Rabbi Shalom Hammer, among other topics, will address Jewish identity and what is our role, as a community and as parents, in imparting these values and sense of Jewish self to our congregation and children.
We have an opportunity to turn the tide, to become prepared, to infuse our routine and modern life with the precious legacy of our ancient values and timeless tradition. We have a chance to begin fulfilling this great Mitzvah of the Torah, to be holy, to be prepared.
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