Why Can't They Be Like We Were? (Ideas #21)


In recent articles, I have noticed other writers' disappointment with reactions in the Jewish community to the current crisis. One reads about lack of true commitment - what the existentialists called engagement. Israel is extraneous to Jews outside of Israel as Zionism has become extraneous to those of us fortunate enough to live here. While disturbing, this phenomenon should be understood as a symptom of a much more fundamental malaise.


Those of us in education are often alarmed by the self-absorbtion of younger generations. While we cannot help but wonder why they seem so disinterested in any greater cause, we may not realize that the glittering causes that electrified our own youth simply no longer exist.


The Jewish people finds itself past some very critical struggles. All hyperbole about the present situation aside, Israel has won its stuggle to survive. Soviet Jewry is no longer oppressed. Orthodoxy has reestablished itself as a viable community. As such, no cause can justifiably call out to Jewish youth to save our people.


While my own generation only witnessed the tail end of most of the stuggles that marked Jewish life in the second half of the 20th century, the challenges were still real enough to energize us into pushing ourselves for the sake of the nation. The words "Am Yisrael Chai" were simultaneously our faith and our challenge. Whether through political activism or in our studies in the Beit Midrash, we were driven by the thought that our efforts were needed by the Jewish people, and would make an impact upon it.

While the above may explain the current lack of engagement in the Jewish community, it is hardly reason for comfort. The issue is more than nostalgic. Excellence requires people to push themselves. When the group presents no great challenges to its members, the only challenges that remain are those generated by the self. By definition, meeting individual challenges does not greatly impact society at large.

The Jews have been endowed with a revolutionary calling - to elevate mankind through constant awareness of G-d. Like any revolution, however, it can best be sustained in conscious combat. It thrives on vanquishing the old order. Once it cannot call its adherents to struggle, it loses its' raison d'etre.


The Torah foresaw that the most likely time for religious deviation is during a period of material comfort (i.e. wealth and security). That is to say, when no particular political or sociological struggle manifests itself, it is easier to forget our opposition to the general status quo of moral and religious mediocrity. As in previous periods of relative material comfort, the biggest challenge becomes actual awareness of our national challenge. The Torah's warning for such times should make us realize that the challenge ahead is of no small proportions.


While sustaining a revolutionary mindset has been proven well nigh impossible in other contexts, the Jewish people has somehow managed to champion unpopular causes for most of recorded history. As our people settle into greater levels of material and physical comfort, our religious and educational leadership must accept the difficult challenge of rousing our youth to the quiet and subtle conflict that denotes all of Jewish history. As the flags and marches of our recent past lose thier lustre, we need to turn back to the words of Alenu to realize what we're here for and what we are up against. It is precisely now that our energies are less sapped by econmomic and physical security, that we can impact more greatly on the world at large.