Yeshiva's University's JamesStriarSchool used to be known by its famous slogan: "It, Not About It." Designed to attract non-Orthodox students, the slogan was meant to poke fun at the seminaries of other movements, whose myriad courses about Judaism sacrificed true mastery of classical Jewish texts. The point was well-taken: if you want to form your own opinion, you have to be able to master the primary sources ("It"). Indeed, this has always been an assumption at the core of classical Talmud Torah (Torah study).
The slogan however, underlies a growing problem in the Orthodox world: "It" without "about it" is no longer "it". Rav Shlomo Wolbe z"l points out that the Rabbis have always sought guiding principles to clarify the main thrusts of the Torah as a whole. He writes that without such principles we lose sight of the forest and only see the trees. Rav Wolbe, who was one of the outstanding religious thinkers of our times, understood that we need to think "about it", or "it" loses its meaning. In the words of Rav Wolbe, "a person (who doesn't know such guiding principles) does not know what G-d wants from him." R. Wolbe continues his statement by asserting that the need for knowing the Torah's underlying message is "because there is certainly a purpose (tachlit) to mitzvot".*
When Rav Wolbe says that there is a purpose to mitzvoth, he means that G-d has something in mind in choosing what He wants us to do, and that the mitzvoth are not arbitrary. Moreover, if we don’t know what that something is, it compromises our entire religious behavior. This view is in contrast with the highly iconoclastic position of Prof. Y. Leibowitz, who viewed the mitzvoth as something whose reasons were basically irrelevant. The only point, according to Leibowitz, is to do what G-d tells us to do. Essentially, Leibowitz posits that there is no forest. Not only is such a vision of Judaism iconoclastic, it is highly problematic. It requires us to spend much of our lives doing things for no intrinsic reason. Such Judaism gives new meaning to the myth of Sisyphus. Yet, such Judaism is becoming more and more the norm.
Part of the problem is one of focus. The success of the Lithuanian yeshivoth has sparked a revolution in learning. Participation in Daf Yomi (wherein a page of Talmud is completed each day) classes has reached incredible proportions. Likewise, regular halacha classes are followed by thousands of people. This is, no doubt, a good thing. But, without a sense of the larger picture, such study is not truly constructive.
If anything, when it comes to study of the theological and religious message of halacha, we see a retreat. For a variety of historical and sociological reasons, study of the biblical and philosophical texts that can give us that message is in a state of serious neglect. Rather than spending serious effort on it, we often relegate the forest to silly little stories that sometimes even reflect theologically flawed positions. Is it a wonder that people do not take Jewish philosophy and theology seriously? When it comes to the trees we look carefully, devoting skill and rigor to our study, but when it comes to the forest, the best we often do is to say that the forest seems to be there.
Such a situation is bad enough, without even looking at its historical context. When viewed in that context, however, it is downright scary: The contemporary revolution in communications has made it impossible to continue educational policies designed for Jews behind social and ideological ghetto walls. Like it or not, we are all exposed to other, competing world views. The natural reaction is to question our own beliefs. As I have written many times, this situation creates an urgent need for traditional Judaism to be clearly understood by its practitioners. This means that, if Jews do not understand "about it", they will eventually stop being interested in "it".
The historical context of the problem does not just make it urgent. Without exaggeration, it makes it a question of life and death. This is because, every once in a while, a paradigm shift occurs, making certain conceptions irrelevant overnight. While there are few who recognize it, we seem to be experiencing such a shift in our own time. That few are aware of it, reminds me of the story of the Jew who goes back to the shtetl and tries to explain the trains that he has just seen in the West. He explains about the combustion of fuel that is turned into power that turns the wheels of the locomotive, which in turn pulls the rest of the train. He asks the townspeople if they understand and they all nod in the affirmative. Then one of the audience asks a question that seems to be on everyone’s mind, "I understand everything, but where do you put the horses?"
On the one hand, this is very scary. On the other, it may be G-d’s way of telling us that we cannot continue upon the current path. From His point of view, however, it is not because we will assimilate into general secular society, bad as that may be. Rather, it is because we already have become people "that do not know what G-d wants from them".
*Alay Shor vol.2, p. 170. (Jerusalem: 1986)