The Journey of the Jewish Nation -Part III (Ideas #96)

The End of Jewish History



Besides the written version of the last two sections of this essay, I had the privilege of delivering it as a lecture at the OU Israel Center here in Jerusalem. Many interested questions followed the lecture, but one stood out in particular: I was asked how I envisioned Rav Kook's  utopian synthesis of halacha and inspiration in practical terms. I answered that this was a very personal question, since it gets to the core of my own personal vision and, I believe, that of the CardozoAcademy as well.


I replied that, in my understanding, halacha will be explicitly understood as a manifestation of a larger idea. That means that halacha will be seen in perspective, as a legal and ritual corpus that embodies something much greater than itself.


Not to be misunderstood, serious commitment to halacha has shown itself to be the single most important factor in the survival of the Jews as Jews. Accordingly, I see halacha as the body that allows the Jewish national soul to express itself. Without such a body, the Jewish soul floats about without the force of tangible and real expression. In such a situation, the Jewish idea dissipates into a pale reflection of itself. Thus, it should be clear to us that the Jewish mission will only thrive if we continue to give halacha our greatest efforts.


Nonetheless, halacha is often performed in complete isolation from the ideas to which it is supposed to give expression. That we are constantly surrounded with such practice of halacha makes it difficult for us to transcend it. Those of us who live in the Orthodox world automatically associate mere practice of rigorous halacha with the Jewish ideal. On some level, this is an understandable reaction to the threat posed by antinomian movements protesting against halacha in the Modern period. This reaction, however, has also set us back, so that we ignore what brought about these protests to begin with. The coming together of inspiration and halacha that Rav Kook speaks about awaits, not only the movements of protest to revalue the halacha, but it also awaits the traditional forces of reaction to accept the authentic need for inspiration.


The situation has become so extreme that, even in the realm of prayer, where the halacha and the idea it represents are almost identical, we still frequently have no idea of what we are doing. There is a famous story about a concerned mashgiach ruchani who felt that, in spite of the intense Torah study going on in his yeshiva, his students were missing the point. To remedy the situation, he smacked his fist on the podium in the middle of the independent study session and announced, “There's a G-d in the world.” Sometimes, I feel that we might as well make such an announcement in the middle of our Amidah prayers in shul. Consequently it should come as no surprise that some Jews have deserted our glorious tradition.


In place of this sad situation, the End of Jewish History will be marked by prayer worthy of the name – a detailed expression of our attachment to G-d throughout our daily routine. Our meticulous Torah study will be infused with our longing to know every facet of G-d’s will and to be permeated by its spirit. In that epoch, tzedekah according to all its precepts will not be something that we just do, but a tangible manifestation of our solidarity with, and responsibility for, others. It will be an expression of concern for all who are created in G-d's holy image. Every time that we refrain from minutiae of work on Shabbat and Yom Tov, we will think of our own smallness and the greatness of our Creator. And so too, every detail of the halacha will be performed in a thoughtful manner, that transforms us as we do it.


It is to prepare for this ideal that we have gone through the stages of Jewish history. Our parched souls should make us so thirsty for the general ideas behind the halacha, that we will push ourselves to new states of inspiration and awareness. As Rav Kook points out, however, this movement back to the great idea will need to greet the halacha with loving appreciation. It will need to realize that better times will not result from ceasing to fine-tune the details that we have worked so hard to achieve. No, the intricate development of halacha is an advanced tool waiting to advance our spirituality. But it is, and always will be, a tool.


The challenge of the above messianic vision is largely placed into our own hands. If the vision sounds like what Judaism should be all about, even before the final stage of Jewish history, we should realize that it is easier said than done and that there are still many impediments in its way. Nonetheless, we lose nothing by trying to raise our own mode of observance closer to the ideal in whatever ways we can.  By putting meaning into our observance we will not only better ourselves, but we will do our small but very real part in bringing about the End of Jewish History.