Abandoning the Masses
I often find the thoughts of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch utterly exhilarating in their relevance a century and a half after they were written. (Biased I am. During the great controversy around the bicentennial of his birth, I spelled out my belief that his writings were some of the most useful to contemporary thinking Jews.)
Several passages in parshas Bereishis always excite me. In one of them, RSRH detects not only meaning in the names in the geneologies of both Kayin and Shais, but treats them as a pattern that governs the pendulum swing of societies. That pattern invites comparison with our own times.
Here is the basic sequence. Forgetting the special relationship between G-d and Man, (אנוש) even while retaining belief in Him, must lead to dissatisfaction with religious life. This leads in a following generation to an excessive preoccupation with material things simply for the sake of possession (קינן). Finding this vacuous and devoid of meaning, the next generation tries again to connect with G-d by asserting His existence and honoring Him with pious proclamations (מהללאל). Alas, the service of G-d through praise of the lips without subordinating one’s life to His dictates is bound to fail, so the next generation declines (ירד) once more. Detecting the stumbling, some look to educating a new generation (חנוך), ennobling them with something more meaningful. Such intensive education, however, remains the province of only a minority. The next generation is therefore one of “giving up the masses,” מתושלח.
Here I find his words particularly compelling. “They believe they have achieved their goal if they have saved themselves and elevated themselves only. To them the masses were מתים whom they שלח, abandon.”
To be sure, we cannot find in this a general indictment of our own generation of Torah-observant Jews, as evident from his words a few lines further. “To abandon the masses is a diseased condition in times in which the conception of G-d had become a theoretical speculation, and where the thought of G-d makes men into fanatics, drives them to eschew life they fear its temptations, or – in blind arrogance – disdain its problems. This retirement into oneself, this asceticism, which is exactly what the Torah opposes, is based on the erroneous idea that godliness is something pertaining to the next world, something that lies outside the sphere of ordinary life.”
Parts of our community may have embraced simplicity and even poverty, but they are not ascetics, and have certainly not lost the ability to find HKBH in the sphere of ordinary, everyday life, in which they find a steady supply of ways to engage Hashem and elevate the mundane.. Nor have people retreated into isolation, oblivious to the needs of their neighbors, to whom they relate wonderfully with tzedakah, chesed, and outreach.
Nonetheless, I fear that the Torah uses broad strokes to describe trends that may indeed apply to us in some degree. Have we not in fact “abandoned” our brethren, at least in some important ways? It bothers me to no end – and I know that many of my colleagues and friends share the concern – that many of us have in fact retreated to an “us and them” mode, particularly in regard to Israel.
Israel is home to the largest population of Jews on the globe. So many people I know, living as part of a small minority in galus, remember how thrilled they were on their first trip to Israel. Quite aside from the remarkable availability of ruchniyus in large measure was a feeling of satisfaction and identification. Everything was Jewish! The police were Jewish police; the firefighters Jewish firefighters. Radio was Jewish, newspapers Jewish, doctors, nurses, physicists, plumbers, carpenters and attorneys – all Jewish!
The other side of the coin is that the unemployment is Jewish. The declining test scores are Jewish. The drug use is Jewish, as is the abuse, physical and other. Some people are homeless, and some of them occasionally literally die on the street. They are Jewish, too.
We reassured ourselves for decades – with a good deal of justice – that one part of the community cannot do everything. We made our contribution, and had to attend to enough spiritual work within our own neighborhoods. Others would have to care of the material and social accoutrements of the greater society.
What happens, though, when others are not getting the job done? How many of us in Israel make it our concern to think about and address the mega-problems of Israeli society? How many spend time, and encourage their talmidim to spend time, worrying about unemployment, the growing gap between rich and poor, homelessness, the constant slaughter on the roads, growing crime in schools? (Is it really satisfactory to note that this is not the case in our schools, and smirk that what do you expect from those who have abandoned Torah practice? Most of those have in fact not abandoned it entirely, and when they have, it has been out of ignorance. Do not matters of pikuach nefesh remain our problem, even in regard to those who have parted with the halachic community?) Gedolei Yisrael used to stoop and pick up the trash in the streets of Israel, because their pride in it would not allow for the public display of something unseemly within her. Aren’t social sores that fester as ugly as trash in the streets?
To be sure, the incredible difficulties with getting anything done in Israel, of getting past the roadblocks and bureaucracy, makes it easier for people not to get involved. Yet so many Israelis have made major contributions in building the country from its ever so humble beginnings. Surely we have talent to contribute. I suspect that part of our unintended disregard for the myriad issues of public welfare stems from our regarding other Jews as part of an alien culture that we have written off – abandoned.
To be sure, there are exceptions. In areas of medical services, we have the examples of Yad Sarah and the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt”l, and Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman and the institutions of Migdal HaEmek in regard to social services. There are others. But just how many are transmitting a sense of responsibility for our greater tzibbur, our largest Jewish community (and I personally have no compunctions about adding “our State”) to the next generation? The only ones that I know of are people like R. Aharon Lichtenstein, shlit”a, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Etzion. They are all in the Dati Leumi camp, so many to the right will simply disregard their words and their examples.
Here in the US, Israel is a nice place to visit, but we don’t make it the home of nearly as much worrying as we are capable of. Sure, we send our kids there, we give to the meshulachim, and we get incensed when we read the latest ways in which Israel is savaged in the UN. Subconsciously, however, too many of us still see it in terms of us and them, leaving to an overburdened secular government (that we distrust anyway) the task of defending Israel not only with the lives of their children, but in the political war that rages 24/7. If we did not accept this divide between us and them, how could we not be doing more?
At one point in time we could argue that non-Orthodox Jews stayed connected with Judaism through their dedication to Israel – and they didn’t have to worry about building schools and shuls and mikvaos. We were doing them a favor by leaving some of the heavy lifting to them. But if we didn’t dig a moat around our own community, we would surely notice that other groups within our people no longer shoulder the burden. Indeed the proudly “new, assimilated” generation of Jews in the form of JStreet may be one of the most serious existential threats to the survival of Israel, as her enemies keep pointing to Jews who agree with them. Why is it taking so long for us to realize how much more of the burden we have to take up, because others have abandoned the ship? Is it not because we in fact have abandoned too many of the passengers?
This is the week that we draw the comparisons between Noach’s teivah and the world at large. We frequently hear that the yeshiva is today’s version of the teivah. In previous generations, the yeshiva may have been the place where the most talented prepared for greatness. Today, they tell us, the yeshiva is the place of refuge from the depravity of the surroundings. Everyone, therefore, needs it. When we leave the yeshiva, we tend to turn our neighborhoods into that teivah, trying to stop the unhealthy influences at our borders. The price that we pay is that we don’t notice when everyone else is drowning.
There are good reasons for our having concentrated on saving our own through education and purity. For the most part, however, relative to the mass defections from any identification with Yiddishkeit, we have saved ourselves and elevated ourselves only. We like to take comfort in the fact that, unlike the generation of מתושלח, we have not given up spiritually on the others. Our investment in outreach is a serious one. I will wonder out loud, however, how often we are setting ourselves up for failure, because some of those others wonder why we seem to care so little about their material and social needs.
If you really care for people, you are concerned with all their needs. If you don’t, you’ve really abandoned them.