Friday, February 3, 2012

The Crucial Need for Jewish Tradition


The Crucial Need for Jewish Tradition

An observant Jew, even one devoted to Torah study and willing to defend the Torah way of life as it was now almost newly created against all foes, must also have a sense of the tradition of Jewish society and its behavior patterns.
From Rabbi Berel Wein
As much as the Jewish religious world is built upon the Written and Oral Law of the Torah, it also contains another component that is almost equally important – tradition.
Tradition in the Jewish world comes in the form of family, customs, societal norms and perhaps most importantly in attitudes and worldview. The absence of an unbroken set of societal and family traditions creates a skewed view and an unintended distortion of Jewish life and mores.
Much of the troubles that we see today within Jewish religious life, especially here in Israel, stem from the fact that there exists within the religious world a large section that for various reasons (as I hope to point out later in this article) lacks tradition, though it is heavy on observance and even on Torah study. Scholarship that is not leavened by tradition and societal mores tends to become distorted and narrow in its view and leads to strange behavior and attitudes and even violence that cannot be justified since it in essence stands against the value systems of Torah which govern halakha and proper Jewish life.
Professor Chaim Soloveitchik pointed out in a seminal essay decades ago that Orthodox Jewry after the Holocaust shifted from a societal based faith group to one that became a book dominated grouping. In this he signaled that the chain of societal tradition that had guided Jewish life for centuries in the Diaspora was now broken, discarded and would shortly no longer even be remembered as having existed at all.
And this is a pretty accurate summation of the situation in the Jewish religious world today.
The Holocaust is the primary reason for the breakdown of tradition in Jewish society today. The people who were the bearers of that tradition were murdered. Ninety eight percent of Lithuanian Jewry was destroyed by the Germans, the Russian Bolsheviks, and the Lithuanians. The survivors found themselves in alien societies, uprooted and in the main silent about their experiences and their previous lives. Thus they never spoke about what life in Lithuania was and what its societal mores and worldview was.
Ninety five percent of Polish and Ukrainian Jewry were similarly destroyed and again the survivors never were willing or able to recreate the conditions of life of Eastern Europe where their family and societal traditions flourished.
Those that came to Israel found themselves in a kulturkampf with the secularist, atheistic, leftist establishment that then governed the yishuv and the nascent state.  In America the survivors found themselves in a society that encouraged forgetting the mores of the Old World and still promoted the “melting pot” goal of complete immersion and assimilation into American life.
Thus the “new Jew” did in fact emerge in the religious Jewish world – a Jew that was observant and devoted to Torah study and willing to defend the Torah way of life as it was now almost newly created against all foes and by any means at hand. But the “new Jew” had no sense of the tradition of Jewish society and its behavior patterns. Instead it was fed or created legends, stories, myths, and built its society around these illusions and fabrications.
And this has created the current impasse of attitudes and problems that face us in every facet of societal Jewish life and has driven us to extremism because the sense of normalcy and proportion that tradition always imported to the next generation was destroyed.
Added to the mix in religious Jewish life was the advent of movements that successfully “returned” thousands of children of non-observant and assimilated Jewish families to ritual observance and to Torah study. These wonderful people arrived naturally without any family or societal Jewish tradition. And more often than not those who were their mentors and guides also suffered from not having traditional Jewish societal norms as part of their own education. T
hose who “returned” many times gravitated towards extreme sects in their search for their souls and spirituality. What in Eastern Europe were marginal groups, fringe yeshivot, radical idealists now became mainstream in the religious Jewish world. The continuing never ending political turmoil that marks Israeli life and society has also contributed to the mainstreaming of what are really fringe, truly non-traditional groups and ideas.
So the traditions of Jewish society in so many societal issues have been forgotten or distorted beyond recognition. The difficulties of creating a new balanced norm of societal behavior and worldview -  a new tradition if you wish – are enormous. But somehow it must be achieved for religious Jewish life to grow, prosper and be successful.

http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Articles/Article.aspx/11215#.TyqsGuNSTiA