One thing I discovered while listening to Michael Steinhardt at the Aleph Society dinner on June 18 was that I am far more optimistic about the Jewish future than I had realized. Given his overt challenge to the halachic rabbinate, that may seem puzzling. But there was an implicit message in the discussion that not everyone heard, to which I will return below and which I found very comforting.
I did find myself frustrated at the fact that the entire discussion was predicated on a false assumption. Mr. Steinhardt’s belief that at some time in the past Jews were nearly 100 percent educated is a myth worth exploding. See if you recognize the source of the following: "Because of the disasters that have befallen our people, because no one is any longer able to return to the texts of the chachamim and understand them … therefore have I … written a code in simple and clear language … so that all one needs is the written Torah and my book…." A thousand years ago, the impetus for Maimonides to write his Mishneh Torah code is that "no one knows halacha anymore." No one understands what the Talmud says, he tells us, let alone what the geonim, the heads of the talmudic academies, say. So just a few hundred years after the close of the Talmud, most of the Jewish people were illiterate Jewishly.
Obviously, then, most Jews were literate at the time of the Talmud, right? Absolutely not. Were that so, the Talmud would not spend so much time railing against the Am Ha’aretz or ignoramus, whom you meet every day on the street, who is illiterate, and who doesn’t know how to tithe or say the blessings (e.g., Demai ‘:3, Pesachim 49b).
The truth is that, as far back as we can go, all the way back to the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Tanach, the majority of Jews were not Jewishly literate or observant. Consider that Ezra the Scribe and Nehemiah had to tell the Jews living in Israel that before they could begin to build the Second Temple they first must "put away your foreign wives." They were intermarried with pagans! Need I comment on what was going on in hellenistic times, which were also the heyday of the pharisaic/rabbinic tradition of which we are heirs? Assimilation was rampant.
If never in our history have we had a truly educated laity, what then makes me feel optimistic about our future today? The answer is in Mr. Steinhardt’s own words. He claimed not to have a name for the "new religion" or new form of Judaism he would like to see, but referred to it as one that would maintain and enhance the values Judaism has brought to the world, like tzedakah, and would be warm, exciting and spiritual, unlike today’s Traditional/Orthodox Judaism. He was particularly harsh regarding what he called the failure of rabbis to inspire people to greater spirituality. And while he insisted he is an atheist, he also insisted on the importance of making Jews feel more Jewish.
I think his religion has a name. It is Survivalism.
Survivalists in America are people who go out and test their ability to endure living in nature with few artificial protections. These are people who learn to live off the land and defend themselves so that if and when a threat to modernity topples the system, they will be able to survive the subsequent socioeconomic chaos. And while we may often regard them as kooks, as the adage goes, they may be crazy, but they’re not stupid.
Survivalism in Judaism is pretty much the same thing and, as Simon Rawidowicz in his book "Israel: An Ever-Dying People" has shown, it has been with us since the beginning. But in the past, a majority of the survivalists have been rabbis. In early and late rabbinic Judaism, it was the rabbi who shouldered responsibility for guiding his people to safety. That was what the Rambam was trying to do with the Mishneh Torah and what others who have sounded the alarm of assimilation and illiteracy have done as far back as anyone can go.
Today, adherents of Survivalism are sounding the same alarm. But, to my joy, they are not all rabbis.
Michael Steinhardt is one of them. For some unexplained reason, he has determined that Jewish survival is imperative. Why? He doesn’t know. Maybe it is the value of concepts we brought the world or maybe it’s just a genetic will inborn in him.
Belief in a creator who has given us a means to do His will is central to my thinking and lifestyle. Attempting to follow Jewish law is my effort to figure out what God expects of me in this world. I don’t need to judge if Michael Steinhardt believes or not, or if he believes in something different from me. What is important is that we share a belief in the necessity of the survival of the people Israel. And I am genuinely surprised to conclude that belief in the need to survive is justification enough for creating programs like Birthright that strengthen the Jewish people.
That’s how Michael Steinhardt helped me discover my optimism. Leaders of virtually every generation in Jewish history have felt theirs to be on the brink of destruction. And every generation has therefore risen to its own spiritual and physical defense. Mr. Steinhardt’s words castigating rabbis, rather than offending me, gave me hope. Because he feels we’ve failed, he seeks another way to ensure Jewish survival. Good! I don’t believe in or seek out short-cuts to spiritual gratification, but I concede that for many, traditional davening doesn’t do it. As a rabbi and halachic Jew, I’m willing to be Michael Steinhardt’s ally and cheerleader, so long as with his critique he continues to search out constructive alternatives.
The danger of the dissolution of Jewish people will come when we are complacent about our spiritual survival.
And that alone justifies the existence and works of Michael Steinhardt and even a few rabbis. At least I hope so.
Rabbi Ronald D. Price is executive vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism, which is based in Teaneck.