Over the generations, Jewish commentators have interpreted the texts of Tanakh using traditional methods and sources. Many, however, also drew from non-traditional sources when they contributed positively to the discussion. Literary tools, comparative linguistics, as well as the discovery of a wealth of ancient texts and artifacts have contributed immensely to our understanding the rich tapestry and complexity of biblical texts.
Over the last three centuries non-observance of ritual law evolved into the predominant Jewish lifestyle. For those Orthodox Jews in the minority who remained committed to the practice of the halakhah, this “modern” situation elicited acute tensions that revolved around the nature of their relationship to those who did not share their religious values.
We need a return to a vision of Judaism according to which Jews are judged not by how closely they proclaim adherence to this, that, or the other interpretation of Maimonides' 'Thirteen Principles', but by their loyalty to the Jewish people and its future. This allows Orthodox Jews to disagree – strongly! – with the theologies of non-Orthodox movements while enthusiastically working with such Jews in order to assure a stronger future for the Jewish people as a whole.
Within the Orthodox world, reverence toward heroes and the Sages must be balanced with fidelity to the biblical text, commitment to prophetic integrity, and commitment to truth in scholarship. The Torah teaches both particularistic and universalistic values, and it is critical to adopt both in a faithful religious worldview.
It is precisely now when the Rabbanut is losing standing amongst Israelis, that it is doubling down and attempting to consolidate its power by introducing stricter ordinances not only in Israel, but in the diaspora. This effort must be rejected by all. We believe that Israeli and diaspora Jewry want—and deserve—a rabbinate that is intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive.
The prophet disdains those for whom God’s presence is comfort and security; to him it is a challenge, an incessant demand. God is compassion, not compromise; justice, though not inclemency. The prophet’s predictions can always be proved wrong by a change in man’s conduct, but never the certainty that God is full of compassion.
It is intrinsic to human nature to strive to emulate God, and everything that creates a distinction from God makes us feel uncomfortable. Therefore, seeing Judaism as merely a set of commandments creates a negative view of the human soul. The commandments are necessary, but only after a person moves freely in the direction of ideals. Self-restraint must stem from freedom, and not the other way around.
Thinking Jews should be standing up for a genuine modern Orthodoxy that insists on functioning in contemporary world-time. While facing modernity has its real challenges, not facing modernity will lead Orthodoxy into a cult-like existence-- out of touch with reality, out of touch with the needs of thinking and feeling human beings…out of touch with Torah itself.
There is no life without a task; no person without a talent; no place without a fragment of God’s light waiting to be discovered and redeemed; no situation without its possibility of sanctification; no moment without its call. It may take a lifetime to learn how to find these things, but once we learn, we realize in retrospect that all it ever took was the ability to listen.
(This article originally appeared in “Sephardica: Hommage a Haim Vidal Sephiha,” Peter Lang Publishers, Berne, 1996.)