Why is Judaism in decline?

Monday, 10 October, 2011 - 5:01 am

Jews are known to be thinkers, revolutionaries and ground breaking researchers, including Noble Prize winners. They have helped change and shape the world we live in. This started with Abraham and Jews have tried to follow his path ever since. Abraham travelled to Canaan from Ur Kasdim to change the world. The world was practising pagan idolatry. They worshipped the sun and the moon. Abraham smashed the idols and taught them and the world monotheism.


His descendents continued to follow this path despite the overwhelming pagan world around them for millennia. Moses taught the first Magna Carta in the form of the seven Noahide laws how to live an ethical life and then the Ten Commandments, including believing in One G-d, as well as ethical teachings, which became the foundation of Judaism and the Judeo Christian tradition.


In addition to ancient times, we have given rise in more recent times to Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and many others who fundamentally changed the world in their respective fields.


The core of this ambition is not to be satisfied to see the world the way it is but the need to develop the world and see progress in our existence. The human being should never be static and stagnant. There is a sense that we must continuously and measurably strive for progress and advance civilisation. We must certainly not be in decline.


One can argue that it is this tradition that leads Jews to excel in the world. A reason why there are so many Jewish Noble prize laureates is not so much to do with Jewish genius but a stubborn resilience to not allow the world to remain as it is with miniscule steps in progression or decline but the need to continuously challenge the status quo and strive to fundamentally change the world for the better.


A professor of Russian history at Oxford once asked why so many Jews were involved in the Revolution that destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 and other revolutions. He argued that it is due to an innate appreciation Jews have of the Abrahamic model to challenge the status quo and always search for ways to fundamentally change the world for the better.


Progress and development is also intrinsic to our human nature and existence. A child is born and develops and matures. He or she then goes to college and the person continues to be never satisfied. They need to graduate and then proceed to find a job, buy a house and raise a family. In academia, one will look to do a Masters, then a PhD, then a post-Doc and hopefully find a position. One will then always have the need to progress further through new research, writing papers and promotion. Man is never satisfied with who one is and what one is doing in the present. There is always the need to advance, as the Talmud states, "he who has one hundred coins desires two hundred."


It is precisely for this reason we pose the following question and troubling paradox. Why is it that despite the profound identification of Jews with progress and advance of civilisation, that when it comes to Judaism and spirituality, however, they are in decline? Almost every Jewish community in the Diaspora is in decline, according to statistics. What is the reason for this contradiction?


Why Jews are interested in progress and development for the advance of civilisation, almost as part of their DNA, but when it comes to the advancement and progress of Jewish history and tradition in one’s personal spiritual growth, as well as the community, there is overall decline and assimilation. One encounters apathy, stagnation, ignorance, assimilation and decline. What’s the reason for this striking paradox?


In order to explain this, we will need to deconstruct an important misconception about Judaism. What is evident from the above is that intrinsic to being Jewish is the need to make a fundamental change in the world, whether it is in the sciences, literature, philosophy, politics, social or in any other area of life.


Could this immense ambition be actually a reason for decline and diminishment of Judaism in the world?


It is possible to argue that in Jewish tradition the opposite is true. Being Jewish is not so much about making fundamental change in the world but making a small difference in one’s own life and the lives of people around us.


One of the first and greatest prophets was Elijah, who lived in Israel during a time of material prosperity but spiritual decay. The king of Israel at the time, Ahab, had just cemented an alliance with the king of Phoenicia by marrying the latter’s daughter, Jezebel. The alliance led to unprecedented prosperity for Israel, and the importing of the queen's pagan religion to the Holy Land - the worship of the fertility god Baal. 


As a result, Jews began putting idols in their living rooms. They worshipped gods of nature and temptation, just as their pagan neighbors did. They chased after material success, and trampled over the Torah’s values in the process. 


When Elijah saw what was happening all around him, he decided to confront the false prophets within his nation and save the faith of his people. He proposed a dramatic showdown by suggesting a trial at Mount Carmel between himself and the prophets of Baal. Both he and they would offer a sacrifice: Elijah to G-d, and Jezebel’s prophets to Baal. Whichever deity sent down a heavenly fire to consume the offering, reasoned Elijah, would be proven as the one true G-d. 


Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal took Elijah up on his challenge and called on their god.


But lo and behold, nothing happened. Not a spark sizzled from the heavens. The prophets, distressed, intensified their prayers, and began to perform wild dances. Still no fire came from the skies. Elijah, who couldn’t resist taking a poke at them said, “Maybe your G-d is having a nap. Cry louder.” So the prophets of Baal began shouting and working themselves into a frenzy. But still not a spark. Eventually they gave up, defeated. 


Next was Elijah, standing alone. The prophet uttered a few quiet words of prayer and almost immediately, a fire descended from heaven. The enormous crowds of Jews watching were awestruck at the decisive victory and cried out, “The Lord alone is G-d. The Lord alone is G-d!”


Three thousand years later these profound words are still said at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement - service.


Though the false prophets had been shown up in public, King Ahab was none too pleased that Elijah ridiculed what had become the court’s official religion, and set out to hunt him down and have him arrested. Elijah knew his life was in grave danger, and that there was not a single home in all of Israel where he could safely hide.


Ironically, in contemporary Jewish tradition, Elijah is spiritually invited into every home as the honored guest during the Passover Seder and circumcision ceremony, but back then he couldn’t find a single Jewish home as refuge. 


In despair, Elijah fled all the way back to Mount Sinai where, centuries earlier, G-d had revealed Himself to the Jewish people and given them the Torah. In prayer he called out to G-d, “You entered into a covenant with this people and they have forsaken Your covenant. They refuse to be a special people. They worship false gods like everyone else. I tried my best but it failed. It’s all over, G-d.” 


G-d’s reply to Elijah is one of the strangest responses by the Almighty in the entire history of the Jewish faith. G-d tells Elijah to go and stand on the mountain, where Moses once stood. The prophet does as he’s told and, suddenly, in front of him, he sees a mighty whirlwind shattering rocks and crushing mountains. “But G-d is not in the whirlwind?'


“The whirlwind is then followed by a fierce earthquake. “But G-d is not in the earthquake either?”

Elijah is then almost blinded by a display of raging fire. But G-d is nowhere to be found among the flames. 


Finally, Elijah hears “a very small quiet voice.” And immediately, Elijah realizes that that is where G-d is to be found.


Having brought Elijah to this realization, G-d then commands him to go back home to Israel, to undertake the task of rallying his country and lifting the people up from idolatry.


This is a deeply enigmatic episode, mostly because we are never told exactly what G-d was illustrating to Elijah. First, G-d presented a grand display of fantastic force in front of all the people and the priests of Baal. The display was enough to move the people to shout “The Lord alone is G-d,” but it was not enough to overthrow the power of Ahab and his false religion.


Then, after Elijah had fled to Mt. Sinai, he is greeted with more great displays of power, but he is told G-d is not in those events. G-d, it turns out, is in a small voice, and it is that small voice that inspires Elijah to return and struggle for the survival of Judaism. What does it all mean? 


The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn, explains (Sichos Kodesh 1960) that the encounter between G-d and Elijah at Mount Sinai was a defining moment in the history of Jewish thought. It goes to the heart of how the Torah is passed from Sinai to the next generation and how Jewish identity is passed on at a time when many Jews are lost.


The Rebbe posited that what G-d was saying to Elijah was that at the Mount Carmel showdown Elijah had shown that G-d can be found in big miracles, and that grand events sometimes move Jewish history forward. But while that may be necessary at times, it is not enough to ultimately advance Jewish history. “G-d is not in the earth-shattering events.” 


Big miracles don’t have staying power. They transform nature, but they do not change human nature. Rather, we need to find G-d in the small matters of everyday life - in a small Mitzvah, in the quiet, small voice of prayer and Torah study that is almost drowned out by the noise of daily living. In the small good deeds that don’t grab the headlines, in the quiet voice of comfort and encouragement that lifts another’s spirit, in the small acts of charity that are never publicized, in the whisper of daily prayer, is where G-d resides and Judaism is celebrated.


An earth shattering miracle and ground breaking research temporarily might transform the external world; a single Mitzvah however permanently transforms our internal world and ultimately advances and preserves Jewish history.


The problem is when one views Judaism as the sciences and philosophy, whereby the lack of evident significant change in the intellectual or physical world is seen as failure. With this considerable ambition, many will make the judgment that Judaism is too complicated to advance. It should be left to the rabbis and reverends.

G-d is however not in the earthquake or the storm but the still voice. We don’t need to change the world through Judaism. We need to just do a good deed, a Mitzvah, like observing the Shabbat, a daily prayer, give to charity, and thereby change ourselves for the better and advance Jewish history.

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