Raison d'Etre / Editorial
June, 1998 / Sivan, 5758

Who needs the Torah when we have the Times?

Some thoughts at Shavous

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS HAS BEEN ASSAILED time end again as a noble idea gone awry. But the area of our societal makeup that has likely suffered the most damage in its wake is rarely discussed: morality and, in particular, organized religion.

Not long ago, a friend asked me to substitute for him at one of those after-public-school "Talmud Torahs." His instructions were to quiz his bar-mitzvah class on Judaism's basics. "Better go easy on ‘em," he joked. "They're not exactly rabbinical students, ya know."

To break the ice, I threw out a simple question: What is Judaism's primary text? Seven hands immediately shot up. I called on a boy who was waving his hand more enthusiastically than the rest. With smug self-assurance he pronounced: "Why that's simple! It's the newspaper."

Well, the class laughed at his antics. But I was intrigued. I asked the boy, Matt, to elaborate.

"It seems," the youth continued, now with more reserve, "whatever cause is ‘hot' at the moment somehow always manages to become ‘Jewish' -- whether the Torah endorses that belief or not. It like Jews no longer need to follow the Commandments to be considered ‘good Jews' -- only the headlines." Matt went on to cite several examples, including organized Jewry's stance on therapeutic abortions and homosexuality.

"The Torah and Talmud," he observed correctly, speaking with a depth well beyond his years, "are about as pro-life as one can get. And Leviticus makes quite clear the Bible's's position on sodomy." Yet, he explained, most Jews -- save for the Orthodox -- hold beliefs diametrically opposed to those standards, the product, in many instances, of incorporating views and following cues encouraged by their spiritual mentors.

Matt is certainly not alone in perceiving the irony, though most I've met over the years have not been nearly as thoughtful. While far from being Orthodox, these are idealistic and inspired Jews who wish to take their eternal heritage seriously --- but can't. Increasingly, they are becoming both appalled and frustrated by the moral revisionism and embracing of political correctness that is continuing to overtake organized religion, not just in Judaism, but in general in our nation.

The consequences have not remained invisible. Over the last two decades, regular attendance in our nation's plush suburban synagogues has been declining steadily --- a phenomenon that started just as the first New Age shots began breaching the religious ramparts. (To a lesser extent, some of the disfranchised remain within organized Jewry for nostalgic reasons, often as atheists, as irrational as that scenario may be.) Those who leave do so in the belief that it is far more honest to be a consistent Jew-for-nothing than to kowtow to passing fads in lieu of Truths, capital "t."

This is dangerous, extremely dangerous. And it's about time the powers-that-be take notice.

The American experiment with democracy is a curious phenomenon. Ironically, the concept the framers of the Constitution intended to serve as a means of preserving time-honored religions has of late become its most dangerous enemy. And political correctness, as the chief miscreant, has come to symbolize and should make us realize the repercussions of democracy when it is taken to its utmost of extremes. This especially when any subculture can secure "rights" and legitimacy, providing it can raise its voice loud enough to be heard.

Undisputed "givens" once abounded in society, particularly in religious society. Today, many in America are embracing and propagating political correctness in an attempt to mainstream the notion that morality -- and religion -- are a matter of public consensus, "votable" like school board elections.

As an open society with nearly infinite freedom, America was founded with basic starting premises. Not the least of these is that there is a Higher Authority to which all of the nation's citizenry must answer. The transcendent value system is, as the eminent historian, Christopher Dawson, said, "the heart and soul of Western Society." It is this moral impulse that allows us to rise above ourselves and enables a democratic society to survive.

But for Jews in particular, the dangers of permanently incorporating foreign influences into our belief system are all the more devastating. When mortals tinker with observance and values, when they heed the will of man rather than the Word of the Creator, religion is cheapened --- and even our Talmud Torah students aren't being fooled. Adults (and even teens) don't want to worship gods who are politically correct and no different from themselves.

For today's Jews to stem the tide of an assimilation-oriented society, they must accept the necessary sacrifice. They must also supply to our youth answers to the most critical questions that plague them but that are almost never articulated before they've severed their bond with Judaism: "What makes me different?" and "Why be Jewish?"

As Jews, our respect need not be garnered from without, but should be generated from within. We should be able to take pride in ourselves for remaining steadfast in safeguarding the eternal Truths of the Torah without also wondering whether those actions will be met with society's nod of approval or with its derision.

While non-Orthodoxy has been fixated with tikktun haolom, rectifying the world, the path it has proceeded on has resulted in near demographic suicide for Jewry. The time has come to reverse course. Doing so will take courage on the part of Jewry's leaders -- after all, it's never easy to admit one is wrong -- and, inevitably there will be those who'll become estranged, individuals who've already chosen to put their Jewishness on the right-side of the hyphen with America. But that is a small price to pay.

If contemporary Jews are ever to take their Jewishness seriously -- to the point where no other aspect of one's identity matters -- organized Jewry must immediately stop trying to be all things to all people, particularly those who have voluntarily, yes, voluntarily chosen to marginalize themselves.

It's something to think about this Shavous, as Jewry re-enacts the Encounter at Sinai. For those, I suppose, who won't be at home or the office reading the newspaper.

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky,
Publisher and editor-in-chief


© 1998, Jewish World Review