While flying home from Israel recently I struck up a conversation with the bright young haredi man sitting beside me. Before our talk, he had been busily studying a wonderful rabbinic text, “Mishnah Zevachim,” which details the laws concerning Temple sacrifices in ancient times. But God, it seemed, continued to be found in the text and not in me, so when I sensed that he was more interested in resuming his studies, I found a way to end the conversation so we could return to our respective pastimes.
My airplane neighbor reflects what religious life in Israel is hurdling toward at an alarming speed. Many of the boys of the yeshiva world, the men of adult study communities (kollels), their wives and their daughters inhabit a universe far removed from society at large. They have divorced themselves from responsibility for the welfare of the broader Jewish people and their institutions, and from concerns for justice, social policy or building a better world where people can lead better lives. They lack personal identification with Israeli society and persons beyond their small immediate observant circle.
All they do is done in the name of Judaism and its religious values. Truth be told, however, their lifestyle represents an assimilation to a Christian philosophy of withdrawal from society and the material world. This worldview was initiated by the (Jewish) Essenes who influenced early Christianity. But these isolationist Essenes were forcefully repudiated by the Pharisaic rabbis who the laid the foundation of normative Judaism and the rich Jewish heritage that our parents and grandparents gave us.
For most of our exilic history Jews fought assimilation to Christianity that destroyed Jewish identity. During the Middle Ages assimilation took the form of conversion to the church, and post-Emancipation it morphed into blending totally into gentile society, though this latter phenomenon is really an acceptance of secular values.
The real threat of assimilating to Christianity today, however, is found in adopting the worldview that teaches that God is found only in isolation and personal contemplation, but not in the material world or in human striving within society. This was the theology adopted by early Christian monks and ascetics, and it stood in stark contrast to rabbinic Judaism.
All of the great rabbis of the Talmud and medieval times participated in society and their communities, nearly all worked in professions unrelated to teaching or study, and all felt a religious obligation to contribute to the larger public good. They lived the rabbinic adage, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” There was one Talmudic sage, Shimon bar Yochai, who advocated a religious life of exclusive study and avoidance of society, but the Talmud unequivocally rejected him for this, and says he later repented and grew to value human social activity as essential to religion.
What the rabbis understood early on and what Shimon bar Yochai came to realize later in life is that much of the Torah commands us to bring spiritual values into the material world and human society.
Although the rabbis over the ages rejected monastic isolation, this type of assimilation is growing rapidly today. Are not the burgeoning populations of today’s yeshiva students — who have no desire to ever leave their study halls and are absorbed exclusively in individual contemplation — and religious Jews who cloister themselves in isolated communities and feel no responsibility to contribute to broader society, really a version of Christian monks, albeit with families?
This phenomenon is ripping away at Israel’s social solidarity, politics and economics, with many seeing it as a greater threat to Israel’s survival than her external enemies. While more intense and overt in the Jewish state, this dynamic is on the rise in America also. How many religious students or adults strive to connect to the Jewish people as a whole, not just like themselves? How many feel a deep responsibility to contribute to wider American society, participate in its public institutions or repay the benefits of America’s blessings? Sadly, too many rabbis and religious adults have lost interest in relating to the entire Jewish people in a real, not merely rhetorical, way. And many have even lost the vocabulary to deal with larger society’s burning challenges of social policy, the economy, poverty, justice and the building of a civil culture.
Jews have always rejected Christianity — in all its various forms. They held fast to Judaism’s original covenantal vision of bringing God and divine values into the material world, into every arena of human endeavor, and of fairly sharing society’s burdens and blessings. Surely we need to resist assimilation to alien ideologies that include monasticism and separatism, even when advanced in the name of God and Torah. This is the only way we can remain strong as a people and be faithful to God’s calling to Abraham to “be a blessing,” so that “through you all of the nations of the earth will be blessed.”
Rabbi Eugene Korn is North American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, and editor of Meorot—A Forum for Modern Orthodox Discourse.