- David M. Weinberg - https://davidmweinberg.com -

Searching for spirituality

Published in The Jerusalem Post on October 10, 1999

Ever heard of a ‘yeshivashram’? Combining yeshiva studies and Far East-style ashram living, it is the newest invention in contemporary Israeli religious spiritualism. Believe it or not, two ‘yeshivashrams’ have opened their doors recently.


What does this say about the tenor of our generation? It points to a new awakening among today’s traditional youth; a search for authentic religious experience that goes beyond scrupulous adherence to the minutiae of halacha that is the hallmark of mainstream Orthodoxy.


No-one, including the leading rabbis of our day, yet knows exactly how to relate to this phenomenon. But all know that it can’t be ignored. Behind the move to mysticism, Carlebach-style Chassidism, autonomous pietism and an explosion of artistry, cinema and literature created and sought after by Orthodox Jews – lies a deep-rooted disquiet both with modern, technological society and with conventional, conformist Orthodox practice.


All of this poses a great dilemma – and holds great opportunity – for the so-called Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionist community, and the debate is underway. Some 500 ‘moderate’ Religious Zionists gathered last week at the “Third Lavi Conference” in Jerusalem to take just such an introspective look at the way they worship God in the modern age.


One year ago, this same group of Orthodox thinkers, young rabbis, religious kibbutzniks and other activists climbed the ramparts to wave the banner of revolution in the status of women and in religious-secular relations. Those revolutions are still underway and gaining strength with every passing day.


Now, the focus is turning inwards, to reorder priorities in religious worship and in lifestyle. Conference participants discussed how to study Talmud differently than previous generations, and how to draw values and social mores from the Bible, even though these values are not codified in halacha. They discussed the limits on autonomous reinterpretation of holy texts, as opposed to the traditional search for ‘original intent’ of the prophets.


They discussed leisure and the pursuit of leisure – its legitimacy in the face of the prohibition not to engage in ‘bitul Torah’, the wasting of time that could otherwise have been invested in learning Torah. They discussed how to make theatre-going, movie-watching, and music-making into kosher, valuable religious experiences.


A great deal of the heated discussions were devoted to danger. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein came to warn of spiritual shallowness in religious practice; Rabbi Yisrael Rosen to passionately caution against the seeping secularization that threatens the Orthodox community. Rosen’s sad remedy: circle the wagons, hareidi-style, to avoid the destructive influence of the ‘outside’ world. Let the kids do art and travel Africa within our own, closed circles and separate frameworks, he said.


But there were also those, the majority, who saw the greatest danger in religious conservatism; in failing to change and to redefine tradition in order to make Orthodoxy relevant to the modern, sophisticated Jew. “It is a tragic mistake to hold the entire community hostage to yeshiva standards of piety and asceticism”, argued Rabbi Beni Lau, a rising young star and kibbutz rabbi (and Chief Rabbi Lau’s nephew). “A great deal of authentic religiosity is out there in the community, outside yeshiva walls, seeking channels of expression in artistic, cultural, community and professional life”.


“The religious message of the prophets – social justice, economic fair play, integrity in public life and more – is getting lost in the inordinate focus on religious ritual and halachic detail”, said the thoughtful young Rabbi Yuval Sirlow in his keynote opening address. “We have to return to teaching morality and honesty as much as we teach matza and mezuza. Only then can we demonstrate that religion offers solutions for the violence, corruption and alienation that plagues our society”.


Does this sound Reform? It sure does. ‘Social justice’ is what the Reform Movement reduced Judaism to, after discarding 3,000 years of Jewish tradition, law and doctrine.


And herein lies the dilemma. Orthodox rabbis have been reticent to tinker creatively with the balances, emphases and yearnings within tradition for fear of being labeled ‘Reform’. It takes courage and wisdom to do so anyway, without going too far out on a limb at too reckless a pace – a limb that could break off from the tree whose roots run deep.


The Lavi movement is cautiously seeking a way forward, articulating and legitimizing new models of Orthodox religious experience, without building any Golden Calves. It is taking on the challenge of exploring how Jewish ethics and Talmudic norms can be made relevant to a high-tech-driven world of consumerism, infinite communications and unlimited freedoms.


Unfortunately, the broad rabbinic minds of community-wide authority willing and capable of leading this evolutionary process just aren’t yet at hand. Perhaps twenty or thirty years hence, the young rabbis of today will be in a position to do so – having been sensitized by the ‘Lavi’ discussions, may they continue and prosper.