The great Chassidic leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, complaining about the Jews’ detachment from Judaism, once said that when a bridegroom stands under the chupa (bridal canopy) he can say hundreds of times to his future bride “You are betrothed,” but these words are meaningless until he adds one more Hebrew word, Li (to me). Only then is there a marriage.
All the family and friends may be present, the rabbi officiating, the music playing, the food served and the new home ready, but nothing has happened until the word Li has been uttered.
The crucial word in life is Li – to me. Only when things stand in relation to the sum total of man himself is there meaning. Such a commitment is not partial but total: “Till death do us part.”
This observation is perhaps the most crucial message for Jews around the world today. The Jewish community may be involved in many issues of Jewish concern and struggle with problems of survival, but as long as it does not inspire Jews to say Li, that is, to feel a personal and total commitment to authentic Jewishness, it will not create the right condition for continuity and renewal.
When observing the state of Jewish commitment today, we see a great amount of scholarship within the world of academia. Comparative studies between Judaism and other religions, archeological studies to investigate Jewish history, and philological studies keep tens of thousands of Jewish students busy at the best universities in the world. Text books and magazines publish important studies on questions such as: Are the Jews a race, a cultural entity or a religious group? But all such studies are only of limited value if the student does not add the word Li, to me. It is like studying man as a collection of protoplasm, a complex robot or a social mechanism and forgetting that man is an inner being of tremendous spiritual wholeness in which all his dimensions become one.
Studies like these do not touch on the most important aspect of human existence: What does it mean to be man, or a Jew? What is the purpose of his existence, what is his task and mission, and in what way is he able to contribute to human dignity? Such questions involve our whole being; no component is left out. They are the ultimate Li in our lives. They should haunt us and there must be no escape.
Indeed, how much value is there in all of this scholarship if it does not lead to a point where one becomes personally connected to one’s inner soul? It is spiritual relevance that is of the utmost importance. Crucial to that is Li.
To understand what it means to be a Jew one must move beyond these important studies and understand their strangling implications. To be a Jew is to be a messenger, to be God-intoxicated and teach mankind the art of spiritual transformation. To be dissatisfied with just being cultured. It is about stirring emotions that we have never cherished before. About allowing our souls to surprise us, instead of being bored. Just like great works of art, Judaism does not produce but rather inspires unanticipated visions and the deepest forms of authentic self-expression.
The tragedy of Jewish life today is that many lack the courage to confront their inner being as Jews. They observe the Jewish people and Judaism as a sociological phenomenon to be studied from without. It is for this reason that they do not hear the music of Judaism and then complain that such music is wholly absent. Like the student who takes a musical instrument, dismantles it and then complains that he cannot find the music, so it must be a fake. It seems that in certain academic circles people consider it their duty to keep their studies artificial. While these studies in themselves have tremendous value, they are often used as an escape mechanism making it possible for some students to ignore what they need to discover the most.
Li also means one recognizes that one’s own group has a singular and distinctive contribution to make to the world and if this is not developed and cultivated, it is not only the group itself that loses out but the whole world suffers as a result.
The late British philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin, at the end of his famous essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” tries to convince us – quoting the words of Joseph A. Schumpeter – that one needs “to realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly”(1). There is, however, a lot of truth in political philosopher Michael Sandel’s bitter critique when he states: “If one’s convictions are only relatively valid, why stand for them unflinchingly?”(2) Indeed this kind of liberalism, with all its beauty, keeps the Li out of our lives and turns us into outsiders looking in, like a blind man looks at colors.
Albert Camus once stated: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (3). The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel disagreed, saying, “May I differ and suggest that there is only one really serious problem, and that is martyrdom. Is there anything worth dying for?”(4)
This is indeed the ultimate question for Jews today. Only when we will once again realize that our Jewishness is worth dying for will we be able to actually live it.
(1) Isaiah Berlin, Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 217.
(2) Michael Sandel, Liberalism and its Critics, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984, p. 8.
(3) Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, New York: Vintage Books,
1991, p. 3.
(4) Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man?, Stanford University Press, 1965, p.92.