The great Chassidic leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, complaining about the Jews’ detachment from Judaism once said: When a bridegroom stands under the chupa (bridal canopy) he can say hundreds of times to his future bride: “You are betrothed” but it is as if he said nothing and they are not married. Only when he adds one more Hebrew word: “Li” “You are betrothed to me ” is there a marriage. All the family and friends can be present, the music may be playing, the food served and the new home ready, but nothing has happened till the word “Li” is been uttered.
The crucial word in life is “Li“-to me. Only when things stand in relationship to the sum total of man himself is there meaning. Such a commitment is not partial but total: “Till death does part us.”
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” .i.e. 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 Jewish academia. Comparative studies between Judaism and other religions, archeological investigations in Jewish history and philological studies keep tens of thousands of Jewish students busy in 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, as 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, without denying some practical inferences, do not touch on the most important aspect of human existence: What does it mean to be man? What is the purpose of his existence, what is his task and mission and in what way is he able to add 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 should be no escape.
Speaking about the above mentioned Jewish studies, how much value is there in all this kind of scholarship if it does not lead to a point where one personally gets touched to one’s inner bones by what it means to be a Jew?
It is spiritual relevance which is of the utmost importance. Crucial is “Li”.
To understand what it means to be a Jew one must surpass these studies and understand their strangling implications. To be a Jew is to be a messenger, to be God intoxicated and to teach mankind the art of spiritual transformation and to be dissatisfied with just being “civilized”. It is about touching on emotions which we have never cherished before and instead of being bored to be surprised by our souls. Just like great works of art, Judaism does not produce but inspires unanticipated visions and the deepest forms of authentic self expression.
The tragedy of Jewish life today is that many Jews 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. It is like the student who takes a music instrument, deciphers it and then complains that he cannot find the music and so it must be a fake. It seems that certain academic circles consider it their duty to keep their studies somehow artificial. What their second duty is no one desires to discover.
“Li” means that 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 which loses out but the whole world which 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 that one needs “to realize the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly”.(1) We must however agree with 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” outside our life and turns us into outsiders looking into our lives like a blind man looks to colors.
Albert Camus once stated: “There is only one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” The great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heshel differed. It is not suicide but martyrdom, he said, which is our only real problem: Is there anything worth dying for?
This is indeed the ultimate question for Jews today. Only when Jews will realize again that their Jewishness is worth dying for they will be able to actually live it.
(1) Isaiah Berlin, “Liberty“, Oxford, 2002; Oxford Press, p.217
(2) Michael Sandel, “Liberalism and its Critics”, 1984;Oxford, Blackwell, p.8. Both quoted in Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ fine work: “The Dignity of Difference, How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations”, Continuum, London, NY, p.18