We are living in an age of flaunting irreverence. Debunking has become the norm and at every turn we experience a need to expose the clay feet of even the greatest. Human dignity, a phrase often mentioned, has become a farce in real life. Instead of deliberately looking for opportunities to love our fellow men as required by our holy Torah, many have rewritten this golden rule to read: “Distrust your fellow man as you distrust yourself”. Peoples’ lack of belief in themselves has overflown into their relationships with their fellow men. Fear for their own deeds and mediocrity has led them to believe that the ethereal mighty have left us and that we are a generation of spiritual orphans.
This condition has slowly entered the subconscious of segments in the religious community as well, although in a more subtle form. Influenced by materialistic philosophies, many a religious person who once revered his fellow men has become part of the problem without even being aware of it. Instead of sending a message of unconditional love and respect for a fellow Jew, whatever his background or beliefs, many within the religious Jewish community have fallen victim to a faint debunking, which has led to a most worrisome situation in and outside of the land of Israel.
When observing even those who are fully committed to helping fellow Jews find their way back to Judaism, we see an attitude that is foreign to religious life and thought. We cannot escape the impression that some people, without denying their love for their fellow Jews, tend to talk down to “secular” Jews. This has become the norm. Constant emphasis is placed on the need to cure the “secular” person’s mistaken lifestyle. No doubt such an attitude is born out of love for one’s fellow Jew, but it lays the foundation for infinite trouble. It is built on arrogance. While the religious Jew is seen as the ideal, he turns the “secular” Jew into a second-class member of the Jewish people. It is he who needs to repent for his mistaken ways. Such an attitude is built on the notions of contrast and lack of affinity. The “secular” Jew will always feel inferior. As such, the point of departure from which one reaches out to bring fellow Jews closer to Judaism is, at the same time, its undoing. The suggestion that “one should throw oneself into a burning furnace rather then insult another person publicly” (Berachoth 43b) may very well apply, since it is the community of “secular” Jews that is being shamed and treated as inferior.
For Jews to bring their fellow men back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvoth that the “secular” Jew has been observing all or part of his life, not to condemn his failure to observe some others. Only on the basis of sharing in mitzvoth will an authentic way be found to bring Jews back home.
The foundation should be humility, not arrogance. There is little doubt that “secular” Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of them may not be in the field of rituals, but there is massive evidence that interpersonal mitzvoth enjoy a major commitment by “secular” Jews. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may quite well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between the religious and “non-religious” Jews, but their spirits touch. Who will deny that “secular” Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? How many of them do not have inner faith that God cares? And how many will not show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of these is the deepest of religious values.
This not only calls for a celebration but may well become an inspiration for religious Jews – not just by honoring “secular” Jews for keeping these mitzvoth but by renewing these mitzvoth and good deeds in themselves. There is a need to make the so-called irreligious Jew aware of the fact that he is much more religious than he may know. To have them realize that God’s light often shines on their faces just as much, if not more, than on the faces of religious Jews.
Just as the “irreligious” person needs to prove his worthiness to be the friend of a religious Jew, so too, the religious Jew needs to be worthy of the friendship of his “secular” fellow Jew. It would be a most welcome undertaking if religious Jews would call on their “irreligious” fellow Jews for guidance in mitzvoth that demand their greater commitment.
There is a significant need for calling Jews back to their roots by showing them that they never left. Once religious Jews learn that “irreligious” Jews are their equals, not their inferiors, a return to Judaism on the right terms will come about.
One of the tragic failures of the ancient Jews was their indifference to the Ten Tribes of Israel that were carried away by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Overlooked, and not taken seriously by their fellow Jews, they were consigned to oblivion and ultimately vanished.
This is a nightmare that, at this moment in Jewish history, should terrify each and every religious Jew: the unawareness of our being involved in a new failure, in a tragic dereliction of duty.
*Published by the Jerusalem Post in 1996
Based on the writings of Avraham Joshua Heschel