Imagine someone observing a house in which all the blinds were drawn.
Any conclusions concerning what is taking place inside the house, based
solely on the comings and goings of the inhabitants, are sure to be wide
of the mark.
Yet most Jews today are consigned to precisely such outsider status with
respect to traditional Torah Judaism.
Those who attempt to communicate an understanding of Judaism to fellow
Jews find themselves confronted from the outset by a lack of shared
experience and common spiritual vocabulary.
In no area is that absence more keenly felt than when one attempts to
provide some taste of the richness of Jewish thought to those who have
little previous exposure and who lack the linguistic skills to study
original texts. Talk about the depth of Torah thought, and the response
is likely to be "Deep? You mean like the Grateful Dead?"
Over the last decade, however, there has developed a body of Torah
works that are both thoroughly grounded in the greatest modern Jewish
thinkers -- e.g., Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Maharal of Prague, and
the Vilna Gaon -- and written in a modern idiom. Not since the days of
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th Century Germany, has the general
Jewish public had access to so many works in the vernacular that are both
faithful to Torah tradition and startingly original in exposition and
Many, though by no means all, of those works have been produced by
ba'alei teshuva, who combine secular academic backgrounds with a decade
or more of in-depth Torah study. (The creation of this literature is but
one example of the profound impact of ba'alei teshuva on the Torah world
over the last quarter of a century.)
Ba'alei teshuva have proven uniquely qualified to spread Torah in our
time. Their own religious faith was of necessity achieved only after
profound intellectual struggle, for they have grown to maturity in a
workd whose underlying assumptions are profoundly hostile to religious
faith and practice. They have had to confront all the big questions and
challenges themselves, and have thus proven uniquely suited to guiding
others. [The former chairman of the philosophy department at one of
America's most prominent universities once told me that he is almost
never asked a question about Torah with which he did not previously
Akiva Tatz's Worldmask and Jeremy Kagan's The Jewish Self are two
outstanding examples of the body of literature being described. Rabbi
Tatz was the top South African medical student of his day; Rabbi Kagan a
Yale trained philosopher. They both deal, in very different ways, with
the issue of faith in a world in which G-d's presence is hidden.
To help others gain access to that faith, Rabbi Kagan embarks on nothing
less than a history of self-awareness. In his account, all societies,
until roughly the time of Alexander the Great, were worshipping
societies, in which men experienced their existence as an expression of
G-d's will and located the root of their being in the realm of Spirit.
Modern man, by contrast, denies reality to all that is not subject to
sensory observation, leading to a constricted sense of both the external
world and self.
That transformation in the nature of self-awareness, Kagan argues,
reflects a change in our objective historical situation and the way G-d
manifests Himself in the world. We no longer live in a world of prophecy
and open miracles, in which worship is experienced as a natural act.
By demonstrating that modern man's lack of faith is "a necessary
consequence of our historical placement and cultural experience," Rabbi
Kagan seeks to again open modern man to the possibility of faith.
One of his signal achievements is to show the role of G-d's hiddenness
in the Divine plan. Just as the mother must, to some extent, sever the
bond of intimicacy with her infant if he is to mature, so too G-d with
us. Before we can truly enter a relationship with G-d, we must first
become independent individuals capable of freely choosing that
relationship. Too overwhelming an awareness of His Presence nullifies our
The end of prophecy and open miracles, then, allows the attainment of
true selfhood, and the development of that selfhood permits a transition
from self-effacing Fear of G-d to self-creating Love of G-d. Our
ancestors in the Desert experienced faith; for us, it is the result of a
Our diminshed sense of G-d's presence in the external world forces us to
discover Him through the echo, or image, of Him within ourselves. We are
in the same position as our forefather Avraham, whom our Sages tell us,
saw a world of death and decline -- "a burning castle." But when he
looked within himself, he found something meaningful and infinite. He
"learned Torah from himself," in the words of the Sages. At that
moment, he discovered both his true self and G-d.
Torah is the conduit through which we form our deepest relationship with
G-d. And as the nature of that relationship changed, so too the nature of
Torah. From the period of the Written Torah, which is prophetic and comes
from a source outside ourselves, we have moved into a period in which the
Oral Torah dominates. The latter depends on the nature of the recipient
and his own active participation.
Oral Torah demands of us the discovery of self. It is available only to
one who "kills" himself in its pursuit. Killing oneself involves not
the end of individuality, but its discovery through the destruction of
all external drives foreign to one's elemental self. In the process
one's essential unity, derived from the unity of the Creator Himself, is
The Oral Toah is even dearer to G-d than the Written Torah, for it is
dependent on the our active participation. In the words of Song of
Songs, "Your love [the words of the Sages] is dearer than wine [the
Written Torah]." The latter is a stimulant to Love, the former Love