Commitment vs. "Connecting" - The Current Crisis of our Youth
on the occasion of his twentieth Yahrzeit,
and in honor and in celebration
of the births of our grandchildren during the past year,
and Jack Sutton to Bellene and Yoni
The Gontownik Family
One of the cornerstones of Judaism is commitment. However, the very concept of commitment today faces a severe crisis among some of the religious-Zionist youth, in high schools and pre-military academies and, I imagine, also among some students at hesder yeshivot. (Although my remarks are directed primarily at the Israeli scene, I am sure that they are relevant in some measure to religious youth in the diaspora as well.) I am not going to address the issue of secularization which, to our sorrow, also exists in the high schools, but rather that of observant youth who have developed a new ideology. We are faced with a fascinating but frightening phenomenon, characterized by the term "hitchabrut" – emotional identification, connection, or attachment.
Youth today seek "identification" with mitzvot, but not a "commitment" to them. Authority and obligation - two foundations without which it is difficult to imagine living in accordance with the Torah - have become irrelevant in these circles. Not only are these concepts not spoken about, but worse still - the very mention of these terms by someone else "turns off" these youth, since the "connection" they seek is personal, individual and experiential. I myself do not know the extent of this phenomenon, but it seems to be spreading.
A CRITIQUE OF CONTEMPORARY RELIGIOSITY
Before describing this phenomenon and its dangers, I shall say a few words about some of the positive elements that underlie it.
1) There is no doubt that this represents a search for avodat Hashem (service of God) that is meaningful and relevant in the here and now. The Torah teaches us, "And you shall seek out the Lord your God from there and you shall find Him, if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Devarim 4:29). The path leading from the first stage of seeking to the stage of finding may be a long and difficult one, but the act of seeking certainly should be taken seriously.
2) This phenomenon also represents a reaction to the "herd" mentality, the monochromatic approach, the banding together under the aegis of a few slogans and being satisfied with that - which, during recent years, have become the lot of the majority of religious-Zionist youth.
3) To my mind, there is also a reaction to the dryness and lack of spirituality that characterize the great majority of religious-Zionist synagogues. It began, I believe, with the establishment of synagogues for young couples a few decades ago. Young people did not feel at home in the existing synagogues, and this was justified to some extent. But instead of seeking ways to integrate into the existing synagogues - admittedly a difficult task, for reasons which I shall not discuss here - they established minyanim meant exclusively for young people. These young people did not appreciate the influence of a prayer offered by an "elderly person who has children but whose house is empty" - the Mishna's depiction (in massekhet Ta'anit) of the most desirable prayer leader for a fast day. A heart-breaking sigh, the echo of silent weeping that one could encounter at times in older synagogues - these did not "speak" to the youth. The establishment of the new minyanim was intended to bring the youth closer to the synagogue, and indeed some positive actions were undertaken, but there was no success in infusing these places with "soul." The young people were brought closer to the synagogue, but not to prayer. Meanwhile the youth of then have become older, but most of the synagogues have remained as they were, devoid of vitality and spirituality.
4) The search for "connection" also contains a hidden criticism of the move towards nationalist ultra-Orthodoxy (charedi-leumi, or "chardal") that is currently the vogue and to which no small number of yeshiva graduates have been attracted. The criticism is aimed at the action-oriented nature of this ultra-Orthodoxy. From the point of view of strictness and precision in certain areas of Halakha, everything looks perfect, but the internal, spiritual sense of love and awe of God, which in general always accompanies precise observance of the details, is not apparent to the outsider. The discrepancy between the "duties of the heart" and the "duties of the limbs" is painfully obvious, and this has led the youth of today to the logical conclusion - to their view - that this is not the way, and that new ways must be sought.
KEEPING TORAH OUT OF OBLIGATION, NOT JUST CHOICE
The factors that I have enumerated have served, I presume, as a catalyst for the new phenomenon to which we are witness. In truth, the roots of this phenomenon are to be found in the inner nature of religious life in the modern era, and I refer here mainly to the religiosity of Jews who are open to modernity and do not close themselves into ghettos.
According to our Sages, Am Yisrael accepted the Torah at Sinai out of two different motivations. The one was a freely-accepted and enthusiastic declaration of "We shall observe and we shall hear" (Shemot 24:7); the other was the coercive and threatening suspension of the Mt. Sinai like a cask over their heads (Shabbat 88a). It would seem that nothing could be more ideal than accepting the Torah out of free will and inner conviction - indeed, the Midrash narrates how, when Israel willingly declared, "We shall observe and we shall hear," the angels on high were astonished and asked, "Who revealed this secret to Israel?" At the same time, acceptance of the Torah that is based only on willing assent, without a basis of coercion, is deficient. The Maharal writes:
"The reason for holding the mountain over them was so that Israel would not say, 'We accepted the Torah of our own free will, and had we not wished to, we would not have accepted the Torah.' This would not have represented the glory of Torah... it is not proper that the acceptance of the Torah depend on the free choice of Israel, but rather that the Holy One obligate them and force them to accept it, for were it not for this [acceptance] it would be impossible for the world not to revert to its primordial chaos." (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 32)
Lately I have the impression that these Jews, whom I am discussing, observe Torah and mitzvot not out of a sense of obligation and commitment but rather out of free choice, out of a recognition of the superiority of a Torah lifestyle over other lifestyles. The sense of obligation has weakened in recent years, if not disappeared altogether. We are faced with an acceptance of "the yoke of Heaven" out of a desire to accept the yoke, and not out of recognition that the yoke is forced upon us. I do not know when this phenomenon started, but in my public appearances both in Israel and overseas I began to address it more than ten years ago.
A significant fact should be emphasized here. What is involved is not an attitude of willing acceptance towards each individual mitzva, but rather a willing acceptance of the whole framework of religious life, undertaken with the clear recognition that the acceptance of a religious lifestyle is founded upon commitment towards Halakha. What we have here is acceptance of commitment to Halakha as part of the life that a person chooses for himself, out of free will and not out of obligation.
There can be no doubt that such an approach to Torah and mitzvot arises from the cultural atmosphere prevalent today in the world. The place of liberal individualism as a central foundation of modern culture and the place of the rights of the individual at the top of the hierarchy of values have led to a spirit of freedom from commitment. The very idea of obligation to any value or object is opposed to the idea of freedom. This being the case, any commitment - be it towards the nation, the state, society or the family - has no place in the era of freedom. Commitment contains an element of coercion; only action that is undertaken out of free will is desirable.
It is therefore no wonder that the modern religious individual is influenced by this atmosphere in his religious approach as well, and thus choice out of free will becomes the foundation of his religious world-view. Again it should be emphasized that within this approach there is a commitment to Halakha. Not only does such commitment exist, but it is in fact heavily emphasized, recognizing that this is the sole anchor preventing complete assimilation into the surrounding cultural environment.
EXPERIENCE WITHOUT COMMITMENT
Now let us address what is happening today among the youth whom I am discussing. The youth have taken one further step - a step that is far-reaching and dangerous: they have removed from their lexicon the obligation to Halakha as well. Any obligation is invalid. The concept of authority arouses among them the suspicion that obligation lurks not far behind, and hence their opposition to the very idea of authority.
After removing authority from their lexicon, what remains? What remains is "identification," or "connection." Those parts of the Torah and those mitzvot with which the individual can identify and which sit well with his personality, those to which his "I" can attach itself experientially - these become part of his "I," and this represents the sole basis for his mitzva-observant lifestyle. This connection must be personal and individual, and obviously it can only be experiential. Religious experience is a personal matter; everyone experiences things differently. Connection based on reason and logic lacks the personal, individual element, since logic is something universal rather than personal, and so it fails to satisfy him.
It is in the nature of the demand for personal connection, devoid of any element of obligation, that a one-time connection at a conducive moment is insufficient; there must be a new connection established from time to time since there exists no accompanying obligation. Clearly, too, the connection that once existed at a conducive time does not create any obligation for other times that are less conducive.
The leap from this perception to that of selective "connection" is not all that great. Selective connection means that one is not satisfied with the idea of connection to a life of Torah in general; what is required is a specific identification with each individual mitzva. Then what happens is that one is able to "connect" to certain mitzvot, but with other mitzvot, one has less success.
These youth expect the Almighty to approach man and offer him mitzvot through which he will be able to attain religious elation and spiritual elevation; this style appeals to them. But to accept God as a commanding King who makes demands and is coercive - this is beyond their comprehension and is meaningless to them. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 28a) teaches that, "The mitzvot were not given for our enjoyment." Rashi adds: "That is, in order for their observance to give pleasure; rather, they were given to be a yoke upon their necks." In the minds of these youth, this saying is meant for a different generation.
In summary, we are faced with a most grave phenomenon, even if it does bring the youth some enthusiasm in prayer, through song and dancing.
A RESPONSE TO ALIENATION
If my aim were to follow the example of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev and to find something to say in their favor, I would say that the search for "connection" arises from the sense of alienation that characterizes the world today. Much is said about how modern communications have made our world into a global village. I believe that this represents a mistaken definition. The world has changed not into a global village, but rather into a global metropolis - a huge city with all the attendant problems of urbanization, which increase the feeling of estrangement among its inhabitants.
The automatization that has spread to every sphere of life has brought about a situation in which the connection between people and the reality surrounding them has become devoid of any human dimension. Everything is becoming "virtual," the virtual is the real thing, and reality has become, as it were, an imitation of the virtual. All of this increases the sense of alienation, especially among young people who have not yet become fully-fledged citizens of the world and are still trying to find their way in life. It is no wonder, therefore, that they seek the remedy for their estrangement in "connecting."
It is reasonable to assume that there are in fact different levels of the demand for "connection," and that the model I have presented is somewhat extreme. I have chosen intentionally to present this extreme model because I believe that any over-emphasis of the idea of "connection" contains that danger that it may lead to the model I have described.
LOYALTY AND FAITFULNESS
I know that in order to address this phenomenon it is not sufficient merely to point out its dangers. We need to deal head-on with the actual ideology of "connection." And in this regard I would like to clarify one particular point.
Words have their own dynamic. The concepts of "commitment" and "obligation" are relatively new, and they arouse associations of coercion, of something that is not part of ourselves but rather is forced upon us. In our traditional sources, the term that is used instead of "mechuyavut" (obligation) is "ne'emanut" (loyalty, trustworthiness, faithfulness). We say in our prayers, "You are faithful to revive the dead" - God is obligated, as it were, to revive the dead. Moreover, Rashi interprets the phrase, "I am Hashem" (Shemot 6:2), as meaning, "I am faithful to give reward." The Tetragrammaton refers to God's keeping faith with His creatures.
The concept of religious faith (emuna) is also an expression of loyalty (ne'emanut), as we pray, "…and [He] fulfills His faith to those who sleep in the dust." Faith, in the language of Chazal, means trust in God because He is the source of loyalty; it is not "belief that" but "belief in." "Since you did not believe in Me [to sanctify Me in the eyes of Israel]" (Bamidbar 20:12), God's criticism of Moshe when he struck the rock, means, "Since you did not have faith in Me, since you did not trust in Me." In Mishlei (20:6) we read, "Most men will proclaim each his own goodness, but who can find a man of faith?" The Maharal comments on this, "A man of faith is both someone who has faith in Me, and someone who is trustworthy in all his dealings and behavior." Faith, therefore, expresses two things: faith in God, and loyalty in all one's behavior; in other words - obligation, commitment. In contrast with the strangeness of the word "obligation," "loyalty" expresses something that is close to man. It is a word that does not arouse any unpleasant associations; it is a word that expresses something of which man is proud.
The Gemara (Ta'anit 8a) recounts:
"R. Ami said: The rains only fall for people of faith, as it is written, 'Truth will sprout from the earth and righteousness looks on from the heavens.' And R. Ami also said: See how great are those of faith - from where? From a rat and a well. And if this is so concerning one who is faithful to a rat and a well, then how much more so concerning one is faithful to the Holy One, Blessed be He."
What is referred to by "faithful to a rat and a well?" This refers to the loyalty towards a rat and a well, obligation towards them. The incident is explained in the Arukh (s.v. Cheled):
"It once happened that a girl was walking towards her father's house, wearing silver and gold jewelry. She lost her way and wandered in uninhabited areas. By noon, she was thirsty but had nothing to drink. She saw a well with the rope of a bucket suspended over it. She took hold of the rope and let herself descend into the well. After drinking she wished to ascend but was unable to, and she cried and shouted.
A man passed by and heard her voice. He stood by the well and looked into it, but he was unable to see her… He said to her, 'What has happened tyou?' She told him the whole story. He said to her, 'If I lift you out, will you marry me?' She said, 'Yes.' He lifted her out, and wished to have relations with her immediately.
She said to him, 'From which nation are you?' He said, 'I am of Israel, from such-and-such a place, and I am a Kohen.' She said to him, 'I am from such-and-such a place, and from such-and-such family, well-known people of good repute.' She said, '[A member of] a holy nation [of Kohanim] such as you, whom the Holy One has chosen and sanctified from amongst all of Israel - you wish to act like an animal, without a ketuba (marriage document) and without kiddushin? Come with me to my father and mother, and I will become engaged to you.'
They each promised to the other. He said to her, 'Who will be a witness between us?' A rat ran by them. She said to him, 'The heavens and this rat and this well will be witnesses that we shall not deceive each other.' Each went his own way.
The girl stood by her commitment, and anyone else who proposed to her was refused. When they pressed her, she began to behave as if she was mad; she would tear her clothes and the clothes of anyone who touched her, until people began to avoid her, and she kept her promise to the man.
And he - since he was no longer in her presence, his evil inclination attacked him and he forgot. He went back to his city and returned to his occupation, he married another woman and she became pregnant and bore him a son.
At the age of three months, a rat strangled the child. The wife became pregnant again, and bore a son, and the child fell into a well.
The man's wife said to him, 'If your sons had died in a normal way, I would have accepted the judgment. Since they have died such strange deaths, it cannot be for no reason. Tell me what happened.'
He told her the whole story. She divorced him, telling him, 'Go to the portion that the Holy One has assigned to you.'
He went and asked in her city. They told him, 'She is mad. Anyone who wants her - such and such she does to him.' He went to her father and told him the whole story, and said, 'I accept any fault that she has.' The father brought witnesses.
The man came to her and she started to act as was her custom. He told her the story of the rat and the well. She said to him, 'I, too, have kept my promise.'
They were immediately reconciled, and their children and possessions multiplied. Of her it is said, 'My eyes are on the faithful of the earth' (Tehillim 101:6)."
What do we learn from this story? The woman expresses fundamental human nature, without cunning or artificiality. The story shows that commitment - "loyalty," in Chazal's terms - is part of the essence of human nature, and deviation from it is a deviation from human nature, and therefore nature takes its revenge. Commitment is not something external; rather, it flows from human nature. If one removes from man his loyal nature - or, in other words, if one removes from him his sense of binding commitment and obligation - then one has removed the Divine image within him. Moreover, instead of the the realization of God's promise, "And the fear and terror of you will be upon all the creatures of the earth" (Bereishit 9:2), the rat and the well will overcome him.
A world that revolts against commitment is in fact revolting against its human nature, and I believe human nature will ultimately prevail, and this whole phenomenon - which is contrary to nature and contrary to humanity - will disappear in the not-too-distant future.
The Gemara (Makkot 24a) teaches,
"613 commandments were given to Moshe… David came and summarized them in eleven… Yishayahu came and summarized them in six… Micha came and summarized them in three… Chabbakuk came and summarized them in one, as it is written, 'And the righteous man will live by his faith.'"
The reference here is not to faith in the sense by which we mean it today; rather, it refers to its previous meaning - loyalty to God. And so we read in Chabbakuk (2:3):
"For there is still a vision for the appointed time, and it speaks concerning the end and it does not deceive; if it tarries, wait for it, for it shall surely come, it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up, it is not upright in him, but the righteous man will live by his faith."
The significance of these words is that the faith that "it shall surely come" is one aspect of faith; the other aspect is that the righteous man will live by virtue of his loyalty, of his commitment. "Chabbakuk came and summarized them into one" - the concept of faith, which is a two-sided coin: faith in God's loyalty towards man, and man's loyalty towards the Holy One - which we call commitment. Thus the concept of commitment becomes the basis for the entire Torah: "And the righteous man shall live by his faithfulness."
(Translated by Kaeren Fish with Rav Ronnie Ziegler.
This speech was delivered at Yeshivat Har Etzion's mesibat Chanuka, 5760 .)