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The Universal Call

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg
21.09.2014

    Faith and Love:  True relationships versus false gods

 

            We have previously suggested that love is an ideal model for the religious experience.  A person discovering spirituality is comparable to a person discovering love for the first time.  He is faced with an entirely new phenomenon, radically different in every respect from his former childish games at marbles, dolls or basketball.  A new world unfolds before his eyes, a world in which all of his unique potential may be realized.  This new world has the capacity to grant him joy and gladness, or to plunge him into misery and despair.  True love exists alongside illusory, idolatrous love.  In the religious sphere as well, true spirituality exists alongside idolatry.

 

            This fact compels us to alter our perspective.  Until this point we have discussed the existential problems experienced by all of mankind.  Now we begin to uncover the Jew inside of us.

 

            The appearance of the dream to the Kuzari, a gentile, obliges us to open the discussion of a general problem, which we will address in greater depth at a later stage.  The angel speaks to man in general, not to the Jew.  This paradox must accompany us throughout our analysis, for this most "national" of all works of Jewish philosophy begins with a call to Everyman.  The message, too, is a surprising one:  their intentions are acceptable to God, while their actions remain unacceptable to Him.

 

            To make sense of this paradox, we must examine both humankind and each individual from a dual perspective: ours, and God's.  We will thus be faced with two distinctly different pictures.  Let us look through the heavenly perspective, for example, at the natives of an island in the Pacific, who worship idols and have no inkling of our Torah.  In the heavenly court they will be judged innocent, since they knew no better.  Many idol worshippers actually intend to worship God; however, they are misled by their lack of religious knowledge.  Their actions are not acceptable to God, but their intentions certainly are laudable.  Allow me to explain this idea with a parable.  A man mails a letter, incorrectly addressed.  If the mail service is sophisticated enough, the letter will reach its intended destination despite the mistake.  So, too, we can be certain that the prayers of the island natives will indeed reach God.  And this is true not only of the inhabitants of an isolated island.  It is equally true of a religiously lost person dwelling in the largest teeming metropolis.

 

            Nonetheless, there are moments when the prisoner of ignorance does hear a knock upon his door.  The Kuzari's dream represents the divine knock upon the door of mankind.  The Lord of the Universe presents man with a challenge.  One who has never heard the knock will be judged according to his subjective intentions.  Whoever has not yet been faced with the challenge, whoever has not experienced the dream, cannot be judged objectively.  But the moment a knock is heard, responsibility begins.  Each of us hears the Godly call at some point in our lives.  Whether the call is experienced in a dream or in daily life is of no consequence.  Whether we are awakened by a stunning sunrise or sunset, after reading a new book, in moments of tragedy, joy or fear - no matter.  God communicates with man in numerous ways.  This is in fact one of the central tenets of the Hasidic movement.  Perhaps, to our rationalistic taste, it seems that the Hasidim go too far, when they state that God speaks to man constantly, at every moment.  However, it is certainly true that the history of mankind can be described as an ongoing dialogue with God.  The question God asked of Adam in the garden of Eden - "Where art thou," echoes throughout the ages.

 

            If you have not heard the question, you cannot be accountable to answer it.  Yet once the question has been asked of you, even as you attempt to determine whether you have indeed heard the heavenly call, the process of response has already begun.

 

            The Divine call constitutes the essence and soul of Judaism.  The meeting point between the youth and the tradition of his forefathers, is one of these calls.  This encounter, too, is a knock upon the door.

 

 

In Defense of the Despised Religion:  The universal role of Judaism

 

            Rav Yehuda Halevi gave his book an expanded title:  "The book of proofs in defense of the degraded and despised religion."  Rihal [the author's acronym] explains that his book was written in response to a request.  "I have been asked," he writes, "for the explanations and responses that I possess against the claims of those who disagree with our religion, both the philosophers and those of other religious persuasions."

 

            These facts suggest that the book was written within a historical context, which immediately displays the beginning of the book in a new light.  As Jews, one of the problems that motivates our spiritual quest is the issue of our Jewish identity.  The very fact that we are Jews arouses questions within us.  Rav Soloveitchik expresses this idea using two simple words: "fate" and "mission."  Our actions are propelled by our given situation; and our situation in life is often constructed of many components which lie out of our control.  Our situation is defined by our national history.  This is our fate.  However, our behavior is also motivated by our aspirations, our plans and our goals.  This is our mission.  Daily we confront myriad existential questions.  We are expected to respond to those questions not through a sense of fate, but rather with a sense of mission.

 

            This is true of the individual, and even more so regarding the community.  Each Jew is expected to reach an understanding of his destination in life even as he grapples with the questions along his journey.  Thus he will come to understand that his status as a Jew was not decided by a blind fate which appears at times to be meaningless and cruel.  The Jew must comprehend that his life has meaning as an element of a divine plan.  The Jewish people are no less than God's messengers on earth.  We are God's witnesses.  Thus we see that the beginning of the book actually has a double meaning.  The message is a universal one, and therefore the protagonist is a gentile.  Yet at the same time, the beginning of the book possesses a unique meaning for the Jews.  This is a book written "in defense of the despised religion".  In actuality, however, as we shall see, it is a book written in defense of the chosen religion.  For the Jew, this battle of defense is ultimately won through the exercise of free choice.

 

            We will not enter here into a discussion of the concept of free choice.  We will only preface by saying that the literary structure of the book coupled with the reference to the "despised religion," fully expresses the challenge of this idea.  We have often played the part of the persecuted people upon the stage of history.  Here, however, the scope of the problem is much larger.  The term "despised" conjures up an infinitely more pejorative image than the word "persecuted."  Persecution is a political, social, material state.  To be despised is a much lower level.  Therefore, as we shall see, the king does not initially consider asking the Jew about his religion, for he asks himself the obvious question:  How is it possible that the truth be hiding within a tiny, despised nation, a nation which persists, against all logic and in the face of degradation, in considering itself the chosen people?

 

            Like the Kuzari king, we all tend to follow the masses.  We are convinced to buy a particular product simply because other people have purchased it before us.  We must develop an awareness of the dangers of social consensus.  As Jews, as believers, as ethical human beings, we constantly find ourselves in the minority.  And as a result we are often criticized by society, criticism that seems at times too difficult to bear.  Constant effort is necessary to hold fast against the tremendous social pressure of the majority.  To be chosen means, in effect, to swim against the stream.

 

            Our protagonist is faced with a similar social pressure.  The philosopher presents himself to the Kuzari surrounded by the mystical aura of science.  Before the division of the sciences into the various faculties, the philosopher was considered the universal and ideal man of science.  Beside the man of science, the Kuzari is presented with the two central world religions:  Christianity and Islam.

 

            And at this point Rihal surprises us.  He could easily have attempted to convince us to ignore mere numbers.  He could have taught us to close our eyes to the social pressure to conform.  He does not.  In fact, he does the opposite.  He begins with the popular religions, Christianity and Islam, and through them he indisputably proves that a tiny, despised nation, who lived virtually unknown for hundreds of years in the Judean hills, changed the face of the entire world.  It is impossible to understand either Christianity or Islam, or indeed any of the modern world, without the basis of Judaism.  All the world leans upon the pillar constructed by this tiny, despised nation.  Paradoxically, this same tiny nation covers the front pages of newspapers the world over.  Christianity and Islam, for all their great numbers, must define themselves through Judaism.

 

            The Jewish inferiority complex is therefore unjustified.  However, neither is undue pride an appropriate response.  There are those who speak with satisfaction of a "Judeo-Christian culture."  We must recognize the failure within our success.  On the one hand, the effects of Judaism and its contribution to the world are constantly felt.  On the other hand, Judaism has largely failed in its efforts to affect the world, since it has not succeeded in transforming the world into an ideal place.  The world remains unredeemed and incomplete.  The monotheistic religions have grasped the Jewish message and tinted it various shades, watering down the belief in one God with idolatrous traditions and thus transforming the waters of Torah to dry and barren riverbeds, to religions which have betrayed their source.  Hearing the representatives of Christianity and Islam can fill the Jew with a fraternal pride, but this pride is weakened by a keen sense of disappointment both because these religions have deserted true monotheism and because of their negative attitudes toward Judaism.  Perhaps their attitudes can be described as a type of Oedipal complex: children who rise up against their father to the last degree, murder.

 

            God has assured us "...it is not for your great numbers that God has desired you of all the nations."  Our very existence proves that there is nothing to fear in mere numbers.

 

            We must search for answers to our existential questions, answers built upon our national mission.  The Kuzari was written in order to help us find those answers to the questions that stem from our Jewish identity.

 

 

The Need for Perspective:  Jewish pride

 

            The discussion of Judaism's place in the world compels us to address an additional problem.  Two opposite viewpoints exist among men.  Both are natural, and yet man must attempt to free himself of both.  The first is the standpoint of the child, who judges everything from his own personal perspective and is incapable of observing himself objectively.  The detachment from this perception of reality is one of the central goals of the educational process.  We attempt to teach the child to depart from the egocentric closed circuit and reach out toward others.  Let us assume that man has achieved this goal and has moved beyond the self-centered primitive stage.  He is capable of objective thought and can judge new situations with a perspective beyond his subjective viewpoint.  The educational process has proved successful.  However, at this point the opposite problem arises.  We see the development of extremely sophisticated individuals who have become so far removed from their subjective perception that they find it impossible to rediscover that initial subjective response.  They are overly suspicious of subjectivity, often unjustifiably so.  This is the illness that man suffers from when he is so enamored of objectivity that he defends everyone's subjective responses save his own.  His own subjective response, he feels, could not possibly be justified.  He mistrusts it simply because it is his own.  Indeed, there are times when self-criticism results from internalizing one's opponent's opinions.  This attitude can cause one to despise himself, and in such a case self-defense is more difficult even than Rihal's defense of "the despised nation."

 

            Oftentimes, this destructive response is true of our attitude toward Judaism.  The process of  outgrowing provincialism is an important one.  However, at times this developing sophistication is expressed through self-deprecation and deliberate blindness to the greatness and beauty inherent in one's own position.

 

            The comparison between Judaism and the other central religions comes to teach us that the Jews, despite their small numbers, are not an insignificant tribe or a "statistical error" among the populations of the world.  The Jews possess a message of universal import.  We will elaborate upon this message at a later stage.  At this point, the Jew is called upon to stop mistrusting himself and to evaluate himself in a truer light.  This is the beginning of the defense of the despised religion.

 

            Clearly, the structure of the book is a literary tool.  However, we must ask ourselves why Rihal chose this particular device.  Through his book we become acquainted with Rihal as a man who delves into the eternal questions, with his eyes wide open to a harsh reality.  In the real world a terrible battle is constantly waged between the knights of Christianity and the cavalry of Islam.  Judaism exists on the periphery, almost, but not quite, off the stage.  Yet, Rihal does not deal with his current historical reality.  The Kuzari constitutes a vision and a prophecy regarding the future of the entire human race.  The book is constructed around the struggle for the conversion of the nation of Khazars, but the story represents all humanity in the messianic era.  Can we indeed hope and expect that the messianic prophecies of the Bible will come true?  The book wishes to restore that hope.  It reminds us that one honest and upright man, the king of the Khazars, searched for God and reached the truth.  That man is all of humankind.  The hope of redemption, therefore, is present from the very beginning.

 

(This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)

Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.

 

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