Decommissioning Emunah

“But I will confess…” read the subject line in a recent email from a dear friend, a very intelligent Jewish man who claims to be an atheist. In the message box the communication continued: “…that the continued existence of Jew-hatred… baffles me.”

“And,” my friend added, “I am not easily baffled.”

His comment was a reaction to a recent column that appeared in this space (which he saw electronically; he’s not yet a subscriber to Hamodia) that alluded to how powerful an argument for the Torah’s truth is the astounding, perplexing persistence of anti-Semitism.

If only my friend, and all Jews, would honestly and objectively consider that other, independent, anomalies also lead in the same direction.

Like the perseverance of the Jewish People itself, despite all the adversity it has faced and faces; like the uniqueness of the Torah’s recording of sins committed by its most venerated personalities, in such contrast to other religions’ fundamental texts; like the seemingly self-defeating laws the Torah commands, like Shemittah and aliyah l’regel, which no human would ever have decreed, as they put their observers in great danger; like the predictions the Torah makes that have come to pass, like the sin-caused galus and scattering of Klal Yisrael around the world; like Moshe’s speech deficit and deep humility, the polar opposites of the qualities of all of history’s successful non-Divinely-ordained leaders.

And, of course, above all those uniquenesses, the dearth in the annals of human history of any other claim that the Creator communicated directly with an entire people, a claim that, by its nature, cannot be successfully asserted and perpetuated… unless it actually happened.

Those striking singularities should be particularly pondered by Jay P. Lefkowitz, who, back in the April issue of Commentary, extolled the idea of Jewish observance-without-belief in the Torah’s truth, and now, in that periodical’s September issue, tries to defend himself against a number of letters the magazine published (full disclosure: one was written by me) explaining that Judaism is predicated on awareness of the Creator.

Mr. Lefkowitz, who attends a synagogue weekly and, in his own words, “pick[s] and choose[s] from the menu of Jewish rituals,” but “without fear of Divine retribution,” claims that the sort of “social conformism” he practices plays a “large role” even in traditional Orthodox communities.

It must be honestly, if sadly, admitted that there are indeed seemingly religious Jews who “do Jewish” but don’t seem to “think Jewish.” That some even in our own observant community, bizarrely, even defend observance that lacks G-d-consciousness, and actually are complacent about tefillah without kavanah. How large a role mindless Jewish praxis plays in the Orthodox community, of course, isn’t anything any of us can really know.

But whatever its prevalence, it is lamentable, not some ideal to enshrine, as Mr. Lefkowitz seems to do, as a new “movement” — much less an “Orthodox” one.  It is a spiritual malady, something to be overcome. Judaism is not a culture; it is a belief system.

That religious observance is Jewishly vital, of course, is a truism. And so is the fact that all of us live imperfectly on a continuum of Hashem-consciousness. Few if any of us have actually realized Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s deathbed blessing to his talmidim:  “May the fear of Heaven be to you as the fear of human beings.”  When his puzzled students protested, the tanna explained: “Think! When a person commits a sin, he says ‘I hope no one is watching me!’” (Brachos, 28b).

The problem with Mr. Lefkowitz’s stance isn’t his forthrightness about his philosophical qualms. It’s that he seems comfortable with, even proud of, them.  And that, rather than seek to alleviate his doubts with some deep and discomfiting thought about why Jews believe and have always believed in the truth of our mesorah, he chooses instead to legitimize the decommissioning of emunah, labeling his G-dless approach some sort of new “Orthodox Judaism.” It is neither Orthodox nor Judaism.

He correctly notes that no responsible Rabbi would ever counsel a fellow Jew who confides that “I don’t really believe in G-d or that G-d gave the Torah, so I am not sure whether I should continue to fast on Yom Kippur or observe kashrut or Shabbat” to “throw away observance unless it is faith-driven.” But a responsible Rabbi would counsel the supplicant to undertake observance with a conscious intention to better understand his actions as the Creator’s will. Doing Jewish can lead to thinking Jewish. But one must want it to.

As for us believers, we might take Mr. Lefkowitz’s words as a push to strengthen our own Hashem-consciousness. Even if perfection in that ideal remains out of our reach, we are not absolved from aspiring to it, from aiming, each of us, at a higher state of recognition that Hashem Hu ha’Elokim.

That quest, in fact, is arguably the very life-goal of a Jew. It is certainly something timely to ponder now, well into Elul. May our focus on it be a zechus for ourselves — and for all our fellow Jews.