In recent years, and probably longer, there has been an ongoing discussion in the Jewish community about “continuity,” about which sects of Judaism will or will not produce people who are Jewish according to Jewish law (however you define that) and who actually care about living a Jewish life (once again, however you define that). A few years ago, Pew Forum released a poll showing that the only Jewish denominations gaining in size are the Orthodox ones, and they get bigger even faster the farther they are to the right. More recently, a study found that significant numbers of Religious Zionists in Israel leave religion behind as they move into adulthood. Both of these data points have given rise to panicked rethinking, on the one hand, and joyous triumphalism on the other. In this post, I want to go back over Rav Tsadok’s ideas from Dover Tsedek, Aharei Mot, #4 (If you haven’t read the last post with my annotated translation, I recommend doing so), and apply them to this Jewish continuity discourse, with the goal of pointing us in a different direction altogether.
Exhibit A. Source: http://www.aish.com/jw/s/48910307.html
Rav Tsadok starts his exegetical and creative work with the sin of the spies from Numbers 13-14. The spies came back from exploring the land of Canaan and said that it would be impossible to conquer because of the current residents, and what is more, even if they managed to conquer the land they would not last there, as it is a land that consumes its inhabitants. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, protest that God can bring the people into the land if they so choose, a claim that Rav Tsadok radically extends.
The spies saw the outer layer (levush), the skin of the snake, while Joshua and Caleb saw the inner truth that the land is good. The skin of the snake causes people to fail, regarding which the verse says, “If God desires us” (Numbers 14:8), meaning that if God wants to bring us to the land he will do so, even given that he knows about the skin of the snake.
The claim, according to Rav Tsadok, is not only that God can help them conquer the land if God so chooses, but that the functional practicality of conquering and living in the land is entirely irrelevant. God is aware of the practical issues and gave the command anyway. What should be of immediate concern to the people is what God wants them to do.
In terms of Jewish continuity discourse, I think we need to be asking ourselves: is continuity part of what God wants us to do, or is it a practical issue? I suspect it is the latter. Continuity is not a principle that should guide the direction of Jewish life, it is something you deal with as you go. But we cannot decide how to be Jewish, what it means to be Jewish, based on what that means for our kids. We have to ask ourselves, how does God want me to be Jewish right now? Continuity discourse keeps us focused on the practical issues without getting down to that question of principle, in a way that I think is really inexcusable. Continuity is certainly important, but it can’t tell us what we are supposed to be doing now.
Rav Tsadok next moves on to discussing a talmudic narrative where the prophet Isaiah rebukes King Hezekiah for refusing to have children simply because he foresaw that his son would be evil. Isaiah pushes back against this logic, arguing that Hezekiah should not be concerned about future results more than he is about the divine command.
It was said regarding this, “Why do you involve yourself with the secrets of the Holy One, Blessed be He?” And this even though he had seen through the holy spirit that his sons would not be good, as it says in Berakhot (10a).
The future outcome of fulfilling the commandments are the “secrets” of God, argues Rav Tsadok, even when a person has divinely inspired knowledge of said outcome. The use of the term “secret” therefore seems to mean “something you are not supposed to be thinking about or factoring into your decision making process” rather than “thing you cannot know.” Thus, even when Hezekiah knows the outcome of fulfilling the divine command, he should act as if from behind a veil of ignorance and perform the command as if he did not know what would come of it.
Continuity discourse wants us to act based on our understanding of what will happen in the future, our understanding of the secrets of God. The most obvious problem is that, unlike King Hezekiah, we have no way of actually knowing what the future holds. Even if assimilation and birth rates have recently trended one way in our denominations, this trend may shift. God only knows what might happen in the future, so it’s not something we can, or should, factor into our decisions.
Perhaps more importantly, continuity discourse thinks about the future in a way that ignores our role in it. In the continuation of the talmudic narrative, Hezekiah agrees to have children (in fulfillment of the divine command), but refuses to accept that his son will be wicked. Despite the prophet insisting that this cannot be changed, Hezekiah insistently tries to ensure that his son will be righteous. This brings us back to the split between principle and practical issues. After Hezekiah has committed to acting based on principle, doing what he knows he is supposed to do, he then tackles the practical issue on its own, doing whatever he can to change the outcome he has foreseen. Continuity is a practical issue, and as such can and should be tackled head on, but only after we have decided on what the proper, principled, path is to take. We should decide what denomination, if any, we ought to associate with, and then afterward we should dedicate ourselves to ensuring Jewish continuity.
The next step in Rav Tsadok’s thought-process suggests that what we see as practical issues may really be an important part of the process. He references a parable from the Zohar about a doe who cannot give birth until a snake bites it, violently opening its birth canal.
In reference to this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai said (Zohar, Beshalaḥ, 2:52b), “There is one doe there… do not ask and do not test God–so it is precisely!”
The implication of the story is that violence and suffering may actually be part of the divine plan. Rabbi Shimon’s concludes from this that you cannot question God; once suffering and violence can be legitimate parts of the divine plan, then they stop being reasons to question or challenge God. Practical issues like continuity may be part of the divine plan, and thus certainly should not be a decisive factor in choosing how to live. This is the point at which divine providence is so expansive and undefined that human decision-making becomes impossible, so I’m mostly going to ignore this point. However, the basic idea of humility before the potential vicissitudes of the divine plan is worth keeping in mind.
The final step of Rav Tsadok’s train of thought involves radical interpretations of a hasidic tradition about the biblical book of Esther and a famed talmudic narrative. The hasidic tradition suggests takes Vashti’s refusal to come before Aḥashverosh naked as indicative of the impossibility of an unmediated (“naked”) experience of God in this world, something Rav Tsadok extends even to the idealized world to come.
Outer layers and the skin of the snake exist even in the life of the world to come [as I heard regarding the verse (Esther 1:17) “bring Vashti” naked, but she did not come, for in this world there is always clothing (levush)] and there is room there [in the world to come -LM] to make mistakes.
Nothing is perfect, nothing goes according to plan. Problems arise even in the world to come. Hence an experience of the world to come, like that of the talmudic figure Aḥer, is perforce affected by the presence of negative elements.
As they said, Aḥer tasted from the trip through the orchard (Ḥagigah 14b), a taste like that of the world to come, and he strayed.
Even the world to come, the theoretical ideal of human reality and its relationship to the divine, is not perfect. Extrapolating theology from this ideal reality can therefore lead to mistakes and even heresy.
While at this point Rav Tsadok has wandered rather far afield, I think this final step is still very important for our discussion of continuity. The basic idea that Rav Tsadok is exploring here is that nothing is perfect; try as hard as you might, there will always be problems. It is therefore a waste of time to try and decide on a way of life that won’t have any problems. You have to just decide based on principle and then do your best to alleviate the problems that inevitably arise. If a certain form of Jewish life leads to less Jewish babies or less religious adults, that does not bear on whether or not that is the right way to live Jewishly. Even if you could find a way of life with no continuity problems, there would inevitably be other problems. Ensuring that people are Jewish or religious does not mean that they will be Jewish or religious in the way that you would hope. Or there could be one of any number of other problems. Continuity is an important issue, but it is one (and not the only one) that needs to be tackled after we decide on the right way to be Jewish, rather than being a part of that decision.
There’s obviously a lot in this piece from Rav Tsadok that is challenging theologically, particularly the section on the Zohar. However, I think the basic idea that shows up throughout is compelling, and very important for contemporary Jewish discourse about denominations. Continuity is important, but it’s a practical issue, not a principle. The question of how to be Jewish has to be answered by looking for what is right, what God wants from us, etc., not by pointing to practical issues like continuity. This will still allow for hearty inter-denominational debate, but at least the discussion will center around actual points of debate. Moreover, when we ask ourselves why we live Judaism the way that we do, the answer will be because be actually believe in it.
I do expect some pushback on this. Some of this may need some nuancing; perhaps the distinction I drew between principle and practical is not as sharp as I made it out to be, or perhaps there is some other issue I haven’t imagined yet.