Defining the Essence of Judaism
By Larry Fine
In life balance is one of the most essential skills that we possess. Face it, without balance we can not walk much less run or use a bicycle. How can we get around with out balance? We enjoy watching a person walk on a tightrope and since it is dangerous it requires an extra skill in balance.
One of the skills that a baby must acquire before it can develop into a person is the ability to balance itself. Parents instinctively know this and aid their toddler as he tries to walk. Once the child develops the walking skill, balance becomes intuitive. The child (as well as most adults) henceforth becomes unaware of balance.
Although we as adults do not attach particular importance to balance in our daily life, no one will deny its importance. People who have balance problems must use a cane or a walker or be assisted by a helper. Balance is a necessity to get oneself through the various venues of life.
Yet there is another type of balance to which few seem to be aware; nevertheless its importance is just as urgent. This is balance in living. Few of us realize that to live a happy and successful life requires balance. We need balance in deciding what will be our goals, we need balance in deciding what we will do with our life and what methods should be employed to achieve these goals. We need balance to help us deal with the failures and frustrations that inevitably come as we pursue our goals and sometimes fail. Most will agree that it is the unbalanced persons who has personality defects. It is the lifestyles of the unbalanced individual which are to be avoided.
Today there is another area in which balance is of the utmost importance and that is in the area of Judaism. It is unfortunate that we see today many people who tend to accept extreme ideas into their lives and embrace extremism. There is extremism in Jewish political thought and extremism in religious matters. We can see that a person is not always aware that he is entering into an extreme mind set; rather he looks at his viewpoint it as a proper and fitting solution to a problem. Once he refuses to consider alternative solutions, he is locking himself into extremism.
The underlying problem with acceptance of an extreme position is that it circumvents the thought process. Once a person has accepted that a certain position is valid, it becomes a given that other views must therefore be erroneous. In such a scenario, he virtually cancels out any possibility of giving a just hearing to a contrary thought. Extreme thinking voids automatically opposite ideas; there is no need to reason or rethink the matter through again since the extremist automatically rejects any concept in opposition to his.
Once a thought or suggestion is branded as belonging to an opposition group, there no longer exists the need to consider it. "This thought is from a group whose view point I find unacceptable, therefore I can not accept it, or even consider it." Extremism is not always labeled as extremism, sometimes it can be labeled as "mainline thinking", but it has the same effect. It relieves one of the obligation to consider a view other than that of his.
In religious life too, the fact is that Judaism must blend and balance age old tradition with the constraints of modern life. To rid oneself of the customs of our ancestors is no better an answer than it is to totally ignore modern life and with its demands and live a life as our great grandfathers did in the European ghettos. A balance must be made and each conflict must be judged independently from other situations.
In a similar vein, in the political arena polarization seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Each political unit tries to brand its opponents as devils and themselves as saints. It is here that original thinking and reasoning are necessary and important to reach proper and beneficial conclusions. Accepting concepts from one's group as the only possible solution merely because it is the way of politics, is self defeating. Only when one is capable to think beyond the box, when one is capable of analyzing without prejudice the pros and cons in an independent manner, only then can a proper decision be made.
Unfortunately, the lesson of ancient Jewish learning, the qualities of analyzation as propounded by the sages of the Talmud, a methodology of independent reasoning and questioning has been lost on our generation. The unfortunate state of affairs today is that one only reads only those reports that agree with his preconceived view point and in effect is not challenged to reach deeper levels of understanding that could give him creative solutions to modern problems. We have descended into a nation that has lost the ability of creative thinking.
Unless we are willing to drop preconceived notions which contain us, we can never break out of the box that constrains us. A person who lives with preconceptions will always be mentally stagnant and given to extremism as a way of setting for himself a simpleton's life devoid of creative thought and reason..
from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine