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The Structure of Faith

By Saul Goldman

Judaism has always negotiated the tension between the ideal/utopian and the feasible. Accordingly, Jewish apocalyptists remained marginal and mysticism, until recently, was outside the normative parameters of Jewish life. The major books of the Bible are either legal, ethical or historical. They deal with how to live a better life. Indeed, the greatest difference between Judaism and its by-product Christianity is that in the Christian ethos, life is viewed as the preamble to death and resurrection. Judaism, on the other hand, practically ignores death and any afterlife, focusing entirely upon this life and how to live it. The second greatest compendium of Judaica is the Talmud and it, too, is all about law and ethics.

Modern Israel, in many respects, is the product of this historic merger. Established upon the foundations of necessity and vision, Israel has managed to become a western power. Israel's struggle for security and national well being continues. The recent spate of terrorist violence is a continuation of the refusal of the Arab world, and much of the western world, to recognize the right of Jewish sovereignty within the borders of our only land. The late Yitzhak Rabin was right when he stated that terrorism is not a strategic threat. But what he did not address was the fact that over the years as many Jews emigrated from Israel as migrated to Israel. In the moral vocabulary of Jewish life, we speak of aliyah (ascending) and yeridah (descending). The term echoes the ritual of ascending to the Torah during its public reading in the synagogue. Yeridah or emigration is, however, a strategic threat. Those leaving are scientists, physicians, lawyers professionals, entrepreneurs and artists. Israel is experiencing a "brain drain" and we all know that our future rests upon the quality of our society.

Some of us, who look at life through the prism of Judaism, may wonder. How could this be? A biblical promise fulfilled after two thousand years of wandering. Finally, we have our own country and we are leaving it?! Frankly, people leave Israel because the Jewish State is not a land of opportunity. And because, Jews are essentially pragmatic, they need to "make a living". Remember the story of the suburban Jew whose daughter brings home her intended and he is a yeshivah bochur. When the future father in law takes him into his study for a private, man to man conversation, he asks "what are your plans and hears that the future son -in-law is going to study Torah. And how will you support a wife? God will provide. And what about children? We'll have many. And how will you support them? God will provide." When he leaves his study his wife asks, so nu, what's the story. "I have good news and bad news he answers. The bad news is that he is a bum, but the good news is that he thinks I'm God!"

So, too, we Jews have good news and bad news. The good news is that we have redeemed ourselves after two thousand years. The bad news is that we can't make a good living. So after the glorious days of struggle and after the tears have been dried on Memorial Day, we pack up and look for opportunities elsewhere. The time of the kibbutznik pioneer has passed; many kibbutzim hire Arab labor. The slogan of avodah ivri no longer highlights the virtue of Hebrew labor. We are now, what we have always really been engaged in luftgescheften; a nation of entrepreneurs. Having survived so long by our wits, Jews are stridently independent and aggressive at business. But, Israel is hardly conducive to the spirit of free enterprise.

Many politicians have ignored these problems in favor of the more dramatic, headline grabbing issues of Oslo or peace and war. As we strive for greater national independence we recognize the necessity of changing old economic patterns. The Torah, for example, thought it best to protect individuals from economic collapse through the institution of the sabbatical year in which all debts were forgiven (Deuteronomy 15:2). Centuries later the Pharisees legislated Hillel's prosbul, which in effect, neutralized the earlier law (Mishneh Shevi'it 10:3). The Pharisees knew that the antiquated law in the Torah would inhibit business and investment. No doubt the Torah, written when the memory of Egyptian slavery was still freshly etched upon the national psyche, intended to assure every possible protection against debt. We all know that financial indebtedness compromises our politicians and endangers our liberty.

Today, those of us who were privileged to witness Israel's rebirth and to serve that sacred objective, either within the land or in the diaspora, must restructure our relationship to Israel. Israel's infancy was nurtured by a generous Jewry and an America committed to democratic principles of liberty. But we must look ahead to the welfare of our Holy Land. Just as we prepare a child for autonomy, we must prepare Israel for economic and scientific autonomy. Our parents and grandparents who witnessed the holocaust dug deep into their pockets and bought bonds, planted trees, erected hospitals and universities.

Today we must take a loving, but objective, look at what we have done. For example, if a beggar approached us on the street, we may give him some money and might ruminate to ourselves about that old adage: "give a man a fish and you have fed him for the day, but teach him to fish and you help him for a lifetime" If our own children were to become capable adults and still expected an allowance we would be troubled. That is why we work to provide our children with the skills to take care of themselves. This must be our guiding virtue. Maimonides taught that the highest form Of charity (zedekah is literally: justice) is not supporting but enabling.

The generation of the pioneers and their supporters throughout the world is passing away. Our final "gift" to this Land and its people-our people-must not be a gift at all. We can no longer be a nation of fund-raisers (shnorrers). In the past 53 years we have seen Israel transform itself from an agriculturally based economy into a high-tech leader in the world. But there is more to do so that the Israel will be an attractive environment for investors and entrepreneurs.

Judaism is many things: it is religion, ritual, spirituality and nationality. Mordecai Kaplan, I believe, correctly defined Judaism as a civilization. The physical foundation of civilization is its economy. And certainly our sages agreed when they emphasized that where there is "no sustenance there is no Torah" (Avot 3:21). We have survived as a nation over the millennia because we have developed a matrix of hope based upon optimism. We share a conviction that God's plan for us is not merely survival. On the contrary, we were chosen to be great; to illuminate (or lagoyim) the way for all others. Our "hope", however, was not a magical kind of wishing. It was governed by realism. We always believed that the most powerful prayer was not recited in words, but expressed in deeds. Our sages deliberated over the relative importance of prayer versus study. Their discussions ended with our liturgy including a major time slot for study to teach us that study, research and scholarship were sacred duties. And finally, our hope included the facts so that while we used prayer as a source of encouragement; a vain prayer or beracha l'vatalah was forbidden.

When our people gathered in Sinai and contemplated their future life within the borders of the Promised Land they wrote: "When you come to the Land that I shall give you" (Leviticus 25:1ff) and then the following verses instruct Israel in laws that were to safeguard both the citizen and the stranger and to govern its economic welfare. Centuries later, wiser men understood that some of these laws had to be modified. For the good of the people and its land. We, too, must reconsider how we share in Israel's well-being. First, our vocabulary should replace survival with development because now the threat to Israel's well-being is less external than internal.

We have the means to either deter an aggressive enemy or to defend against it. But development is an internal process; it requires harmony of purpose wherein politicians seek to improve the life-styles of their citizens. Second, our commitment to Israel must be re-conceptualized from charity to investment. We, too, must have confidence in Israel and in the validity of the Zionist vision. Even if we live in the Diaspora, we can be partners in Israel's growth. Each of us can within our means share in its economic development.

Up until the present we thought that this could be done through Israel Bonds. Today we realize, perhaps because of our American experience, the virtues of free enterprise and our obligations to encourage free enterprise and individual initiative.

We believe that true freedom provides opportunity for everyone to benefit from hard work and creativity. There are many Israeli companies especially in the high tech arena that are worthy of your consideration. Third, we must remember that a mitzvah is not a good deed; it is an obligation. And our moral obligation, as Jews and lovers of Zion, is to put our money where our faith is. To pray in deeds and not merely words; to understand that faith without its structure is merely magical thinking. For centuries when it came to Zion, we would only pray and dream that one day a magical messiah would redeem us. Those who relied upon prayer alone continue to only dream of Zion. But, when these men of verbal faith were led by men and women whose faith took the form of labor, valor and life, we witnessed the greatest of all dreams come true- the redemption of Israel. Now it is incumbent upon us to transform the promised land into a land of promise.

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from the September 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

 

 

 

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