Let the Yoke Run Down

I just finished reading an article about Israel’s draft law, and I find it ironic because it concerns precisely what I was speaking about yesterday in my thoughts on this week’s teaching from the Pirkei Avot. Not about integrity or faith, however, as metaphors of relief from citizenship and earning a livelihood–no, not at all. In Israel, the trouble isn’t in taking this teaching metaphorically, it’s about taking it literally.

Israeli politics is complicated and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand it nearly as well as I understand American politics, and there’s still a lot about that which I have yet to learn. No matter my poor understanding, there are some things I just know, because people I know are involved in it, people I care about even if I don’t have much contact with them specifically anymore.

What I know is this: Everyone serves. The military is their first stop after high school and then, if they choose to end their service after the mandatory term, they go to college. They have to–with enemies on nearly every side, with terrorism a daily threat, with countries that still refuse to recognize their right to exist–without a military everyone is invested in, the country could cease to exist in seconds.

However, not everyone really serves. The ultra-Orthodox are, and so it seems, always has been exempted from service. Worse yet is that about half of their community doesn’t work, leading to about a fifth of Israel’s population that receives support from the government–all for the sake of continuing their own study. In their eyes, taking up the yoke of the Torah truly has relieved them from the burdens of citizenship and earning a living.

Most Israelis, however, find this exemption unfair and wrong. Service is part of citizenship. It’s as simple as that. Some of these ultra-Orthodox groups don’t even recognize Israel as a state! Not until the messiah returns, they say–and who knows when that’ll be?

If my struggling with faith is a small battle, this clash of culture is an all-out war. On the one hand you have the traditions, ages old, that have given unity and structure to a faith that has withstood persecution and diaspora for almost as long as it’s existed. On the other hand you have modernity and equality, justice for all. If the state is to prosper, the ultra-Orthodox need to do their part to support it; but could the very foundation of Judaism be at risk if these men are taken away from their Talmud and Torah?

The clash has caused party upheavals and entire committees to come undone, not to mention the constant threat of unrest from the public–on both sides of the issue. The Supreme Court of Israel has already ruled the exemption illegal and demanded a fairer draft law be written, but with the intense convictions on either side, there’s not a single compromise that’ll truly satisfy all parties–because it seems neither side is able to compromise. If the exemptions remain in one form or another, the mantra that “everyone serves” will not be upheld–but if the exemptions are lifted even the tiniest amount, there will be backlash from the power-holding ultra-Orthodox.

Obviously, I’m not in Israel and not as informed on Israeli goings-on as I’d like to be, but this article in particular stood out to me because it was only yesterday in which this specific subject was on my mind: Should Torah exempt us from the basic demands of belonging to a society? Obviously, in the United States, that cannot happen–but what about in Israel, where it already is happening, should it continue?

It almost feels like, in answering this question, I’d be making a statement about my own faith. If I stand on the side of the ultra-Orthodox, on the side of continued study, it’s like I’m saying that faith is more important than fact–that religion trumps science. If I side with the masses that claim equal service for all, it’s as if I’m telling myself that modernity is more important than tradition and therefore all that is religious serves no purpose in my life, or any life at all.

Shortly after I posted yesterday, a friend of mine, attractive and talented, emailed me wondering where my religiosity comes from since I’m such a deeply intelligent man. My immediate answer was that I didn’t see the two as mutually exclusive, although in retrospect I hardly phrased it as well as that, instead saying that it’s simply a matter of striking a balance between the rational and the irrational.

And in those words, it sounds even worse.

Do I regard all of this as irrational? Not at all, well, not exactly. I consider parts of this world to exist beyond human understanding–beyond the confines of rational logic and knowing. This transcendental awareness which can only be called faith is irrational because it cannot be explained by pure logic and reasoning alone. Does that make it worthless or useless or foolish? Not to me.

But that brings us back to that infernal question: What does it mean to me anyways? Why am I such a religious person when my convictions rest upon the rational and objective? Is my struggle simply an exercise in breaking away from all of this or is there something deeper that can be found and, as I told him, balanced?

I feel I’m on the cusp of realizing something profound, but I’m standing here so precariously, I’m not sure I’d be able to realize the difference between falling upon the answers and just plain falling. I remember seeing the Kotel for the first time and thinking, “It’s smaller in person,” and I remember standing there on my last day in Israel, crying in the arms of new friends and wishing this feeling would never end. I remember tasting fresh vegetables from the garden and scratching my leg on the chicken wire that held up the tomato plants. I remember crawling through tunnels outside Jerusalem and swimming in the Kinneret and wishing badly that I hadn’t gotten swine flu and that I could’ve made it to Masada and the Dead Sea.

I tell myself I’ll go back someday. I’ve got unfinished business.

Then I consider Shoshana, the woman I met in Tel Aviv, and her words of definition: Being religious doesn’t make you a Jew; a connection to Israel will do. Is that the level of secularism I’m approaching–and what does that mean for me being bound to the United States? I can’t believe that’s the case. I’m too fascinated by Jewish history and Jewish thought and Jewish learning for that to be the case.

So what am I struggling with?

Ideas. That’s what I’m struggling with. Does God exist? If the Torah is only parable to teach, what’s the significance of it? Is it the only faith–and if not, what does that mean? If all of this is true, why do I act the way I act? Why do I not cut my nails or shave or play video games on Shabbat? Why do I not eat pork or shrimp or mix my meats with dairy? The fact that I do these things does not bother me; it’s the fact that I find them worth doing when there’s no logical, rational reason why they’re worthwhile other than because an ancient book written in a completely different world tells me to do so.

I don’t have a problem with that either. In fact, I don’t have a problem with any of that. I find it fulfilling in some manner, and shouldn’t that be enough? But it’s not. I want to know why I find it fulfilling. I want to know why it affects me like it does, why I feel empowered when I check the ingredients before I eat something or why I feel a spark of pride when I recall the date and set the Wii controller down. I want to understand why I act and react the way I do. But more, I simply want to answer the unanswerable questions about God’s existence.

That is, after all, the foundation of all of this. If God exists, then the debate ends. If God doesn’t exist, then the debate ends. But what follows the debate is the difference between rational justification and irrational justification. Would I continue to act as I do if I knew without question that God does not exist? And if I did, would any of it continue to hold meaning? Either way, I still believe in God, don’t I, and isn’t believing enough? After all, they don’t call it faith for nothing. The uncertainty bothers me, though. I’d much rather just know.

In Israel, the debate continues with a different face: Should the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military or not? Should the yoke of Torah relieve them from the demands of citizenship and earning a living?

I think some level of service should be mandated, though perhaps not necessarily military service, and I think my responses to these recent teachings should be enough indication of the things they can do: They can build communities, volunteer, feed the hungry and clothe the sick. What use is a bunch of ideas if they never lead to action? Let their words of Torah compel them to act. The yoke of Torah should not dissolve us from our responsibilities; instead it should empower us to fulfill each of them with integrity and the knowledge that we are acting as God’s hands in doing so.

I’ll continue to wonder and debate whether or not God exists and the ramifications of either decision, but no matter the outcome, I don’t think my principles will change. I’ll still aim to do tikkun olam and repair the world. I’ll still do my best to serve my community and the strangers in our midst. I’ll still avoid lying and stealing, cheating and deceiving, murdering and committing adultery. These ethics may in some manner be universal, which is perhaps why I can speak with conviction in saying I’d uphold them with or without knowing the existence of God, and from this onward, we can conclude the rest is merely habit–and what is habit but what we make of it?

Cultures clash, both locally and abroad, externally and internally. When it’s global, it makes the headlines, but when it’s local and inside you, it makes the lines on your head.

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One thought on “Let the Yoke Run Down

  1. “I’ll still aim to do tikkun olam and repair the world.”

    One day you’ll hit the mark. Come that day, Hungarian composite bowmen would run at the sight of you. Or, more fittingly, out of your sights. :)

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