Alt+SHIFT: New World Perplexed

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | June 15, 2023

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Ilay Ofran, LeNevukhei haOlam heHadash: Eser Mahashavot al Etgarei haYahadut beDorenu )Yediot Sefarim, 2022), 206 pages

R. Ilay Ofran, Rav of Kibbutz Yavneh, head of the mekhina Ruah haSadeh, and a licensed psychologist, has become an important voice in the Religious Zionist community. His recent book addresses the challenges involved in maintaining our religious tradition in the contemporary world. Ofran emphasizes that this is not just a question of educating youth; adults struggle with identical issues. He outlines ten modern challenges and offers brief remarks about how to confront them.

One factor that adds to the difficulty is that some of the challenges stem from changes we truly value. For example, most of the observant world no longer cuts off family members who abandon religion or even intermarry. On the one hand, this removes a powerful sanction and deterrent that keeps people in the fold. On the other hand, we strongly believe that family love should trump other ideals in this situation. Similarly, we cannot honestly portray the secular world as an empty wagon just searching for unrestricted hedonism. Ofran notes many “humrot of contemporary secularism including veganism, avoiding racism and discrimination, and humane treatment of animals. Portraying secularists as devoid of ideals might be a winning tactic but it is false.

We live in a less authoritarian world in which parents, teachers, and even army commanders, cannot easily say “because I told you so.” This reflects our positive evaluation of freedom and independent thought but it also allows more room for the student or child to make different decisions. Ofran suggests that our generation requires an education geared more toward yirat ha-rommemut (awe) and less toward yirat ha-onesh (fear of punishment).

Our culture prizes authenticity or being “true to oneself”; for example, we prefer romantic love to arranged marriages and choosing our own profession over entering the family business. This orientation promotes an environment where children may not choose the religious path of their parents. Additionally, ours is not an age of pat answers (the Holocaust played an influential role here) and we need to learn to live with questions and some messiness. Ofran calls for a move away from R. Kook’s harmonization toward embracing the fierce conflicts and dialectics of R. Soloveitchik. 

Religious life is primarily manifest in shul and not enough of our members attend shul during the week for this to work. Not being farmers, we do not deal with agricultural law. Not producing our own food, we do not frequently confront laws of shehita or hafrashat terumot u-ma’asrot. We relate to interpersonal commandments as universal ethical duties and not specifically religious ones. Thus, religion becomes confined to the synagogue (which we don’t attend frequently enough). Among other items, Ofran says that we should put more emphasis on berakhot and on viewing benevolence as a religious act. I was surprised that the significance of Torah study did not come up in this chapter. That could be a religious act of momentous import not dependent on making it to the weeknight ma’ariv.

We dislike artificiality and inserting a dvar Torah into the meal to fulfill a religious requirement often seems artificial. Better if a Torah conversation arises naturally in the course of lunch. If we appreciated how Torah has a playful as well as a serious side, we could more naturally integrate Torah into the entertainment part of our lives. Israeli musicians writing popular songs using the words of the traditional liturgy is a good model. We also object to a religious formalism which creates a chasm between the mitzva act and the idea behind it. Defining a meal by the consumption of bread does not fit today’s culinary reality. Halakhot relating to women often reveal such a gap. More aggadic study which directly touches the spirit and greater halakhic creativity may be necessary to bridge these gaps.

The dominance of the smartphone prevents character growth and independence since a person immediately calls for help or Googles up an answer rather than being forced to solve a problem on his or her own. The final challenge, apathy, is more of an issue in the Jewish State. A Jew abroad might correctly fear that absent religion, total assimilation awaits but that is not true for one living in Israel. Such Jews serve in the army, pay taxes to a Jewish state, vote in Israeli elections, and will almost certainly marry another Jew. Thus, they feel little urgency to participate in their ancestral religion. Ofran astutely points out the inherent problem involved in trying to inspire the apathetic; they relate to such calls with apathy. From this perspective, we might prefer the heretic or the rebellious to the indifferent.

I close with one quibble about the list and a reservation about the closing chapter. The book should have included a discussion of the unethical behavior of religious people, something I consider a major factor in estranging people from Judaism. In the final chapter, Ofran writes that we need to focus less on questions and answers about religion and more on generating a feeling of being at home (beitiyut) in one’s religious tradition. I am sympathetic to the call for more beitiyut but not to the downplaying of questioning. If R. Ofran asked fewer questions, he would not have written this intriguing volume.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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