Judaism and modernity
TorahParshat Shlach

Judaism and modernity

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

(File photo)
(File photo)

Imagine you are told that your family will be moving to a new neighborhood and you are sent ahead of the family to see what the neighborhood is like. You find the neighborhood to be run-down and crime-ridden and see no chance of survival there. You return and share the truth of your findings and cry that this is not going to be good, your family should not be going there. Instead of being thanked for your honest reporting (no fake news here), you are admonished and punished.

This is the story of the spies in this week’s Torah portion. They were sent to Israel to check out the land and found giants and unusual-looking fruits and no chance of their survival. They came back and gave this report and were punished.

Lots of ink has been spilled to explain where they went wrong. I would like to share a Chassidic perspective that I believe is
relevant to us today.

The Jews were living in a spiritual oasis. They were surrounded by clouds of glory, being fed manna from heaven and had a Mishkan in which G-d’s presence dwelled. They had no material worries and certainly no concerns of Jewish continuity. The spies came to the land and saw what the “modern” world looked like. They would no longer be able to sit and study Torah all day and be sustained miraculously. This new land was one that “consumes its people.” The future of Judaism looked bleak to them. Based on what they saw, they predicted the modern land would consume their children and they would not survive as a people.

G-d was upset. The Torah that he had just given was an eternal blueprint for Jewish life in every circumstance. The spies had completely missed the point of G-d coming down to this world to give them the Torah rather than bringing them up to heaven. The Torah, G-d was communicating, is meant to be experienced in a physical world, not in a spiritual oasis in the dessert.

The spies were sent on a mission to see how Jewish life would be experienced in the new reality of the world, and instead of coming back with hard facts and brainstorming about ways to deal with the challenges, they gave up.

In 1950, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ob”m, whose 29th yahrzeit is commemorated next week on Thursday, assumed leadership of Chabad. On one side of history was the devastation of the Holocaust, and on the other side was a future of modernity and assimilation. While there were those who thought the best way to ensure Jewish continuity was by compromising on Jewish traditions, and others thought the only way to survive was to seclude themselves “in clouds of glory,” creating isolated communities, the Rebbe took the lesson of the story of the spies to heart. Judaism has everything we need to survive the challenges of America, the “golden medina.” We don’t need to withdraw into the “clouds of glory,” nor do we need to look for new sources of inspiration. The Rebbe firmly believed that traditional Torah and mitzvot are the answer to the dangers of modernity. With this he created the vast, ever-growing network of Chabad centers, serving every Jew on whatever level they may be.

The Rebbe used the same ideology to deal with technology. Without compromising on any Jewish law or value, the Rebbe embraced modern technology before it was popular. In the 1960s, Chabad began a weekly Tanya class on the radio. In the ’70s, the Rebbe’s farbrengens were being listened to via telephone hookup all over the world and were broadcast in the U.S. on TV. In the ’80s, the broadcasts were updated via satellite to be viewed in five continents, while the transcripts of Shabbat talks were being sent via fax within hours of Shabbos. And by the early ’90s, the first (and still the largest) Jewish website, chabad.org , began to spread Judaism and reach every Jew wherever they are found.

So while we continue to struggle with balancing the modern world and Judaism, let us remember that this struggle began as soon as we were given the Torah. Let us learn from Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who stayed true to their mission, to stand strong and steadfast in our traditions while embracing the world in which G-d gave us the Torah to be fulfilled. PJC

Rabbi Yisroel Altein is the spiritual leader of Chabad of Squirrel Hill. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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