In the early years of Zionism, those who were most active in founding the Jewish State labeled themselves as secular. They may have studied in batai midrash and been steeped in Torah knowledge but they rejected religious observance if not rejecting the Divine altogether. For the early Zionists the land of Israel and building the State replaced religion. And in a sense they were right. In no way do I wish to denigrate the Torah that was amassed in the exile. Great torah leaders arose throughout our bitter separation from our Land and their light spreads out through the generations and fills yeshivot and midrashot throughout Eretz Yisrael. But while the stature of torah giants in the exile is awe inspiring the early movers and shakers of the Zionist movement recognized a serious lack in Jewish life. For exilic Jewry religious life was “only” Shabbat a list of dos and don’ts, dietary laws. The life of a Jew in exile, his “religious existence” is all but an empty shell of the potential of a full Jewish life in Israel. Even a Jewish life unmarred by persecution and anti-semitism like the one I knew growing up in the states is but a weak shadow of the life I lead here. I can never seem to fully express what I mean by this - a full Jewish life. After five years it is only something that I am beginning to grasp and even more so in this Sabbatical year. The founders of the state shed what it deemed “religious Judaism” and embraced a national Jewish existence. For them it was one or the other. Judaism encompasses many teachings and values. Keeping shabbat, honoring parents, not speaking lashon hara, saving the whales, reciting the Shema, finding a cure for AIDS, building a State, supporting an army, combatting litter and protecting the environment - these all fall under the rubric of Torah values. There are Jews who affiliate with groups that hold “tikun olam” to be of the highest value but dismiss Shabbat as “for the religious” and vice versa so called “religious Jews” who leave the crucial task of repairing environmental damage to “the secular.” Again, it’s one or the other. One of the fundamental teachings of Rav Kook, is that there is no disparity between these endeavors and rather than treating one as “kadosh” “sanctified” and another as “chol” “secular” we recognize it all as “kadosh”. All of our actions are kadosh, everything we do is directed in service of Hashem.
The model of most yeshiva day schools is to have religious studies in the morning and secular studies in the afternoon. My high school among it’s lofty ideological goals tried to instill in us the idea that one is not a Jew only in the morning but that one is a Jew all the time and therefor spread “religious studies” courses throughout the day. The practical outcome of this was that the gemarah shiur could be couched between math and american history. While this idea is lacking in that it fails to address the concept directing all your activities towards G-d and infusing G-d consciousness into every action, teaching kids to be conscious of their Judaism at all times is praiseworthy.
Exilic Jewry compartmentalizes Judaism. In the house I wear a kippah. Outside I wear a baseball cap. In my heart I know it’s Shabbat but beyond the walls of my home it’s just a peaceful Saturday morning. On Thursday nights I wish my friends a Shabbat Shalom but bid a good evening to the cashier. Even when living in Israel the exile mentality is embedded within us so that one thinks “my unaffiliated friend will go help kids in Africa, I’ll say tehillim at the kotel.” It is time to recognize that it is not one or the other. It is both. It is all.
One of my most vivid memories from my year at Nishmat was a teaching of Rav Kook on “Tshuva” that I learned from one of my rabbis, Rav Sperling. Rav Sperling who counts some of the most influential students of Merkaz HaRav Kook as his greatest teachers. Rav Kook explains that when one embarks on the path of Return (repentance), in the process of suppressing his desire to sin he ends up stifling desire itself. Like a sick person who receives treatment to cure his illness may initially be weakened by the medication before returning to good health. Rav Sperling expounds upon Rav Kook’s idea. We often see yeshiva students, people who were once passionate and active lose that passion in the pursuit of a Torah lifestyle. “I used to save the whales but now I learn in the Beit Midrash.” According to Rav Kook this loss can only be temporary. It is crucial to the health of a Jew to expunge sin from his life. However removing of sin is not the end of the Tshuva process. One must rebuild his desire and redirect it to fulfilling Mitzvot. Tshuva is deemed complete when that desire that was once used towards sin is channeled to positive endeavors, social action, simple acts of kindness. Throughout the year Rav Sperling taught us much more about Rav Kooks philosophy but what I remember most are those shiurim infused with ideas of Jewish unity and exuding of a genuine love for each and every Jew. Students of Rav Sperling are left with a deep rooted love of halacha but more importantly an insatiable desire to promote this love and tear down the labels that create invisible but seemingly insurmountable barriers between the Jews of the world. It is too easy to compartmentalize and box each other up into little groups. It is much harder to appreciate the contribution of every Jew and to recognize that each action ensures the well-being and health of the entire nation. We can not dismiss the work of somebody working for the welfare of children in Africa just because the one doing the work does not include prayer in his daily activities. It is ridiculous to neglect one mitzvah at the expense of another. Most importantly we need to completely redefine our perception of what a mitzvah really is and the meaning of a religious life. Judaism is so much broader so much more encompassing than what our exilic day schools taught us. It is time to embrace Judaism for what it really is. It is time to start living a full Jewish life.