On one level, one could not help but be impressed by the intensity and earnestness at Aish Hatorah, circa 1983, of young people devoting themselves to the mission of revitalizing their own spiritual lives and attempting to persuade others to do the same. A spirit of idealism and camaraderie pervaded the walls. Yet at the very same time, I found myself deeply troubled by the messages I was hearing, and the understanding of truth being purveyed was very different from the way I understood the term and continue to understand it.
Speaking Out: Dr. Elliott Malamet
In early 1982, I began to study something called "The 48 Ways of Wisdom" one night a week. This was a series of classes based on the last chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, at a home study group organized by a branch of Aish Hatorah in Toronto. I knew nothing of the organization and virtually nothing of Orthodox Judaism.
In this, what was the summer of our discontent, it is worth looking at the words that were commonly used to moralize about the present war. At the top of the list perhaps is "proportional", defined in the OED as "corresponding in size or amount to something else," stemming from the late Latin proportionalis, "in respect of (its or a person's) share." But how does one parse what is the "proper share" that "corresponds in size or amount" to rocket fire and tunnel burrowing meant to infiltrate, terrorize, murder?
Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding the upcoming High Holidays. You want to know why it is that people who have palpably little Jewish involvement for the other 362 days of the calendar bother to attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On the other hand you are puzzled by Jewish tradition, which places so much emphasis on these three days, as though God is unavailable on a cold despairing midnight in March. Sir, your questions are good ones.
Education, Mark Twain once quipped, consists mainly in what we have unlearned. For a great many Jews today, shul is a kind of ponderous opera, taking place in a foreign tongue, that they desperately wish to unlearn. Depending on the opera house in question, the always well-dressed patrons sit in stony uncomprehending silence or continuously interrupt the performance with a rowdy mirth that attests to the inconvenience of self-restraint. One who wishes to cling to any remnants of the sacred must, like a well-trained spy, commit to forgetting all he has seen.
The philosopher Thomas Molnar states that at present, religion is accepted and even flourishes, but only as a kind of "psychic weekend from too much materialism, exacting work, and blatant immorality." Molnar's criticism is acute; religion today has become a kind of lowest common denominator in many circles, an escape from pornography and politics, or just that big bad world outside. But escape is not the stuff from which spirituality is founded. Whether it is liberal Jews tired of a stripped down version of Judaism organized mainly around the bar-mitzvah and a smattering of ritual, or at the other end of the spectrum Orthodox Jews whose Shabbos joy is organized around the shul kiddush, there has been a feeling for several years now of the spiritual train having gone far off the track.