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Ignorance and Certainty

by Rabbi Berel Wein

The appalling truth about most Jews, both in Israel and in the Diaspora, is that they are complete ignoramuses about their Jewishness, Judaism and their understanding of self. The hoped-for generation of knowledgeable non-believers that the early Jewish secularists strove to create has instead turned into a generation of Jews completely ignorant as to the values, traditions and beliefs of Judaism and the Jewish past. Most of the “People of the Book” are unaware of what book is being spoken about.

My experience, anecdotal as it is, is that the average secular Israeli who never attends a synagogue service or has no real background in some sort of Torah education has absolutely no concept as to the core beliefs of Judaism or the purpose of the Jewish people’s survival in the global scheme of things. In the Diaspora the situation is even more dismal. Ignorance breeds disattachment from the Jewish community and the State of Israel. It inevitably leads to intermarriage and eventual departure from the Jewish community itself. Why be Jewish when one knows nothing about Judaism and its traditions, destiny and purpose?

Jews who know more about Amos Oz and Woody Allen than about Maimonides are at risk of eventually being completely severed from Jewish life and beliefs – as do their children. Jews who are ignorant of Judaism believe it to be a form of Christianity without Jesus or of social action and welfarism without Marx. If this be the case then truly why should one want to identify with the Jewish people. The world is one big happy family – I am ok and you are ok – so let us just join it and have a good time.

I notice that even those Jews who renounce Jewish tradition in spite of having been raised and educated in a religious environment do so, in the main, out of personal hurt, not out of true knowledge of what is now being rejected. The fundamental error of Jewish ignorance is the confusion in the mind of the beholder of behavior and attitudes of religious Jews with the core beliefs of Judaism itself.

Judaism does not guarantee perfect people. Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, thirteenth century Spain and Israel) ruefully admits that one may easily be an awful person “within the confines of Torah observance.” But that awful person is not Judaism, though he or she may be very visibly Jewish in rote behavior and costume. The ignorant will identify that person with Judaism itself, simply not knowing the true values and teachings of Judaism. The current spate of books and movies by bitter and frustrated, and to a certain extent self-hating Jews - who have left their religious upbringing and come from dysfunctional family situations - is an example of this insidious form of ignorance.

Not liking one’s father’s eating habits or behavior towards his wife does not justify blaspheming God, Judaism and Jewish tradition. There was a time when Jewish values – values, not merely knowledge – were part of Jewish society. Kindness, charity, the centrality of the Land of Israel, the holiness of Torah, all were natural byproducts of living in a Jewish milieu. Not so today, where ignorance of those values and confusion with non-Jewish apparent look-alikes reigns in a Jewish world of ignorance and lost pride and identity.

One obvious answer to Jewish ignorance is Jewish education. Even if a child does not attend a Jewish religious school, somehow some sort of Jewish education must be delivered. Otherwise that child and its descendants will be lost to the Jewish people. The traditional schoolroom is failing at its task, as the current educational crisis here in Israel and in the Diaspora testifies. Education today is television, DVD’s, books, concerts, movies etc.

It is almost heretical for me to write this but I feel that teaching core Jewish values – again, our history, the place of Torah in Jewish life, the importance of the Land of Israel, kindness and concern towards others, tolerance of differing viewpoints, the truly apolitical nature of Judaism – will help achieve a modicum of self-worth and Jewish pride within Jews of all ages and stations. This will suceed in a way that facts, textbooks, homework assignments and strict demands about behavior will not.

And our professors and archeologists whose weird and unscientific attitudes to debunk the Bible and the Jewish past should be ignored to the extent possible. They, who are also so boastfully educated, are truly victims of their own ignorance of Judaism and its values. In New York there is a famous store that advertises: “An educated consumer is our best customer.” A Jew educated in Jewish values and traditions and way of life is our best Jew.

Shabat shalom.

Berel Wein

Reprinted with permission from AASITE



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