Appreciating what we have
By JONATHAN ROSENBLUM
Sometimes it pays travel a bit outside of our communities if only to appreciate what we have. That tour can take two forms – actual travel or reading. The purpose is not so that we should we feel good about ourselves or complacent about all that we have left to do. Rather it is to gain a feeling of how insane a world without G-d and Torah looks, and to appreciate that only through Torah can we live a harmonious existence in sync with the yearnings of the human soul.
The last observation is, of course, axiomatic: The Torah serves as the blueprint for the entire Creation, and as such constitutes the operating manual for man. But theory reinforced by experience has a far greater impact.
An example of what I’m talking about. A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to Zurich. After many hours in airports and in transit, we spotted a young chareidi couple pushing a stroller in the Zurich airport. Against that background, their refinement and modesty stood out like an oasis in the desert. I sensed that I was seeing for the first time in hours real human beings, after a trip to the zoo.
In the virtual realm, Professor Leon Kass’s recent Irving Kristol Memorial Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute constitutes a tour of the morass. The late Kristol once described himself as theotropic – i.e., drawn to the divine, though he was not fully observant. Kass fits the same description. A doctor and ethicist, he has written profoundly on human cloning and stem cell research.
Kass’s starting point is a lecture given by Kristol twenty years ago entitled “The Cultural Revolution and the Capitalist Future,” in which he contrasted the success of American free enterprise, which had vanquished all rivals in the creation of a widely-shared prosperity, to the nihilistic anti-culture of the elites, hostile to religion, family, patriotism, and traditional morality.
Kristol did not view economic liberty as inevitably giving rise to libertinism. He was well-aware of De Tocqueville’s description of Americans’ penchant for voluntary associations, chief among them churches. But he feared the long-range consequences of the lost sense of “a world that possesses transcendent meaning, a world in which human experience makes sense. Nothing is more dehumanizing, more certain to generate a crisis, than to experience one’s life as a meaningless moment in a meaningless world.”
KASS SURVEYS FOUR AREAS in which meaning must be found in order “to live a life that makes sense, a life that is worthy of the unmerited gift of our own existence”: work, love and family, community and country, and the pursuit of truth. In each case, I was struck by how much we Torah Jews take for granted that others have to struggle so hard to find.
In the realm of work, he argues that neither the economic account of work nor even the virtues it produces is sufficient. Beyond both lies the search for work that provides one with a sense of “intrinsic meaning and purpose.” Certainly those engaged primarily in Torah learning should possess that feeling. Through one’s Torah learning one reveals the Divine Will. At the same time, he is engaged in the single most powerful activity to open the pipelines of Hashem’s berachah into the world. What could be more fulfilling or important?
One of the central Torah ideas is that we are partners with Hashem in Creation. We have been charged with bringing the world to its final realization of the Torah’s vision for mankind. Even a Torah Jew who is not engaged in full-time Torah learning, and for whom work is almost exclusively a means of earning his parnassah (sustenance), has many, many opportunities to experience the fulfillment inherent in that partnership. Every time that he models for the world what a human being shaped by the Torah should look like, he is a partner with Hashem. Every time he is involved in remedying some communal or individual need, he is a partner.
KASS WRITES MOVINGLY of human love as “not merely possessive and self-serving, a lack seeking to be filled; [but] also generous and generative, a fullness seeking to give birth.” Echoing his earlier critique of human cloning, he describes children as “a gift of love, not the product of our wills. . . . [W]e are most fulfilled in their rearing when we raise them to serve not our present ambitions but their future good, and indeed the goodness of life itself.” Never are we more in touch with the eternal, he writes, than when we see our children raising their own children.
That vision of love and family is under siege today throughout the West. Half of American adults today are single compared to 22% in 1950. People living alone constitute 28% of American households, which makes them the most common domestic unit.
Even more ominous than the statistics of single-person households and delayed marriage is the celebration of the singlehood in works like Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by sociologist Eric Klineberg. Klineberg takes it as self-evident proof of the good of the single existence that singles are more likely to go to the gym, eat out, take music and art classes, and attend public events and lectures. He describes one of his divorced interview subjects as enjoying his “unfettered existence – . . . . staying out as long as he wanted and not worrying about anyone else. . . . Steve had grown to appreciate the virtues of living lightly, without obligation.”
Reviewer Benjamin Schwartz is struck by the juxtaposition of “virtue” and “without obligation,” as if the greatest virtue today is to live unencumbered by obligation to anyone else, always able to give priority to one’s own desires. Absent from Klineberg’s account is any mention of Edmund Burke’s contract of the living with the yet unborn. He does not address how those committed only to their own lack of obligation will raise children (actually he suggests substituting pets) much less transmit to another generation any societal values. Today’s singles need not even confront such questions, Schwartz concludes, living as they do according to the “novel conceit that selfishness is a virtue.”
How far removed is this description from the Torah community, in which marriage and children remain the ideal. To be sure too many parents live vicariously through their children’s achievements, but at the conscious level every parent in the Torah community views his or her primary task as the transmission of the Torah values he or she inherited to successive generations, and all eagerly anticipate the time when their continuity is firmly established through grandchildren.
PATRIOTISM IS the third area examined by Kass. Here too he is dismayed by cultural elites who debunk every national hero, belittle national achievements, and magnify every sin. Military service is confined to an ever smaller segment of the population. Fewer and fewer American young conceive of their country or the defense of what it stands for as something worth dying for. They lack a sense of “belonging freely . . . to something larger and more worthy that our individual selves.”
Rabbi Noach Weinberg frequently pointed out that if one has nothing for which he is prepared to die, then one also has nothing for which to live. Every Torah Jew lives with an acute awareness of being a member of something larger than himself – Klal Yisrael. And he is taught from an early age to imagine himself giving up his life for Kiddush Hashem as he recites the words “b’chol nafshecha” in Shema.
The final element of a fulfilled life in Kass’s view is one devoted to the pursuit of truth. And here he laments that so many students have abandoned the search altogether, having been poisoned by their professors with the “mind-deadening and self-indulgent poison that truth, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder,” something to be freely constructed and de-constructed by each according to his whims.
Again, the contrast to the Torah viewpoint could not be sharper. For us, the Torah is objective truth, the embodiment of the Divine Will. And all our study is directed to revealing that truth.
WHERE LOVE of work, family, country or community, and truth are found, Kass concludes, there one finds hope. By hope he does not mean mere optimism that things will turn out well, but rather the ability to live “trusting that the world is still and always will be the sort of place that can answer to the highest and deepest human aspirations.” Hope is not about change, “but an affirmation of permanence, of the permanent possibility of a meaningful life in a hospitable world.”
I can not think of a better description of feeling of harmony in Hashem’s Creation that is uniquely accessible to Torah Jews.
Jonathan Rosenblum blogs at http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/.
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