It seems to me that we can—and often do—internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
We in Israel live in a country with wars raging on all sides, with failed states collapsing into a primordial stew of hatred and nihilism all around us, with suicidal regimes seeking nuclear weapons in order to carry out their expressed goals of obliterating us. We know about death and we know about weapons of war, but we don’t fetishize them. How is it that Americans are so willing to arm the enemy within for the sake of security?
The Law of the King, in the Book of Deuteronomy sets out the rules for a constitutional monarchy for the nation of Israel. For over a thousand years, kings were judged by how well they followed its precepts. But in the writings of the later prophets, the Law of the King became a signpost to a political and economic revolution.
The Talmud manages to do what few legal systems even attempt: it integrates psychological and moral issues seamlessly with normative legal guidelines. But to appreciate the full extent of this integration, it’s important to pay attention to something that is too often left out of today’s Gemara classes: the aggadah.
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
For Diaspora Jews, fluency in the Hebrew language may mean the difference between raising a generation of knowledgeable apikorsim and a generation of ignoramuses, destined for cultural oblivion.
What is the proper response to a blessing? According to Rav Ish-Shalom, we learn the answer from a an unexpected source: the mourner’s Kaddish.
Jews have historically been habituated to see governments as a hindrance to our well-run society. In Israel, that government is now us. We’ve had nearly 3000 years to learn the lessons of exile, but we’re going to have to unlearn this one in a hurry.
Yes, we should do all we can to win our battles; we can’t afford not to. But giving up our values will not help us win. It will only cost us our self-respect and the morale of our soldiers. To take on the values of our enemies is to surrender to them, to become them. Is that what we want to do? Certainly it’s what our enemies want us to do. Many in the Arab countries would love for us to sink into barbarism and so lose both reason to fight and the means of doing so. They know that our flourishing economy gives us a material advantage over any combination of Arab states. But all this is built on love of life, not death.
Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish are two of the greatest sparring partners in the Talmud. The story of their meeting and later falling out contains an unlooked-for treasure on the subject of moral responsibility.