Recognizing the Challenges of the Modern World to Torah Life

Recognizing the Challenges of the Modern World to Torah Life

by Mordecai Plaut

Most Torah Jews who speak English today face serious challenges that many are not even aware of. While our freedom to practice the Torah is effectively unfettered, many of our basic beliefs, attitudes and values are under ferocious assault in the world around us.

When recalling past threats it is convenient to focus on the difficulties we had in observance: the Greeks banning bris milah, for example, or outlawing Torah study in Frankfurt almost 200 years ago. By this measure, life today is pretty good. Worldwide, aside from a few threats to shechitah in Europe, Jews currently face few pressures against observing the laws of the Torah. Wherever we are, we can pretty much do as we -- and Hashem -- please. When a challenge of this sort arises, we are prepared to face it and do battle.

The assault on our beliefs is also relatively clear and familiar. We know that there are many who disagree with our cherished principles -- from Moslems to Jewish heretics. But the same tolerance that allows us to practice as we wish, also allows us to preach as we wish, that is, as Hashem wishes. So we are free to state what we believe with clarity and completeness. The challenges in this area are also pretty frontal, and we have, unfortunately, a lot of experience meeting them.

The more serious challenges are to our attitudes and values. These threats come at us from all sides, and especially from down below, where our deepest moral and intellectual treasures lie.

For example, it is well known that modern society places little value on families. In the Western world, men and women do not bother to get married, and even when they do get married, they often do not build a traditional family that includes children. The number of children that Western women have in their lifetimes is very low. It is far below replacement level all over Europe, for example. The Torah community sees this and stands in firm opposition to it; almost everyone gets married and everyone accepts that they should get married.

Yet how many of us can explain why women do not vote on issues within the Torah community and what this has to do with the family?

The components of the traditional community are families. Each family has one vote that summarizes and expresses its interests. When a separate vote is given to married women, that implies that they have separate interests that are not fully represented in the collective vote of the family.

Having the women decide independently how to vote further encourages both the men and the women to see themselves as separate and distinct individuals and not as members of a family. It shifts their perspectives. The units of the modern community are thus individuals and not families.

This shift has many great and small effects, most of which are exceedingly difficult to trace. It could merely affect our satisfaction with our lives. Or it may have a more serious consequence, such as having seven children instead of ten. It is impossible for a human being to know; only Hashem can evaluate the contents of people's hearts.

Another example is the fast pace and personal pressures that are so much a part of modern life. Everyone knows that one must not discuss the stock market on Shabbos. But how many of us manage to achieve that sublime spiritual serenity that used to characterize the Jewish Shabbos in the days when mundane life was simpler and easier to fully leave behind? How many of us recognize and go to meet the challenge of truly living one day of the week as time in Olom Habo, completely purged of all daily concerns?

These are just two small examples. But they are typical of dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other such attitudes and values. We will try to shed light on others in this series.

Next in this series. . .

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Related essay: [3] They Put Their Hands on our Wealth

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Related essay: [5] Cold Science and Warm Reality

Related essay: [6] Building Torah Foundations

Related essay: [7] Tikkun Ho'olom

Related essay: [8] Looking for the Best

Related essay: [9] Moral Corruption Leads to Social Ruin

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