Modern Challenges: Building Torah Foundations

Challenges of the Modern World: Building Torah Foundations

by Mordecai Plaut

"And you should be careful to do them, because it is through this that you will be considered wise and understanding by the peoples [of the world], who will hear about all these laws and say, `This great nation is definitely a wise and understanding people.' " This posuk in parshas Voeschanon (4:6) is well known.

Now that the wisdom (if not the understanding) of the world has increased so much, it is actually easier than in the past to appreciate the wisdom of the Torah. Chazal say that at least one thing this posuk refers to is our knowledge of the calendar. It is certainly remarkable that our calendar is still continuing without correction. The West was not able to devise a calendar with comparable accuracy until some 400 years ago. In all areas, wherever they have been truly tested, the insight and knowledge of the Torah have proven themselves.

However the world has changed. If this information is presented to a typical person today, he or she is not likely to be impressed. They would want to know what is in it for them. No one is impressed anymore with wisdom and insight. All they want is pleasure and indulgence.

This change is spreading and affecting other areas as well. It is not confined to areas of abstract learning but affects areas of basic public morality.

A very well known division of the mitzvos of the Torah partitions them into chukim and mishpotim. The first group, the chukim, include subjects that, regardless of their importance -- are only known to us through the Torah. We cannot discover them on our own, and even after we are told about them by the Torah, we may not be able to understand the reason behind them. A very prominent example is the laws of tumah. Without the information of the Torah, we could not discover these on our own. A related example is the poroh adumoh, which the Torah itself calls a chok, something that we cannot understand.

The other group includes mitzvos that everyone understands are reasonable and proper. Rashi (Bereishis 26:5) calls them, "Matters that, if they had not been written, would have been worthy of being commanded, such as theft and bloodshed." For much of civilized history, amidst varying levels of morality within society, there has been a very broad consensus about what these reasonable principles of behavior are. Even when people did not observe important moral principles in their own lives, they understood that what they were doing was wrong and that there is a proper, natural way to behave.

In many key areas, this consensus has broken down in the last generation. Basic morality, such as the prohibition of murder, has been undermined. Now many jurisdictions allow the murder of the unborn and the infirm. Many are willing to justify or overlook the targeting and murder of innocent civilians if it is done by those they sympathize with.

The basic vision of what life is about, the understanding that the normal life path includes marriage and children as it does for all creatures in the world, is absent in the centers of modern Western civilization. The birthrate throughout Western society has plummeted to way below replacement rate -- in most of Europe the average woman has only one child -- and people not only live immoral lives, but also they insist that their immorality should now be recognized and approved by society as legitimate.

It is important to realize this, since it means that we must recognize more than ever how even the basic thinking of the non-Torah society around us is strongly at odds to the basic truths of human existence. We must take extra care to build all our thinking on Torah sources alone. When things have deteriorated to such a broad extent, even those things that may appear at first glance to be untainted must be strongly suspected.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we can see immediately before us how the way of the Torah is blessing, and any other way is a curse. We can appreciate how important it is to dig deeply and uproot all vestiges of avodoh zora, as it says, abeid te'abdun (Devorim 12:2), and instead, to bring everything to Hashem.

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