There was a line of ants running up and down the face of the
aboveground crypts of the huge necropolis, a city of the dead with story upon
story of stacked crypts rising over the 405 freeway south of Los Angeles. My
father and I were there at the well-known Jewish memorial park dominated by the mausoleum of Al Jolson, because my mother had just died after a long struggle with
cancer. We were being shown around the facility where she would be buried. I
remember asking the man from the memorial park about that line of ants.
I didn’t know it at the time, but for very good reasons that
I’ll get into in a future post, Judaism forbids above ground burial. It insists
on the dead being buried in the same ground from which the first human being,
Adam, was formed. But even being the naïve college freshman and simple,
untutored Jew I was, something about that display of orderly insect vigor
struck me as somehow not right in this context. I asked the man from the
memorial park about the ants.
“Oh,” he reassured me, “don’t look there.”
Since then, over these past 25 years, I’ve often thought of
his words — “Don’t look there” — as the motto of modern culture when it comes
to the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible.
I don’t simply mean that people are ignorant of the Bible. I
mean that even if they are professionals involved with religious communal
affairs, there is a tendency to look away from challenging and often totally
unfamiliar truths embodied in the very heart of Scripture, the Hebrew Bible –
truths not merely about practical religious observance but about the worldview
that the Bible with its commandments and narratives embodies.
The degree to which Jews and non-Jews do not know what they
are looking at when they gaze on the Hebrew Bible is a fundamental insight I’ve
received in the course of my own spiritual journey from secularism to Orthodox
Judaism. Ever since I left a comfortable position at the conservative magazine
National Review ten years ago, I’ve made it my mission as a writer to
reacquaint readers with the fascinating, uplifting, but challenging picture of
reality that the Hebrew Bible offers us.
Offers us all, I
should add, not just Jews. Which brings us to the name of this blog. Readers of
my books and articles, and anyone who knows the book of Exodus at all, will
recognize “Kingdom of Priests” as a phrase from Chapter 19, verse 6, where God
is directing Moses to prepare the Jews to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. God
says that Moses should tell the Jews, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests
and a holy nation.”
This is an uncomfortable Biblical truth from which the
Jewish community for the most part turns away: Jews are called on to be
priests, ministers, teachers and counselors. Just to each other? No, there is a
special hereditary caste of Jewish priests (kohanim), descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron, for that.
The Jewish people as a whole are meant to minister to the world.
That’s not just my interpretation. The classical commentator
Ovadiah Sforno (1475-1550) gives it as the plain meaning of that verse,
explaining that Jews are called on to teach humanity about God. Not later. Now.
This idea comes out again and again in the commentary of another highly
relevant, later interpreter, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), of
whom you’ll hear a lot about in this blog.
There’s much, much more to say on the theme of the Jewish
mission to the world, and please God, I’ll have an opportunity to get into it
with you in detail in the future. For the time being, it’s enough to say there
is such a mission, that it’s what makes Jewish existence meaningful, and that
it has been grossly neglected. I hope, to some small extent, to remedy that.
Certainly, the world is ready for it. The world’s need for
Hebrew wisdom meets me at every turn in my daily and professional life. I work
at the Discovery Institute, a think tank well known — or maybe better to say
notorious — for its support of intelligent design theory and for the
scientific critique of Darwinism. The debate about Darwinian evolution
confronts us with nothing less than the question of what it means to be
Rabbi Hirsch lived to see Darwin’s influence spread rapidly
across Europe in the decades after the Origin of Species appeared, exactly 150 years ago. In his Torah
commentary, Hirsch was scathing on the morally disastrous effects of Darwinian
thought. Ideas, he knew, have consequences for the way we live.
Commenting on the idol Baal Peor, worshipped in the most
grotesquely animalistic fashion (mixing defecation with sexual intercourse),
Hirsch wrote that it illustrates precisely “the kind of Darwinism that revels
in the conception of man sinking to the level of beast and stripping itself of
its divine nobility, learns to consider itself just a ‘higher’ class of animal”
Yet observations like these, that leap from the pages of the
classic interpreters of the Hebrew Bible, are precisely those from which most
of our communal and religious leaders prefer to turn away. They assure us that
between God and Darwin, there is no radical choice to make.
It’s funny, as I am writing this, I’ve just received an
email from a fellow in Israel who wants me to read over his essay titled “Jews
and the Invention of Consciousness.” He addresses me as “Dear Rabbi
Let me be clear. Although I write about the Hebrew Bible and
its view of the world, I’m a journalist and I do so as a journalist.
I’m not a big fan of the populist, apocalyptic conservative
radio and TV talk host Glen Beck but something he
said in an interview with the New York Times this week resonated with me. ”When it was
suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, [Beck]
responded, ‘No. You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me.’”
Nor than me. Yet I’ve perceived for a long time that there’s
something rabbis for the most part don’t do today, though Hirsch would if he
were alive. First, with a few exceptions (like my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin),
they don’t seek to minister to non-Jews. Second, again with precious few
exceptions, they don’t wrestle in a serious, public way with the worldview
implications of Biblical tradition, implications that speak to humanity rather
than merely to our tiny Jewish community.
The Mishnah, the fundamental distillation of the Jewish oral
tradition that explains the Bible, instructs us that, “In a place where there
are no men, strive to be a man” (2:5). In a place where the class of religious
scholars is busy with things other than preparing Jews for their role as a
kingdom of priests, that responsibility falls to a mere journalist and, frankly, in many
ways, a disappointing Jew. So be it.
I don’t mean to come down hard on rabbis. Not at all. In
this disenchanted secular world of ours, clergy and laymen of all faiths and
none are basically all in the same boat. We live in a culture that has been
largely cut off from the automatic transmission of wisdom from generation to
generation that used to be the norm. That process of transmission has been
damaged by modernity and secularism.
This is what the phenomenon of “religion-switching” is all
about. A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported
that 40 percent of Americans have switched religions from the time they were
children. That is a huge swath of folks who have rejected the faith of their
fathers. Perhaps they found that their parents had already lost that precious
link with tradition, so there was nothing to reject. Perhaps the spiritual
connection had been lost generations earlier, as in my own family.
The Bible warns us again and again to care for the widows
and orphans in our society: “the fatherless, and the widow, that are
within thy gates” (Deuteronomy 14:29). I know literal widows and literal
orphans, but the truth is that in a spiritual sense, many, many of us are in
that position — alienated from ancestral, inherited tradition. We need special
care from our religious communities. Sometimes we get it. Sometimes not.
It’s my goal in this blog, as a spiritual
orphan myself, who returned from secularism to Orthodox Judaism but is still
seeking his way, to minister to other orphans. That is a large potential
constituency. I hope you will stick with me as, together, we seek to recover
the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible.