Shattering the Idols: The Struggle for Holiness in a Secular Age

This article appeared in the symposium “Are We Still A Holy Nation” in the fall 2001 issue.

The past two centuries have been, for Jews, a time of trauma for which it would be hard to find a precedent since the days of ancient Rome. They began in hope and ended in nightmare. European emancipation and enlightenment heralded an era of equality. The rule of reason would conquer ancient prejudice and offer Jews an honored place as citizens of Europe. It was a promise unfulfilled. Instead–beginning with the pogroms that broke out across Russia in 1881 and culminating in the Shoah–Jews found themselves subject to a hatred that knew no bounds.

Then, a mere three years later, the State of Israel was proclaimed, and with it the enactment of the prophetic dream of the return of a people to its land. Tragedy and triumph followed one another with such intensity and speed that, to this day, we remain unsure of the meaning of these events. Jewish life was dislocated and transformed. Hardly a Jew today–Ashkenazi or Sefardi, in Israel or outside–has been unaffected. Somewhere in most of our family histories, in the past three generations, is the story of a journey, a flight, a relocation, an escape. We are still strangers to this new world.

Never have we been freer to be Jews, but rarely have we faced a culture more antithetical to the values of Judaism…

To all this, there have been two extreme reactions. One is to say that in essence nothing has changed. The Messiah has not come. We are not living in atchalta d’geulah or even sefah d’galut, either the beginning of redemption or the end of exile. Anti-Semitism has not disappeared; it has merely been transposed from Europe to the Middle East, from Christianity to Islam and from hostility to Jews to hostility to a Jewish state. The world continues on its accustomed path. Global peace has not broken out since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If anything, the Cold War has been succeeded by a new international instability marked by regional and ethnic conflicts, intractable and fierce.

Nor has there been the dawn of a more spiritual age. The culture of the liberal democracies of the West is relentless in its secularity. So our task today is what, according to this understanding of Judaism, it always was–to be holy, meaning to be set apart, removed from the culture that surrounds us, practicing our ancient vocation, keeping mitzvot, learning Torah and sustaining strong communities. This has been the way of the classic yeshivot and most Chasidic groups, sometimes called “segregationist Orthodoxy.” A holy people in this sense is one that steps aside from the rushing stream of history, an intimation of eternity in the midst of time, a nation that, regardless of what is happening in the world outside, stays faithful to its eternal mandate. That is a position with deep roots in our tradition and it has its own manifest integrity. What is more, it works. It has been precisely this sector of Jewish life that has most successfully sustained itself against the inroads of assimilation and secularization.

There was, however, another view. This argued that something qualitative had changed in the Jewish situation. With the birth of the State of Israel, the Jewish people had re-entered history. They had acquired, to a degree unknown in 2,000 years, a capacity for collective self-determination. Not only had the prophetic dream been fulfilled; the very world in which the prophets worked–the world of politics and power–had come to life again, and with it a range of spiritual and ethical challenges that had remained dormant since the days of Malachi.

The Diaspora too had changed, partly because, having a home in the Robert Frost sense (“the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in”) Jews everywhere had the potential refuge they lacked for so long. Partly too the change lay in the nature of contemporary liberal democracies. No longer driven by the nineteenth century ideology of the nation-state as a single culture, they became more culturally pluralist and diverse. Jews no longer had to pretend to be other than they were. A pluralist culture gives us the space to be ourselves.

The range of responses to this situation–broadly labeled “Modern Orthodoxy”–drew on a variety of sources of inspiration, above all on the work of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Rav Kook, and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Under the rubric of Torah im Derech Eretz, Torah u’Madda, or Torah v’Avodah, proponents of Modern Orthodoxy anticipated a new synthesis, or at least a creative tension, between Torah and contemporary culture. Drawing on the prophetic rather than the priestly sensibility within Judaism, they understood the concept of a holy people as one that does not stand aside from its surrounding culture. Instead it seeks to sanctify the secular, recasting it in the fires of kedushah. As Hirsch put it, a tzaddik b’toch hair, a righteous person within the city, “is not one who keeps to his own four walls…who thinks he has done quite enough if he saves himself and at most his own household.” Instead he is “in lively connection with everything and everybody,” actively engaging with the wider society and providing it with a compelling moral vision. Or as Rav Kook put it, more mystically and ambitiously, the rays emanating from the life of the mitzvot were like tzitzit on the garment of culture, bringing to the surface its hidden dimension of holiness.

Many today rightly feel that the risk of exposing our children to the Madonna-MTV culture is just too great.

It is fair to say that this essentially optimistic vision reached its heights in the 1960s. Since then it has been significantly muted. Israel has not made peace with the Palestinians. It remains isolated and exposed. Nor did secular culture prove receptive to the moral message of Judaism. Indeed, the liberal democracies of the West have passed beyond modernity, with its faith in reason, science and progress, into post-modernity, the culture of disillusionment. Reason failed to cure prejudice. Science, far from saving the world, threatens its very future, whether by nuclear weaponry, environmental damage or genetic manipulation. Progress, as Robert Bellah memorably said, seems less compelling an ideal when it may turn out to be progress into the abyss.

Post-modernity is marked by an awareness of the limits of reason. It is skeptical of the Enlightenment project of uncovering rational foundations to human knowledge. It is distrustful of morality, meaning and meta-narrative. It finds no sense in the word “progress,” the certainty that some states of affairs are objectively better than others. These doubts have wrought chaos in our social life. Marriage is no longer a socially sanctioned ideal. The stable nuclear family is becoming not a norm but a rarity. The bonds of community have become attenuated. We prefer, in Robert Putnam’s phrase, to go “bowling alone.” We are living, for the first time in two millennia, in an age of radical individualism and libertarianism, the condition that Sefer Shoftim describes as ish ha-yashar b’einav ya’aseh, “each doing what is right in his own eyes.” This presents Jews with a paradoxical situation. Never have we been freer to be Jews, but rarely have we faced a culture more antithetical to the values of Judaism, not superficially but at its very roots.

Under such circumstances, not only segregationist Jews feel estranged from the world around them. So too do Jews who grew up believing in integration. In words that resonate with our time, the Rambam wrote in Hilchot Dei’ot:

It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens…. So, if one lives in a country where the customs are pernicious and the inhabitants do not go in the right way, he should leave for a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good. If all the countries of which he has personal knowledge, or concerning which he hears reports, follow a course which is not right–as is the case in our times…he should live by himself in seclusion, as it is said, “Let him live alone and keep silence” (Lam. 3:28).

It was just this conclusion that was reached by the contemporary non-Jewish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his great work, After Virtue. Comparing our time with the decline of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages, he writes:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead–often not recognizing fully what they were doing–was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we have reached that turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.

The world outside home, school and shul does not confirm, instead it directly challenges, the constitutive values of Judaism.

The traces of this awareness are visible throughout contemporary Orthodox life. Parents who felt drawn to Modern Orthodoxy or Religious Zionism have begun sending their children to schools and yeshivot of a more segregationist character. The center no longer holds. Many today rightly feel that the risk of exposing our children to the Madonna-MTV culture is just too great. Nor is it, as it once was, a youth or counter-culture. It pervades everything from the great university campuses to the American and Israeli Supreme Courts. Western civilization has moved from what was once called the Judeo-Christian ethic to a consumer-driven, choice-fixated culture without norms, ideals or shared values beyond the sovereign self, the freedom to be whatever one chooses, and to do whatever does not immediately harm others. Such a world is not chol but chiloni, not secular but secularist. It is impermeable to the values of kedushah.

This must force us to reconsider the relationship between Judaism and Western culture. They are no longer readily compatible. The world outside home, school and shul does not confirm, instead it directly challenges, the constitutive values of Judaism. Jewish education must go deeper and the experiential dimensions of Judaism must become more intense, if we are to give our children a moral-spiritual compass by which to chart their way in the wilderness of secular time.

Does this mean, though, that Judaism has nothing to say to the world outside? Quite the opposite. Precisely now are we called on to take up our classic vocation as the counter-voice in the conversation of mankind. In 1869 Matthew Arnold published a book, Culture and Anarchy. In it he identified the two shaping influences on Western culture, which he called Hebraism and Hellenism, the legacies respectively of ancient Israel and ancient Greece. In his high Victorian day he felt that society was leaning too far toward Hebraism. It had too much moral rectitude, too little room for the free play of the imagination.

Today it would be fair to say that our situation is exactly the reverse. Our post-modern situation is dangerously close to that of ancient Greece. The place of religion is being usurped by the visual arts, sport and the cult of the body. As in ancient Greece, euthanasia, abortion and even infanticide (by the philosopher Peter Singer) are being openly advocated. Quality of life is replacing the sanctity of life as a decision-factor in medical ethics. Popular entertainment (Star Wars and the like) has moved from the moral seriousness of the novels of Dickens and Tolstoy to the realm of myth. Indeed the metaphysics of post-modernity–the expanding universe, the global economy, the “blind watchmaker” and the “selfish gene”–is essentially mythological, meaning a world governed by multiple, conflicting forces each of which is fundamentally indifferent to mankind. In such an age it is not surprising that the dominant philosophies are hedonism and stoicism, the archetypal Greek responses to an essentially tragic world.

Such an age needs a Jewish voice. I do not believe that Judaism contains a message for Jews alone. Such a view runs counter to the statement of Moses: “Observe [these laws] carefully, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this is a wise and understanding people.’” It conflicts with the promise, made repeatedly in Bereishit, that through the covenantal people all the families, or nations, of the earth will be blessed. There is a mystery here that our age calls on us to decipher. What is the telos, the point of Jewish existence? What, in a global context, does it mean to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”?

…to be a Jew is to be an iconoclast, prepared to challenge the idols of the age in every age.

Judaism is structurally unique. The God of Israel is the God of all the world, but the faith of Israel is not the faith of all the world. Judaism is the rarest of religious phenomena, a particularist monotheism. Insufficient thought has been given, in our tradition, to what this might imply for our relationship with the wider world. There is a reason for this: Judaism was not and never will be a missionary faith. Jews did not feel impelled to teach their truths to others, nor were they given the chance to do so. For most of our history, our ancestors were concerned with more immediate goals, ensuring their own survival, living their way of life and handing it on to future generations. Now, however, an opportunity has arisen. In a confused and chaotic age, the Jewish voice is listened to, often with immense respect. Precisely as the voice of ancient Israel, which entered the West through Puritanism, is being threatened by a neo-pagan ethic, we are called on to articulate it again, this time not via Christianity but directly, in the full self-confidence of a faith that has survived every trial and affirmed life in the presence of the angel of death.

The Torah tells a story. Human culture began in a largely undifferentiated way. After Babel, however, it split into a multiplicity of languages, cultures and faiths. None of these intrinsically excludes any of the others. None is diminished by the existence of the others. Each has something to contribute to the total project of mankind. In this diverse world, the people Israel is called on to fulfill a specific task: to become, in Isaiah’s phrase, God’s witnesses, a living example of what it is to be a nation under the sovereignty of God. From the days of Avraham and Sarah onward, to be a Jew is to be an iconoclast, prepared to challenge the idols of the age in every age. What might this mean today?

The key lies in the word chol. The Hebrew word for “secular” also means “sand.” Sand is never stable on its own. It shifts and moves; it is swept by the sea and blown by every passing wind. For chol to be stable it needs vegetation whose roots go deep into the earth and whose leaves draw energy from the sun. That is what kodesh is–our connectedness to the past and our face turned to what is above. Kodesh is the antidote to the rootlessness of chol.

In a confused and chaotic age, the Jewish voice is listened to, often with immense respect.

At the heart of contemporary culture is the atomized individual, detached from any constitutive commitments to the past, the future, tradition, a set of relationships, a substantive identity, a sense of binding loyalties. That individual, the bearer of rights but not responsibilities, free to enter any lifestyle but at home in none, is the human equivalent of chol, the person whom Psalms describes as “like chaff blown by the wind.” Society cannot survive such atomization. No one put this more eloquently than Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. In an anti-traditional culture, he wrote, “The whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other–and thus the commonwealth itself would, in a few generations, crumble away, be disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality, and at length dispersed to all the winds of heaven.”

Kedushah in this context means connectedness to the universe beyond the self, to generations past and future, to a community of meaning, and to a transcendental reality that links us, ethically and existentially, to the totality of being. Today the liberal democracies of the West need to hear a Jewish voice speaking persuasively of the covenant of marriage, the sanctity of the family, the moral challenge of parenthood. They need to hear the Jewish view of community, collective responsibility, and the values of tzedakah and gemilut chasadim. We must remind others as well as ourselves of the importance of education as the conversation between the generations, and the school as the citadel of civilization. We should be prepared to articulate the nuanced, deeply humane Jewish view of the sanctity of life and its implications for medical ethics. We need to restate our responsibility as guardians of the natural environment for the sake of future generations.

Above all, we must make the case time and again for what ancient Israel heard and what ancient Greece, despite its myriad accomplishments, failed to understand, namely, the personal reality of the universe as the work of God in dialogue with His image, the human person. No civilization has insisted more powerfully on the dignity of human life and the meaningfulness of history as the arena of redemption. We must become what we were called on to be, God’s perennial question mark against the conventional certainties of the secular mind.

In case anyone should doubt whether this can be done, it can. My writings are read, and my broadcasts responded to, as much by non-Jews as Jews. In the United States last year, a religiously observant Jew was able to stand as a vice-presidential candidate and win general respect for his strong ethical convictions–again, I suspect, as much from non-Jews as from Jews. The Jewish voice should be heard in the public square, speaking what John Rawls calls “the language of public reason.” Ralbag (commentary to parshat Va’etchanan) is clear on this point: “Our Torah is unique among the laws and ethics of the nations in that it contains nothing that does not flow from right and reason (hayosher v’habinah). That is why this Divine law draws people to it by virtue of its essence so that they behave in accordance with it.”

Let me be clear. I am not advocating the idea of Ohr lagoyim as it was understood in the nineteenth century, nor tikkun olam as it has often been understood in our day. These phrases were often interpreted to signify a deracinated universalism voided of specific content. Judaism is not political correctness wearing a yarmulke, nor is it deconstructing our sacred texts so that they coincide with the latest intellectual fashion. Nor do I intend a return to Torah im Derech Eretz or Torah u’Madda if these are taken to imply that there is a ready compatibility between our faith and the mood and mores of the age. There is not. Judaism is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions of post-modernity. It is now a counter-culture.

Judaism is…now a counter-culture.

My argument is nothing less than a rejection of the paradigm that has dominated Jewish life for two centuries–that we are forced to be either universalists preaching an ethical message to mankind, or particularists behind the walls of a self-imposed ghetto. To the contrary, our particularism is our universalism. Only by creating strong marriages can we argue the case for marriage. Only by sustaining strong communities can we speak with authority about community. Only by intense dedication to Torah study can we talk compellingly about education and the spiritual significance of the life of the mind. Only by being different can we offer an alternative to the prevailing cultural paradigms. Only by being true to what we are uniquely called on to be, can we give humanity what only we can give. To be a Jew is to live particular expressions of universal truths. Not everyone is called on to be a Jew. But everyone is called on to build a social order of justice and compassion, freedom and human dignity. As the Catholic writer Paul Johnson put it, despite and even because of their differentness, Jews became “exemplars and epitomizers of the human condition.”

That is why we must both strengthen the institutions of Jewish life and articulate a compelling alternative to the prevailing libertarianism of secular culture. It was precisely Abraham, who lived apart from the cities of the plain, who came to their aid in war and prayer. The word Tzion, Zion, meaning something distinctive that stands apart from its surroundings, is related to the word tziyun, a signpost, that signals a direction to those who would otherwise be lost. That is our classic vocation; it is now our present task. We may succeed, we may fail, but let it not be said that we were silent when the West needed to hear our voice. “Whether they listen or fail to listen…they will know that a prophet has been among them” (Ezekiel 2:5). A holy people does not fear to bring its holiness to the broad shared spaces of mankind.


Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom for 22 years, served as a profoundly eloquent teacher of Torah and spokesman for Torah values within the Jewish community and beyond. He was an intellectual giant whose unique blend of Torah scholarship, academic achievement, human sensitivity, and social awareness allowed him to speak to the issues of our times to the broadest of audiences, and he did so with courage, clarity and optimism. He passed away on November 7, 2020.

This article was featured in the Fall 2001 issue of Jewish Action.
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