Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Serving Hashem, Mitzvot and Repentance
To dedicate this lesson

There Is Nothing That Equals Knowing


Rabbi Berel Wein

Judaism is a religion that requires more than just simple faith - though that too is a fundamental requirement - from its adherents. Its emphasis on knowledge, study and intellectual pursuit for all of its adherents, not just for clergy or teachers, is one of its more unique qualities. Thus being an unlettered or ignorant Jew is almost an oxymoron in Jewish terms. While the Torah does not demand or expect every Jew to be a great Talmudic scholar, it does expect that all Jews will pursue the study of some Torah on a regular basis. The unlettered Jew - the classical am haaretz - was considered the bane of Jewish society. The Talmud had harsh judgments regarding such people. They were seen as the enemies of spiritual progress in the Jewish community and as people, who in their ignorance, would turn against the scholars of Israel and its Torah. In short, they were not to be entrusted with the leadership or future of the Jewish community. The Talmud made allowance for those Jews who had no chance to study Torah in their life, a child who was kidnapped and raised amongst the non-Jewish world, but it made little excuse for those who were raised in a Jewish society and had opportunity to study Torah and chose not to do so. The willfully ignorant can never be pious was the mantra of the rabbis of the Mishna. And this attitude has prevailed all through Jewish history. Not all Jews were scholars but illiteracy in basic Jewish studies, the prayer book, the Bible and customs and traditions and observances was rare indeed. The lowliest Jew was aware of its heritage and its uniqueness and though ignorant in other forms of general knowledge was keenly aware of the basic books and ideas of Judaism. The surrounding Jewish society, the language that Jews spoke such as Yiddish and Ladino, the Jewish calendar and its special days all contributed to the minimum knowledge necessary to be a Jew in the traditional understanding of the word.

This situation has changed radically over the past century. Most of American Jewry is not assimilated - it is simply completely ignorant of its faith. There is no longer a societal bond, language or calendar that binds them to their token faith. They are abysmally ignorant of everything about Judaism. Every new "progressive" idea dominates their worldview and they impose these currently correct ideas on Judaism. Is there any wonder therefore that the rates of assimilation and intermarriage remain so depressingly high? Faith and tradition cannot take root in the soil of Jewish ignorance. This not only applies to Jewish observances but it applies to the attitude of Jews towards the Land of Israel and the Jewish state therein as well. Ignorant of Jewish history and tradition, bereft of any knowledge of Judaism and its values, naively accepting the propaganda of our enemies as being true or at the very least worthy of equal consideration, is there any wonder then that the lies of the Left are accepted and acted upon by these well-meaning but destructive Jews? As long as Jews are more familiar with Shakespeare than Isaiah we remain in danger of losing an entire generation of Western Jews to further assimilation and intermarriage.

The situation here in Israel is somewhat more complicated, better and more hopeful. However here also the problem now is no longer the rebellious unbelievers of a century ago, the doctrinaire atheists and Marxists who controlled the yishuv and later the country for much of the past century, but rather a generation of ignorant Jews who speak Hebrew but know little about Judaism and its values and observances. The Israeli secular school system has been drained of any traditional Jewish education over the past few decades. There are no longer contestants for the prizes in the world bible contest from secular Israeli schools. Yet there is a longing for some sort of Jewish life here and the correct formula for developing such a society has not yet been developed. The Jewish holidays here are a great unifying factor, even for those who choose not to observe them in any traditional form. At least everyone in Israel is aware that there is a holiday called Shavuot, something that unfortunately cannot be said regarding Western and American Jewry. But there really is no substitute for knowing when it comes to Jewish life and the survival of Judaism and Israel. It is the core problem that faces the Jewish world in our time and it will take great effort, immense resources and tenacious will to be able to grapple with it successfully.
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