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In a lovely essay entitled The Pursuit of the Ideal, Isaiah Berlin cites an 18th century Italian philosopher named Giambattista Vico. Explaining Vico’s views on society, Berlin writes that “every society had, for (Vico), its own vision of reality, of the world in which it lived, and of itself and of its relations to its own past, to nature, to what it strove for.” These visions, or ideals – the ideas and ends we hold dear, wish to pursue, and esteem highly – form the bedrock of our moral behaviors. We value education and so educate our children. We value kindness, chessed, and so care for the ill, make meal trains, and visit houses of mourning. We value prayer, community, and Torah, so we plan a space that can be a home for us. However, that is not all that ideals do.

At the beginning of the essay, Berlin makes a rather delightfully surprising observation: Ideals don’t merely catalyze us to care for the ill, educate our children, and make life generally worthwhile and meaningful. They also can help bring about the most heinous crimes imaginable, the most obvious example of this being the Nazi ideology. As Berlin has it, science and technology – which allowed for nuclear and chemical weapons, death camps, and as of yet many unimagined destructions – are the twins of “great ideological storms that have altered the lives of virtually all mankind… totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and the explosions of nationalism, racism and, in places, religious bigotry.” It is these two things together that are responsible for the stupendous violence and destruction of the previous century. One needs not only a way to destroy their enemies; one needs a way to identify enemies and a reason to destroy them.


That being so, we are careful as we craft and pursue the concrete fulfillment of ideologies. For instance, we read in this week’s parshiyot of various prohibited behaviors which we find abhorrent, which – if we saw a society valuing them – we would condemn. For instance, we would look down upon and avoid a society that values sacrificing children, positively affirms adultery, or arranges physically intimate relations between parents and children. We cannot avoid ideals and we do not hold them all created equal.

Thus, Hashem commands us not partake in the ways of the pagan societies nearest to us- the Egyptian and Canaanite (Lev. 18:3):

Like the ways of Egypt, where you dwelled, you shall not act; and like the acts of the Land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do. And in their ways, you shall not walk. 

These are societies that G-d commands us to reject, as is codified in halacha, for their idolatry and sexually chaotic behaviors (Sefer Hamitzvot prohibition 30, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 178).

It’s an interesting halacha. It creates broad standards, distinguishes between cultures, and calls for us to examine the values of our society. It distinguishes us from the society around us. Ibn Ezra comments that it means we must not so imitate cultures around us so that we begin to treat what they do as “chok,” things which are done without rational explanation.

That point provides a rather important qualifier here: Not everything is condemned; just things that are idolatrous, sexually boundaryless, or can find no rational justification. Thus, the midrash (Sifra):

“Could it be so that they will not build buildings or plant gardens like them? Thus it says, ‘In their ways do not walk’; I did not prohibit except for those norms given to them and their ancestors, and to their fathers’ fathers.”

The midrash goes on to say, as we might expect given the context in the Torah, that we are forbidden to join in the sexually illicit norms of societies around us. We are by no means commanded to avoid everything that everyone else does. So, doctors may wear lab coats because it is useful and accords them honor, we plant gardens like those we read about in magazines or see in the city center, we can drive the same cars, become engineers, read good books, and so on and so forth. This is a law which does not treat trick or treating the same way it treats reading a novel where the protagonist considers Halloween. Rather, one is prohibited, the other may be edifying or otherwise useful in some manner.

Such a filtering process is necessary but, as you may have noted, it is purely negative. It filters out but it does not tell us what to bring in. What should we, in fact, hold dear? How shall we make use of our time? Who will we choose to be with?

This halacha does not address those questions. But I admit I am bothered by the question, much because of the same essay we cited earlier from Berlin. In that essay, Berlin further describes Vico’s understanding of what makes a society:

“This vision of a society is conveyed by everything that its members do and think and feel – expressed and embodied in the kinds of words, the forms of language that they use, the images, the metaphors, the forms of worship, the institutions that they generate, which embody and convey their image of reality and of their place in it; by which they live. These visions differ with each successive social whole, each has its own gifts, values, modes of creation, incommensurable with one another: each must be understood in its own terms…”

A society does much more than plant gardens, build buildings, and come up with new apps and driverless vehicles. It conveys a unique vision. That vision can be sampled upon by a later society, but it cannot be entirely imitated because it has so many dense connections that it is impossible to actually recreate it.

I agree with this observation. Further, I think it is important that we properly live up to what it conveys to us. Our own society must be inimitable. We must convey a unique vision, we must express beliefs, build institutions, sing songs and create music which speaks to our unique relationship with G-d and each other. We are called on to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; our community and culture must live up to that, our relationships should be close enough and behaviors sufficiently unique such that anyone who does anything else or anything less cannot properly be said to be imitating us.

How will we create our unique society? In some ways, we can simply keep doing what we are doing. We go to shul, we recite blessings before we eat, we observe Shabbat and holidays. But this may not be filling us up. It may not even be competing with our other cultural consumptions. The hours spent on Shabbat can be easily eclipsed by time spent on the news, pop culture, and whatever it is that we do on our phones. The hours spent on Shabbat themselves may be filled with conversations regarding all of those very things we did on our phones. It’s not enough to go through the motions or merely keep our laws and customs in addition to whatever else we do. We need more. To quote from the introduction to Chovat HaTalmidim, The Student’s Obligation, by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto:

“Teach (Chanoch) the lad according to his way.” For this is the essence of it. As one who only commands and habituates does not need to pay attention to the son or student, to know his nature or intellect, etc… He will command and that will be the end of it.

But an educator who wants to reveal the hidden and stored away soul of the student, to uplift it and set it on fire with a divine fire that reaches the Highest Holy One, such that all of him – even the powers of his body – grows in holiness and pines for G-d’s Torah, he is required to soften himself towards the student that he is educating. He must delve into his juvenility and smallness until he reaches the spark of his stored away – or even hidden – soul, bring it out, develop it and grow it.”

We do not refer, here, only to students; we must think of ourselves. And a basic education is not enough; we must reveal “the hidden and stored away” in our souls. There is so much hidden treasure within us, both as individuals and as a community. We require the right tools commitments, behaviors, forms of language, and especially Torah study to bring it out. We must spend enough time studying Torah for it to percolate within our innermost thoughts and dreams. We need to act with more knowledge, greater intentionality, with the emotional depth that is available only to one who is familiar with the shades and meanings of spiritual behaviors. Our relationships, dialogues, and texts need to be filled with meaning the way sap fills a tree; when we get beyond the obvious, we should find something sweet, intellectually sticky, emotionally viscous.

There is a custom, this time of year, to study Pirkei Avot. The first mishnah begins with the chain of tradition, which forms the bedrock of our behavior, even today.

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. 

We may trace our fingers back up the chain of tradition until they sense the sounds of Sinai, until we ourselves express a meeting with G-d and His wisdom in our interactions, until our culture dazzles the mind and heart with all the treasures such souls offer. When we do that, our conversations with our friends and family will reflect something more, our quiet times together will speak volumes, our little kindnesses will convey subconscious philosophies. Moshe accepted the Torah at Sinai, he passed it to Joshua, and so on, until we accepted it ourselves.

That is the beginning.


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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or to learn about our amazing community. Find Rabbi Sprung’s podcast, the Parsha Pick-Me-Up, wherever podcasts are found.