When a Jew has a question -- be it a religious query, a personal conundrum or a moral dilemma -- he is instructed to seek out his rabbi for insight. This Jew has a question for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Why have you forsaken us?
Last week, the chief rabbi of Britain decried the late Steve Jobs, specifically consumerist, individualist society in general. "The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i," the rabbi told a British audience (that included the Queen) last week. "When you're an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i', you don't do terribly well."
These words belie the Modern Orthodox credo that Rabbi Sacks represents. Modern Orthodox Judaism is the blending of past and present, of holy and banal, of God and globality. Jews who call themselves Modern Orthodox may debate how much of the modern can or should be infused into the Orthodox -- indeed, this is the central question of Modern Orthodoxy -- but that some tangible quantity of the modern must be part of the equation is axiomatic.
And what does modernity mean if not individualism? Personal choice and responsibility is the foundation of modern society -- we may think, say, and choose whatever we please, with but the one caveat that we respect others' rights to do the same. Individuality is the essence of freedom, the core of democracy, the pathway to insight. Where individualism is revoked, humanity descends into chaos, corruption, violence, tyranny.
Sadly, there is a significant history of Jewish rejection of individuality -- the staid shtetls of Europe and the oblivion of the ultra-Orthodox, to name but two examples. At these junctures -- when we are too busy naval-gazing to see the world around us changing -- Judaism faces its greatest threats, even the prospect of total annihilation. Modern Orthodoxy is the antidote to ghettoization. It introduces and explores the wonders of all humankind, fortifying the individual through greater knowledge and experience. And in doing so, Modern Orthodoxy intensifies one's awareness and appreciation of the entity that created it all.
Rabbi Sacks is the face of Modern Orthodoxy, in Great Britain and, increasingly, North America. Of all Orthodox rabbis, he is the one who is supposed to understand the intrinsic value of an iPad, because that device, and the consumerist culture that ultimately begat it, represents choice, not to mention the prospect of greater knowledge and wider communication. If he fails to comprehend the significance of "i"-ness, that the cult of the individual is central to modernity, he fails all of Modern Orthodoxy.
Modern Orthodox Judaism is vexing by nature -- it seeks to fuse the presumed perfection of God with the demonstrated imperfection of man in a sort of symbiotic mutualism. One must observe the Sabbath, of course, but it's perfectly fine, even encouraged, to flip on the TV or check your email as soon as three stars appear in the night sky -- there is an inherent contradiction there, and it has confused and embittered some of the brightest Jews I know.
I doubt that Rabbi Sacks is confused -- he is too smart, too learned, not to recognize that his statement flies in the face of the Jewish brand he leads -- but he may very well be disaffected. Perhaps he has fallen prey to the same paranoia that is leading wide representations of all major religions, not to mention atheists, toward insularity and fundamentalism. Who could blame him? Israel faces the threat of nuclear destruction, Europe is rife with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and the West, protector of Israel and the Diaspora, is on the wane -- it is a scary time to be a Jew, and when we are scared we tend to retreat inward. Only later do we realize that this is the worst approach, that we cannot hide, that we must confront what threatens us if we are to conquer it.
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