Office of the Chief Rabbi

OP-ED: A part we can all play in creating a better world

Writing in the Jewish News on the 29th December 2016, the Chief Rabbi sets out his thoughts on how Judaism engages with the modern world. 

In 1960, as campaigning began for a general election in Israel, the Mapai Party printed a series of full-page advertisements, using quotes from an interview with Ha’aretz by Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt’l, urging voters to abandon Mizrachi and to vote for it  instead.

The rav, whose support for Mizrachi was well known, was upset his comments were being misused and wrote a number of letters to Mizrachi leaders in Israel, in which he expounded about his identification with them. In one such letter, he offered an assessment of the importance of Mizrachi as a ‘movement’.

He wrote: “This movement holds within its hand the answer to a serious dilemma: How can we insert our eternal values into the splendour of the modern world? How can we remain steadfast and strong in the very centre of the modern society and sanctify the new – and that which is occurring on a daily basis – with utmost holiness? According to the worldview of our movement, Judaism is immensely powerful and capable of achieving anything. The most developed society too… also requires our Torah and only in it, will it find satisfaction.”

“In the modern age, we are truly blessed with ever more sophisticated technology… but, how can they be embraced by Judaism, which so faithfully clings to ancient tradition?”

If anything, the dilemma Rav Soloveitchik describes is more pertinent today than during his lifetime. In the modern age, we are truly blessed with ever more sophisticated technology. Whether in science, commerce or the arts, creativity and innovation abound. But, how can they be embraced by Judaism, which so faithfully clings to ancient tradition?

I was honoured recently to accept the position of president of Mizrachi UK. I did so because I believe our eternal challenge as Jews is both straightforward and also awash with complexity: How to sanctify the innovations of the modern world in accordance with our eternal Jewish values? In Mizrachi, I see a movement striving to strike that ideal balance.

The root of the Hebrew word for Chanukah means ‘dedication’ or ‘consecration’. When we sing the words Chanukat Hamizbeach in Ma’oz Tzur, it is a reference to the consecration of the altar upon which sacrifices were brought – the designation of a physical location as a place of holiness. Indeed, seeking ways to illuminate the material world with the light of Godliness is one of the central themes of the story of Chanukah. The Maccabees were fighting for the freedom to bring spirituality into a society dominated by the Hellenistic materialism of the Greek Empire. The lights of Chanukah in our homes are a symbol of the miracle of Chanukah but also represent our commitment to the splendour of Torah and Mitzvot which bring the light of the divine into a world dominated by the mundane and extraneous distractions of life.

“I believe our eternal challenge as Jews is both straightforward and also awash with complexity”

Nachmanides taught there is nothing physical in this world which is inherently good or evil. Throughout history, money has been used to wield power over those more vulnerable but also to provide much-needed support to them; influence to manipulate and distort, but also to inspire and encourage. Indeed, the challenge finds a nationalist dimension in Medinat Yisrael. The responsibility to recognise Israel for the remarkable miracle it is, to see it in the context of history and to celebrate the monumental contribution that it makes to Jewish life, lies within us all.

Einstein said: “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Each of us is blessed with a unique set of characteristics, skills and opportunities in life. We can embrace them as the divine gifts they are or decide not to. We can choose to serve God or to serve ourselves.

Let us embark on a journey together in which we choose to celebrate his miracles, to shine the light of his divine presence wherever there is darkness and to play our part in perfecting the world around us according to his will.

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