Coping With The 21st Century

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Coping With The 21st Century


By Rabbi Aryeh Carmell

Many pressing problems face us as we approach the 21st century:
First, life is increasingly dominated by impersonal forces, such as automation, computerization, science and global authority, resulting in the undermining of the dignity and sanctity of the human being, a depersonalization, and dehumanization of man. 

Second, excessive focus on satisfaction of physical desires, and a general preoccupation with stimulation of the senses tends to suppress the human aspects of our natures and reduce them to the level of mere animals, devoid of spirituality. 

21stcent01Third, the spiritual void referred to above is characterized by aimlessness, rootlessness, unreality of values, and a general decline of moral standards. The inevitable search and yearning for spiritual nourishment has become manifested in inappropriate ways: through hyper-sensuality, superficiality, vain search for prestige, and reckless experience-seeking, from drug-taking to participation in suicidal games.

Fourth, the continuing advance of technology has proven to be a dangerous two-edged sword.  On the one hand, technology has been a blessing, adding to human comfort and improving health.  On the other hand, technology has also become a curse, pouring toxic wastes into our environment, putting weapons and machinery of mass-destruction into the hands of terrorists and dictators, subjecting workers and motorists to the maiming and lethal power of modern mechanical devices.

Fifth, in a seemingly liberal era of history, since the advent of modern democracy, we find that true freedom is scarce.  Despite the advance of modern culture and civilization, substantial portions of the global population are still denied human freedom by dictatorships.  Paradoxically, in the nations that do provide political freedom, the freedom is so complete and unlimited as to enslave the individual in the desires and will of his ego.  That is to say, apparent political freedom is nullified by the resulting bondage to the incessant needs and demands of the ego and its related body.

Furthermore, in those instances where there is a genuine exercise of free will, there is often an over-weening confidence in the decision-making powers of the individual.  Too often, whatever free will exists gets expressed in a moral vacuum and in a context devoid of proper guidance.  The apparent free will is thus often rendered ineffective and meaningless.

Sixth and finally, the objective increase in material wealth and comfort and living standard has not been paralleled by a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment.  Indeed, it seems that the more that is available, the less we seem to enjoy it.  A happiness based on physical and material attainment remains elusive. 

Judaism provides a complete program of life, called Torah, to deal with the problems listed above. This program operates on three levels: 

  • Information
  • Imagination 
  • Action 

Judaism is distinguished not only by its goals, but above all in providing a detailed program for their realization.  Torah-study is an essential element on all three levels.

Torah study provides essential information. 

What are the origins and special tasks of the Jewish people? 
What accounts for the amazing perseverance and continued virility of the Jewish people? 
The background of the universe is personal and this is the source of human value.  Nothing in the universe is unintended or casual. 
The Torah provides non-self-directed goals for human existence and specifies themeans to achieve these goals. 

Deeper Torah study awakens the imagination to the spiritual dimension of life. 
deep torah studyThe Torah provides a vision of the whole man, which includes spiritual as well as physical capacities.  One important capacity is that of self-transcendence, thereby entering into true giving relationships with others.  These acts of self-transcendence and giving become the building blocks for a vision of the brotherhood of Israel, and for the brotherhood of mankind.  This brotherhood spans time, binding up the current generations with past spiritual giants. 

Torah provides a new dimension to life mitzvah, which is obedience to an explicit higher command, a new kind of motive, as distinguished from duty, decency, conventional morality, etc.  Underlying the concept of mitzvah is an unshakable trust in the personal background of all being as the source of unfailing and unbounded optimism in the face of adversity.

Torah also provides a means for intensifying the human quality of our relationships.  Torah awakens our imagination to creative art, to molding our character through artistic expression, to creating valuable human relationships.  Torah also teaches us that humor is the solvent of personal problems and irritants.

The Torah program encompasses mitzvah activity, which can be defined as follows: higher goal directed activity in deed, word and thought.  Mitzvah activity provides the only soil in which inwardness can break through.  This action program includes the following elements: 

  • Training in non-self-directed acts. 
  • Planned restrictions and channelling of sensual activities as a means of strengthening the powers of inwardness. 
  • Action and reaction: The feedback effect of mitzvah activity on the higher centers of the brain and unconscious springs of action. 

The specific actions contained in the Torah life program are of several types.
First, there are actions aimed at creating true human relationships.  Examples are as follows:

  • Reduction of guilt-feelings through giving activities.  Sublimation of aggressive activities by thrust and parry of Torah study on deeper levels. 
  • Enhancement of the home and family life, by making it the true center of religious observance, training, and Torah study. 
  • Enhancement of sex by making it part of a true human, self-transcendent relationship. 
  • Communal prayer to provide a vehicle for mutual support. 

Second, there are actions intended to foster a relationship with the personal background of all existence.  An example of this type of action is regulated prayer, which serves to inculcate an attitude of renewed contact with the personal background of all existence. 

Third, there are actions which enhance the overall quality of life for the individual.  This is accomplished by emphasis on personal and spiritual associations and by dramatization of significant occasions. 

In sum, the Torah action program is an heroic attempt to live a complete life on the basis of conscious adherence to a consistent, complex program. 

If the program appears complex, this should surely not be surprising.  The DNA molecule, which contains the specifications for the human physical organism, alone comprises some 2,000,000,000 bases.  A program to deal with the whole of life can surely not be a simple one.  If simple it is sure to be inadequate.

The intellectual stimulus of Torah-study combines with the awakened imagination and the planned program of Torah-action to create a firm anchorage in the world of true human and spiritual values.  Whenever the attempt is made sincerely and wholeheartedly to follow this life pattern, an enormous reservoir of these very strong forces is built up which more than counteracts the disintegrating and impoverishing tendencies of the surrounding culture.

This program can and will be the salvation of all mankind, who will eventually learn to replace the self-frustrating strivings after economic expansion and stunted spiritual self-sufficiency by activities aimed at the release of the full human potential for spiritual growth.  This will never be achieved by religion in the abstract, education, brain therapy or genetic mutation, but only by a Torah program, adopted by conviction of its necessity, embracing and developing the whole man.