By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
(This was first published as a front page cover essay in the Jewish Press, October 4, 2017)
One of the unique features of the Succot service in the Bet Hamikdash was the daily offering of bulls, with the number declining from thirteen on the first day to seven bulls on the seventh and last day. Throughout the holiday of Succot, a total of seventy bulls were offered, corresponding to the proverbial seventy nations of the world. These bulls served as atonement for their sins which would ensure that they, too, were blessed, with heavenly rain and prosperity. “Rabbi Yochanan said: Woe to the idolaters who lost something and they don’t know what they lost. For when the Bet Hamikdash existed, the altar atoned for them. And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” (Masechet Succa 55b)
Indeed, who – or what – does atone for the nations of the world today?
As we celebrate Succot this year, it is clear that the world is troubled. From threats of nuclear war emanating from North Korea to the scourge of radical Islamic terror that has Europeans experiencing the anxieties to which Israelis have long become accustomed, world peace, harmony and even coexistence seem like unattainable fantasies. Some nations still lift their swords against other nations but more lethal weapons and a dearth of elementary humanity are more typical. It is a world in need of atonement, which means a re-direction of its energies and objectives.
Perhaps even worse than the geo-political nightmares that abound is the collapse of the universal morality than mankind honored for centuries, if not millennia. Even if failures were frequent, hypocrisy not uncommon and the perpetration of horrors rationalized, at least there was always a sense that an objective morality existed and that the divine will needed to be ascertained and implemented.
But G-d has largely disappeared from Western society and His will no longer inspires the moral conclusions of mankind. Biblical sins have been nullified and marriage has been redefined. For the first time in American history, more Americans today are unmarried than are married. The European birthrate is below replacement level and its eventual decline and transformation seems inevitable. Acts that were once considered unseemly and properly kept private are today routinely publicized and lionized. All sense of propriety has been shaken.
Something changed dramatically in Western society over the last century, for the worse, and the dividing line seems to be in the 1960’s.
Before the 1960’s, sin existed, and all the moral maladies of modern man were extant, but they were kept hidden for the sake of propriety. It was assumed that certain vices (say, adultery) were wrong, even despicable, and polite society could not tolerate them. What was considered scandalous, appalling and reprehensible in Hollywood sixty years ago is de rigueur today, and properly marketed, can even boost one’s career rather than kill it. Not that long ago, having a child out of wedlock was shocking and unwed mothers gave birth in hiding. Today, roughly 40% of American children are born out of wedlock, and even the term “wedlock” is derided. Alternative lifestyles are celebrated, and even many Jews – presumably, the possessors and propagators of the divine morality – have embraced the modern amorality. Respect for authority – parental, political or religious – has deteriorated, exactly as the Mishnah (Masechet Sotah 49b) predicted would happen in the pre-Messianic era. G-d’s will as explicated in the Torah is immaterial to an increasing number of Jews whose values are rooted in the prevailing liberal orthodoxies and are accordingly malleable.
Atheism has always existed (Tehillim 14:1) but has had a renaissance in the modern world. More than 10% of Americans consider themselves atheists, less than two-thirds characterize themselves as religious in any sense, and the trends are not positive. Traditional morality is mocked as antiquated, parochial, narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, mean-spirited, and worthy of suppression, while the new notions are lauded as progressive, enlightened, tolerant, sophisticated, and assumed in polite company to be the societal norms that must be shared by all right-thinking people. It has been a dramatic shift in attitudes.
What changed in the 1960’s?
Some look to the Kennedy and King assassinations, the civil unrest in American cities, or liberal Supreme Court decisions that removed G-d from the classroom and overturned laws that attempted to regulate private behavior. Others point to the Vietnam War, Woodstock and even later to Watergate as the watershed moments. Certainly, they all played a role, but they are more symptoms than causes of the moral transformation of American life. To me – and this is pure speculation – the turning point in the modern history of the world, as strange as it sounds on the surface, was Israel’s victory in the Six Day War in 1967, whose 50th anniversary was celebrated several months ago.
Please allow me to explain. One of the grandest prophecies in the Torah, one that is being fulfilled before our eyes, is G-d’s promise to restore the Jewish people to the land of Israel before the end of days. “And G-d will bring back your captivity and have mercy on you…” (Devarim 30:3). Rashi notes the grammatically arcane use of the verb “v’shav” instead of “v’haishiv,” and comments (citing Masechet Megila 29a) that G-d, in a sense, returns from the exile with us. “It is as if the Divine presence rests with Israel in the hardship of exile, and when they are redeemed, He includes Himself in the redemption and He returns with them.”
Here is my theory. The Divine presence went into exile with us almost two millennia ago and has now returned with “your captivity” to Yerushalayim and the land of Israel. It was the triumph of the Six Day War, Israel’s liberation of Yerushalayim and especially Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount – after nineteen centuries – that symbolized G-d’s return. If every day for millennia we prayed several times, “May our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy,” Jews fifty years ago witnessed it. If we bless G-d as “the One who restores His presence to Zion,” we have been blessed and fortunate to have seen the beginning of that process.
But if we posit that during the exile, shechinta b’galuta, the divine presence was in the exile alongside us, then it is also true that with the return of the divine presence to Israel and Yerushalayim, the shechina has receded from the exile, from America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, home to most Jews for almost two millennia. As the divine presence in the exile began to retreat in the 1960’s (and do note that the first breaches in the moral order occurred in the early 1960’s), as Yerushalayim became sovereign Jewish territory and Jews flocked to the land of Israel from across the globe, G-d’s “presence” among those nations declined and began to disappear. As a consequence, His moral norms that had guided Western man for centuries began to depart from public life as well. In their place, modern man has substituted immorality, even an inversion of morality, dysfunction, breakdown of the family, loss of values and even paying lip service to values, and the loss of shame.
With a loss of the divine presence among them, the nations of the world began to create their own moral norms, fabricate their own value systems, and not a small number of Westerners have fancied their conclusions as reflecting a superior morality than the one that G-d offered His subjects, both Jews and Gentiles. It is a new world in which even mentioning G-d in public is mocked by the self-styled elites. Note as well that intermarriage, which hovered around 5% until the 1960’s, has skyrocketed since.
Certainly, G-d’s “glory fills the entire universe” (Yeshayahu 6:3). That can and will never change. G-d as Creator wills the world into continued existence and guides mankind according to His providence. But His presence – the sense of immanence and nearness that people have to Him and His morality – is variable and depends on time and place. People perceive it differently depending on their individual spiritual levels. The divine presence never departs from the Kotel Hamaaravi, the western wall of the Temple (Midrash Raba Shmot 2:2). There are times during the year when we feel that G-d is especially close to us, such as the Days of Repentance just past the holiday seasons generally (Masechet Rosh Hashana 18a) and in our Sukkot. And of course there are remnants of the divine presence in the exile as well. G-d’s presence is found wherever a minyan gathers to daven (Masechet Berachot 6a), ten people sit together and learn Torah, and even when one person learns by himself (Masechet Avot 3:6). But whereas the shechina was centered in the exile during our long sojourn there, it is now, again, centered in the land of Israel and it is less and less experienced in the exile. Consequently, its influence on the nations is declined and is evaporating along with the traditional moral order.
The Six Day War may have been the turning point, but the return of the divine presence to the land of Israel and its concomitant withdrawal from the exile is a gradual process. As such, the attrition of the basic moral norms unfolded over the course of several decades, with each new divergence causing a brief stir among those still guided by biblical morality but then quickly becoming accepted as the new normal. Traditionalists, who are often treated today as “heretics” from the prevailing political correctness, have suffered legally and socially. Christians, for example, who do not wish to lend their personal services to same sex weddings that offend their consciences, have been sued, prosecuted and persecuted through social media. Some have been hounded from their jobs and communities. The same could easily happen to religious Jews.
What is widely construed as progress and advanced thinking is actually a regression to the morality of the primitive ancients. Without G-d’s presence in the exile waning, those who cling with faith and tenacity are perceived as archaic and intolerant – the exact opposite of the customary respect society had for people of faith for centuries. The very notion of G-d has been whittled down to some fuzzy notion of “what feels good or right” and the idea of G-d as Creator, King and Lawgiver no longer animates most of Western society. A Gallup poll found that 10% of Americans were atheists in 2016; in 1967, the figure was 1%.
One might ask: if this is true, and the divine presence has relocated to Israel, then why is there such aggressive secularization occurring in Israel today in some parts? But that, too, is to be expected, in order to keep the scales of free choice balanced. Increased spirituality has always been countered by increased sacrilege. The revelation at Sinai was followed by the sin of the golden calf, the First Temple era saw rampant idolatry, there were immoral scenes within sight of the Second Temple, etc. The return of the shechinahas precipitated attacks on the dissemination of Torah in the IDF, secular schools and elsewhere in Israel. The pendulum swings both ways, but the process is irreversible.
Is there any hope for the future of Western civilization, at least in the short term? When the Bet Hamikdash stood, and G-d’s presence was manifest to all who visited and His moral code was clear, concise and compelling, the altar and the seventy offerings of Succot atoned for the nations of the world. “And now [with the Temple destroyed], who will atone for them?” What will atone for them – and for us?
Already, more than half the world’s Jewish population resides in Israel. That is a momentous event and will further propel the world to the glorious era when “the Torah will go forth from Zion and the word of G-d from Yerushalayim (Yeshayahu 2:3). Currently, the world could benefit from a return of the Jewish people to Jewish values. That remains the primary role of Jews who remain in the exile – the propagation of true Jewish values rather than the parroting secular clichés and platitudes. Jews must speak of Jewish values without fear or hesitation and must never conflate secular values with Jewish values. We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we adopt the moral norms of others as “Jewish” (merely because some Jews profess them) and seek to tack Torah values to the prevailing winds of modern society.
It is important to reiterate that, with all the hostility we have felt from the nations of the world in the past, and from many in the present, the Jewish people still retain responsibility for the well-being of all of G-d’s creatures. Our dissemination of true Jewish values, with sensitivity and courage, can bring atonement to the nations as did the seventy offerings of Succot past. But we are not simply universalists. There is majesty to our unique relationship with G-d, the mission with which He entrusted us, the covenant that is 3800 years old, and the splendor and even the vicissitudes of our nation. We celebrate that uniqueness in the Succa, the shelter and symbol of faith. And after the seventy offerings of Succot on behalf of the nations of the world, we tarry for one more day with G-d and offer just one bull as G-d celebrates with the one nation that bears His name and whose existence depends on His Providence.
On Succot, with joy and gratitude, we rejoice in the restoration of the divine presence to its natural locale, re-commit ourselves to seeking atonement for ourselves and the world, and nudging mankind forward to the era of true redemption.