Mitzvah observance in a secular society

Mitzvah observance is a difficult task in secular society. My conclusion is that “we are holding our own” in a difficult spiritual struggle, and making slow progress to a more complete Redemption.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

The challenge of keeping mitzvot in modern, secular society

Half of my grandchildren are receiving a haredi religious education (flavored with a Jewish settler-Judea/Samaria social culture), and half are receiving national religious education. A recent, scientific survey of the behavioral, mitzvah observance of the national religious community again ignited my personal “obsession” of sociologically trying to define the benefits and the difficulties inherent in both the haredi and the national religious, educational experience. This article discusses one aspect of this educational comparison, “How does each sector encourage and socialize their students to keep the behavioral mitzvot of the rabbinic halakha (the Shulchan Aruch)?”  In order to answer this question we will focus on empathetically understanding the difficulties of mitzvah observance for our national religious community in modern, secular society.

The statistical picture of national religious mitzvah observance

A recently scientific survey of behavioral, mitzvah observance in the national religious sector highlights the difficulties of strict mitzvah observance in modern, liberal, secular society.  I will briefly present this statistical picture as a backdrop for discussing the difficulties and benefits of the way our community supports and encourages mitzvah observance.

There are roughly 600-700,000 (10-12% of Israel’s population) who define themselves as being national religious Jews (there are roughly an equal number of haredi Jews).  Concerning  this national religious population, 90-95% keep basic kashrut in their home; 80-85% keep Shabbat in the sense of not driving or using electricity, and gojng to synagogue on Shabbat  several times a month;  70-80% will use the mikvah in the context of family purity; and 90% plus maintain some type of observance of major holidays. Reflecting a similar pattern, 80-85% of men put on tefilin most days, and 70% wear tzitzit most days.

In summary, we can conclude that 75-80% of the self defined national religious population consider themselves to ‘be religious’ by maintaining a pattern of ‘basic essentials mitzvah observance”. Close to 20% of the national religious population does not practice mitzvot on a committed or regular basis.

However, the portrait of mitzvah observance becomes starker when we consider mitzvot that require a daily, ongoing investment of thought, time, action and commitment of faith. Roughly (‘only’) 50-60% of our sector makes an effort to live a daily, personal life according to the halakhic obligations of the Shulchan Aruch. Thus the data shows that roughly 50-60%  go to  minyan several times a week (another 30-35% pray morning and afternoon prayers at home); 50-60% learn Torah at least three hours a week ; and 50-60% make blessings before eating food. (I have taken the freedom to slightly scale down the self reported percentages of observance in order to present a more realistic picture of our situation, as people tend, in surveys, to over-report their positive behavior).

One final point of analysis. My professional intuition says that, in the past, our sector’s mitzvah observance was NOT on a higher level. The above statistical picture fairly accurately presents our sector’s past and present (and probably future) religious behavior.       

We are making the best of a very difficult situation

So is our ‘mitzvah observant ‘cup half empty, or half full? Should we be discouraged or encouraged?  For example, my analysis indicates that, in comparison, behavioral mitzvah observance in the haredi sector is 20-30% higher in all of the above categories.

My understanding of the statistical picture presented above is a sympathetic, positive one. Our educational community is doing a very good job of “making the best of a very difficult situation”. Sincerely keeping behavioral mitzvot in modern secular society is a constant, very uphill, sometimes grueling, task, and much more challenging that we like, or want, to think and admit. I feel it is a worthy accomplishment  if   50-60% of our community get up every morning and want to make a real effort  to ‘do’ G-d’s  Shukhan Aruch mitzvoth  in the midst of his busy involvement in modern Israel society.

My conclusion is that “we are holding our own” in a difficult spiritual struggle, and making slow progress to a more complete Redemption.

Why is keeping the mitzvoth such a difficult task?

Modern, secular society is extremely “non-user friendly” to our mitzvah observance. Modern secular society is built on a social philosophy that is almost diametrically opposed to the social philosophy embedded in the Torah. Very schematically, these two social philosophies clash on three central points.

One, the Torah posits that we must live our lives in a dialogue with a spiritual reality (G-d and his Torah) that is “truer” than our everyday physical/material reality. In contrast, secular society argues that such a spiritual reality is a false illusion, and bases its self on a knowledge base that is known through empirical, physical observation (including the perceived reality of emotions).

Two, The Torah holds that social change should be conducted in a conservative, cautious manner, relying heavily on traditional, rabbinic legal precedent.   In contrast, secular society believes that social institutions should readily reflect and incorporate technological and social innovation, and in the majority of cases, this will contribute to the progress of the human race.

Three, the Torah believes that the individual was created in G-d’s image,and with G-d’s involvement, and thus we are obligated to experience our inner self fulfillment and creativity in dialogue with the external authority of G-d and his Torah. Modern secular society, in contrast, holds that man is an autonomous   physical  being, a “little higher than the monkeys”, and society must grant  him the well being, civil rights and freedom that will enable him  to fulfill and  express himself in accord with his inner drives and conscience.

Given this clash of social philosophies, modern, secular society becomes, in reality, a ‘hostile environment’ for mitzvah observance. On the surface many of us do not feel the hostility of secular society. But its inherent materialism and radical individualism are ceaselessly acting to erode the authority of the traditional community and family structure which have throughout our history been a mainstay support of mitzvah observance.

In our era of radical individual self expression and identity building, mitzvah observance requires that every day, every hour we have to renew our commitment and make a conscious choice and effort to do G-d’s will. For most people this is a very challenging task. Mitzvah observance is no longer simply “going along, and conforming” to the norms of a semi self bounded traditional community and family.

The national religious mitzvah educational philosophy-benefits and difficulties

Much of national religious mitzvah observance is still very much a result of conforming to the social norms of our family and community. However, this is on the condition that the individual feels happy, fulfilled and secure in these social environments. When the individual feels frustrated and misunderstood by his family and community his mitzvah observance then becomes dependent on his self choice, on his perception how the mitzvah observance will contribute, if at all, to his self fulfillment.

Thus we can conclude that sociologically our national religious community educates to the maximum of mitzvah observance on the condition that :

One, we stay actively involved in all spheres of modern society. Withdrawing from modern society is not accepted in our community as a way of encouraging increased mitzvah observance.

Two, Individual choice is respected. Our community basically accepts, and does not sanction or punish, those who choose to lessen, or stop, their mitzvah observance.

Thus we highly value, as a community, service in the army, university academic studies, and involvement in much of modern culture and the arts  even though there is high correlation between participation in these areas and a lower level of mitzvah observance.

In brief, the national religious educational philosophy accepts the principle that mitzvah observance must ultimately be a matter of individual self choice that enables a sense of self fulfillment. And given our intense involvement in a secular society whose social values are hostile to those of the Torah, many individuals are not able to successfully see how exacting mitzvah observance will grant them a sense of personal creativity and self fulfillment.

This is the sociological explanation why the survey showed that (“only”) 50-60% of our community is making a daily effort to conduct their life according to the halacha of the Shulchan Aruch. However given the hostility of the secular environment this is still a significant accomplishment. We can say that our cup is half full.

The haredi educational philosophy

The haredi community also perceives the social hostility of secular society to mitzvah observance (even more so than the national religious community) but comes to different educational conclusions. One, because secular society is hostile, the haredi have decided to withdraw from secular society and create an alternative social environment. They do not participate in the army, attend university, or enjoy much of popular culture (except in very exceptional circumstances)

Second, the haredi community employs the heavy authority of community social sanctions to encourage mitzvah observance. They do not provide an education that gives its members a realistic option of creatively participating in secular society. The denial of ‘the core curriculum” is an indirect sanction that makes many people ‘hostage’ to their community. More significantly, if a person’s behavior departs from the community social norms; his social status is significantly impaired. He and his family will be ostracized and be pushed to the fringes of haredi society.

The benefits and difficulties of these two competing philosophies to mitzvah observance

On the basis of our analysis, the benefits and difficulties of each approach becomes quite obvious. The benefits of the national religious approach are twofold. One’ we actively participate –and sometimes lead- in the miraculous building  of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel after 2000 years of exile.

 Two, basically we do mitzvoth out of true free choice, and G-d finds mitzvah observance based on free choice to be more precious than mitzvah observance based on conformity, lack of options, and fear of social sanctions. The price we pay for this educational philosophy is a heavy one. Only 50-60 % of our community makes a real effort to make halachic mitzvah observance a daily, personal part of their life.

The benefits of the haredi educational philosophy is to create an alive, vibrant alternative social culture and community life in which Torah study and careful mitzvah observance are core, primary social values. As a result significantly more ultra orthodox individuals live ‘the Shulchan Aruch” than do national religious Jews.

The difficulties of this approach is that the haredi are not actively contributing to the defense and development of the Israeli state, and not contributing to making that state more Jewish. If the haredi sector would actively and creatively serve in sectors such as medical and nursing service, mental health professions,  and social work and community services, our state ‘would be much more Jewish.’ Second the employment of social sanctions to reinforce mitzvah observance degrades and harms many individuals and prevents them from appropriately developing and expressing personal abilities and skill.

Personal conclusion

I grew up liberal and secular. In 1972 (at the age of 25) I freely chose to accept the authority of G-d’s Torah and started walking down the the halakhic road of mitzvah observance. I have happily chosen to bring up my family in the national religious community (whose ideals my three boys have rejected, and have freely chosen to fulfill their lives as Chabad Chasidim). I chose the national religious way of life because I believe that we are historically beginning a new, redeeming chapter in Jewish history, and I want to pro-actively participate in it.