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Beit Hamidrash

Redemption as Responsibility

By: Rav Yuval Cherlow

In Israel, Kol Dodi Dofek is read differently than in America. The essay was originally written to explain to Diaspora Jews the importance of the State of Israel, to convince them to become more concerned with and involved in the existence and development of Israel...

Redemption as Responsibility link to article PDF Yuval Cherlow


In Israel, Kol Dodi Dofek is read differently than in America. The essay was originally written to explain to Diaspora Jews the importance of the State of Israel, to convince them to become more concerned with and involved in the existence and development of Israel. Obviously, for people living in Israel, these ideas are largely redundant, for no theology is needed to convince them of the importance of participation in the Jewish State. Nevertheless, Kol Dodi Dofek became a wellknown source for the study of Rav Soloveitchik and was even included in official high school textbooks. Why did it become so famous, despite its apparent irrelevance? Why did it have such a wide influence in Israel, although it addressed a different society?

I think that two central issues were new for Israelis, significantly impacting in their originality the theological discourse of the day. One was a new way of thinking about the problem of evil in the world€"especially in relation to the Holocaust€"using existential terms. The second idea effected a change in the attitude towards the ge€TMulla€"the redemption.

The existence of evil in the world has been an integral component of reality, as we know it, since creation. Therefore, questions about evil have been pertinent to every thinking human being. For those who believe in God, the issue is especially troubling: there seems to be a contradiction within our conception of God as the source of both good and evil on earth. As such, the question of how evil can emerge from the divine source of good has been a key component of religious thought throughout history.

For us, as Jews, it is even more difficult. One of the foundations of Judaism is our standing as the beloved nation chosen by God to represent Him in this world, proclaiming His kingship over all. Yet our history has not produced much evidence of this; throughout history, the Jewish people have suffered. And the notion that this was divine punishment failed to outweigh the enormity of the tragic events that have befallen the Jewish people.

We can refer to a whole tradition of literature, from the Prophets on down, that attempts to explain why God allows evil, and why God does bad things. In Israel, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it became necessary to re-address God€TMs €policy,€ as it were, and many books and articles were published to this end.

The Rav z€l, on the other hand, took a radically different tack. He did not try to give a better answer or to pacify people by explaining that God knows what He is doing. The Rav taught us that we should change our question. Asking why God performs evil is pointless; we cannot bridge the gap between the divine and us, nor can we understand anything about the way that God is running the world. As we hit this impenetrable brick wall, continuing the pursuit of such answers has indisputable results: frustration and anger.

Therefore, we must modify our question. We should ask: What can we do with our feelings of suffering, and how can we become more empathetic to other people? We will never know the reason for suffering€"the why€"but we are able to learn how to convert the pain into a drive toward making this world better.

The revolutionary power of these ideas is not the focus on a new way to confront pain in the world; it is much more than this. It was the first time that a talmid hakham taught that the address of our debate and struggle was not God. Instead, we should be asking questions about ourselves, trying to comprehend our experience in and reaction to this world. It was a significant change, part of an inward shift in interest to the soul. Then Israelis discovered The Lonely Man of Faith that said the same thing. Emuna (Jewish Philosophy) does not mean knowing what we can about God. Rather, it means learning about ourselves as a consequence of the knowledge and experience of discovering the world of faith. Since then, everything has been affected by this new idea of looking inside ourselves. When U-Vikkashtem mi-Sham was published, the revolution was complete. Existential thought entered mainstream Talmud Torah. The fact that it was not only a way of thinking, but also encouraged a change in ethical behavior and emphasized a unique way to apply the entire range of Torah, was critical.

The Holocaust was the primary reason that the Rav developed his thesis about Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. At the time, the most important facet of Israel€TMs existence was the feeling of national safety it provided for the Jewish people, particularly in regard to self-defense. Yet the Rav did not limit his discussion of Israeli independence to the perspective of security. He also commented on the theological meaning of Israel, emphasizing the effect that the process had on the Church.

The realism of his attitude was completely different from the discourse of the religious-Zionist movement in Israel. There, the main term was ge€TMulla€"redemption. According to the Prophets, the world is moving forward, to a point where all destinies will be fulfilled and the Jewish nation will lead through righteousness and justice (tsedek umishpat). For those taking part in the building of Israel, these predictions became reality. Moreover, this approach became part of prescribed prayer, with the text of the Prayer for the Welfare of the State including the description of the State as €the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.€ This attitude was not only a theoretical opinion. It became a basis for policy: The fact that we are part of the redemption makes us confident that we are always going forward. Even if there are some obstacles, these are only temporary hindrances to the ultimate ge€TMulla. After the Six Day War the perception that we were at the height of the messianic process intensified. The ability to establish new settlements after the Yom Kippur War, against a backdrop of country-wide despair, was largely a result of the sense of taking part in God€TMs plans.

In Israel, however, minds were not open to what the Rav writes in Kol Dodi Dofek. The Rav teaches that the knocking on our doors should be understood as an opportunity. Although there is the possibility of realizing the ultimate redemption, nothing is promised. Everything depends on our response to this opportunity to reconstruct the Jewish nation. The Rav did not speak about ge€TMulla; his words were very realistic. But that was not the reason that his words failed to resonate. Ironically, his use of a symbolic style made it possible to re-read Kol Dodi Dofek as a source about the inevitability of the redemption. For what is the meaning of the knocking on the door, if not ge€TMulla? Even so, his most important qualification was not simultaneously embraced: Even if the nascent State of Israel is the ge€TMulla, the fact that we will reach all our goals is not promised or predetermined.

For the Rav, it was not only a question of forecasting the future. The Rav emphasized our responsibility in achieving the complete redemption. Already this is implicit within the biblical source for the Rav€TMs exposition. In the Song of Songs, the beloved does not respond to the knocking at her door. As a result, the lover leaves her, and she cannot find him again. The message is abundantly clear: If we do not open our doors, we might miss our chance and waste the opportunity.

That our mission includes directly and actively improving and strengthening the situation is part of a larger development in thought: realizing the value of humanism within a Torah framework. Previously, we were exposed to notions of our inadequacy, of how irrelevant we should feel. Usually, these notions are found in treatises on morality, training the religious personality in humility and modesty. But all too often, the result of these ideas is the devaluing of our own talents and absolving ourselves of responsibility. The Rav taught us that we should never forget that we were created in the image of God. Therefore, we have the ability and the obligation to make this world better and to apply all our capabilities to this end. In this regard, the conditional nature of the redemption is not an exception. It is part of the structure of creation. I must admit that, for me, this was a big revelation in my thoughts about the State. Since then, I drift between these two poles, between experiencing the inevitability of the messianic process and understanding that believing does not mean leaving everything to fate. Sometimes we should use every component of our personalities and do what we can to resist the danger of abandoning the State of Israel to wishful dreams about an automatic process of redemption.

As I stated at the outset, these two issues are not the essence of Kol Dodi Dofek. However, they contain the energy to propel people ahead, to move them. They represent a realistic way of thinking, with both feet firmly planted on the ground, and with a lot of confidence in our individual and collective contributions. This message should be an integral part of religious life and the way we navigate in the world as a whole. Fifty years after the first appearance of the essay, we should harness this energy, making us more effective in confronting the challenges as we propel the redemption forward.


Naftali Balanson assisted with the preparation of this article.

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