America is in a state of moral decline.
That is not just my feeling; it is the assessment of a majority of Americans. According to Gallup, “Not only are Americans feeling grim about the current state of moral values in the nation, but they are also mostly pessimistic about the future on the subject, as 78% say morals are getting worse and just 18% getting better.”
Moral decline can be seen in the deterioration in civility, the increase in litigation, the lack of integrity, out-of-wedlock births and breakup of families, vulgarity, promiscuity and immodesty. As quickly as we have progressed technologically, medically and scientifically, morally we are rapidly going backwards, confused about basic fundamental values and institutions that much more primitive people understood clearly.
Perhaps this decline can be explained by another recent Gallup poll that reported that belief in God among U.S. adults has reached a new low. Belief in God provides a moral anchor and a moral compass, rules and regulations from an objective and absolute source of truth and decency. Breakdown of faith breeds relativism, a subjective interpretation of right and wrong. When morality is determined by popular opinion instead of objective truth, by needing to be compatible with comfort and convenience rather than mission and service, by the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, rather than sanctity and holiness, the result is moral decline.
In this morally regressive environment, it is understandably tempting for the Jewish community to turn inward, to focus on protecting ourselves and our families from the increasing dangers of shifting sands around us, and we should.
However, we must also rise in this moment to turn outwards. Judaism and Torah were never intended only for the Jews. While we don’t believe in proselytizing in the sense of recruiting non-Jews to convert to Judaism, we fervently believe in promoting the Torah’s truths, values and ideals to the entire world. That has been our mission since our inception and one shudders to consider what the world would look like if we were to remain entirely insular.
Consider this letter written in 1806 by John Adams, second U.S. President:
“I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other Nation. If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization. They are the most glorious Nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation, ancient or modern.”
The language of the founding fathers came from the Torah. Three names for God in the Declaration of Independence—Creator, Judge and Providence—are unmistakably Jewish names for God. They did not come from the Greeks or Romans.
As the world is becoming more and more uncivilized, it is time for the Hebrews, the Jewish people, to once again model, teach, preach and civilize man.
To be sure, it is not comfortable today to unapologetically and non-defensively (albeit sensitively and respectfully) stand for and publicly promote our values, our principles and our definitions. It is not simple to speak our truths, protect our sacred moral institutions and resist conforming to styles, fads and mores of our time.
But, as W.C. Fields once said, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.” Avraham was called Avraham HaIvri, meaning mei’eiver, on the other side. When the whole world took one position and stood on one side, he had the courage to stand out, remain true to the vision and will of the Almighty and to stand on the other side, even when it meant standing by himself. He was willing to go against the flow, to fulfill his mission, to fight for his truth.
This Shabbat, 3 Tammuz, is the yahrzeit of the Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Schneerson. While most associate his legacy with a love for all Jews and sending emissaries to any place a single Jew lives, the Rebbe was also a force and influence for the non-Jewish world.
In 1983, the Rebbe launched a campaign to promote the seven Noahide laws. He referenced the Rambam, who explicitly rules (Hilchos Melachim 8:10): “Moshe Rabbeinu commanded from the mouth of God to convince all the inhabitants of the world to observe the commandments given to the children of Noach.” Said the Rebbe, it is our duty and responsibility to work to influence all people to lead the righteous and decent life which comes from compliance with the Seven Noahide Laws.
Earlier, in 1974, Rav Soloveitchik shared a similar vision:
“Our task was and still is to teach the Torah to mankind, to influence the non-Jewish world, to redeem it from an orgiastic way of living, from cruelty and insensitivity, to arouse in mankind a sense of justice and fairness. In a word, we are to teach the world the seven mitzvot that are binding on every human being.
“But we have also been assigned another mission: to be the message carrier and mentor not only of the seven mitzvot that apply to the descendants of Noah, that is, to the human race as a whole, but also of a total outlook on life, the entire moral system to which Jews are committed. The non-Jewish world is expected to take note of the Torah life we lead, to admire our ways, our customs and mores, our mishpatim and chukim, both our rational and non-rational commandments. The Jews must stand out in society as exemplars; our way of life must impress and attract people and fascinate their curiosity.”
Elsewhere, in addressing a social pressure in his time, Rav Soloveitchik writes:
“We must not yield—I mean emotionally, it is very important—we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm—usually it is a transient and passing charm—of modern political and ideological sevoros. I say not only not to compromise—certainly not to compromise—but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior, not to experience an inferiority complex. The thought should never occur that it is important to cooperate just a little bit with the modern trend or with the secular modern philosophy. In my opinion Yahadus does not have to apologize … There is no need for apology—we should have pride in our Masorah, in our heritage. And of course certainly it goes without saying that one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient ways of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.”
This is no time to retreat, to shy away from our mission, to blend in or conform with the confusion and chaos that is around us. The world is relying on us to set it straight, stand for truth and to once again, civilize man.
By Rabbi Efrem Goldberg/