The days have gone when Bible and religion dominated most people’s lives. Yet, for all the evidence of a weakening of religious commitment, there is at the same time talk of a religious revival.
Religion has become almost respectable among intellectuals. Dozens of books, plays, films and radio and television programs deal with religious themes. Exotic cults based on meditation and mysticism have begun to proliferate. There are emotional revivalist movements even among Jews.
There is no mass return to organised religion. But there is an awakening of yearnings which are religious in the deepest sense of the word, a growing conviction that people need a God and a set of values based on eternal verities.
Much is due to the impact of recent events. There is a remarkable illustration in an ancient rabbinic parable.
How did Abraham realise there was a God? Says the Midrash: a man was travelling from place to place when he saw a palace “doleket”, in flames.
“Where is the owner?”
“Is he doing something about it?”
Then the owner of the palace appeared and declared,
“I am the owner of the palace! Everything is under control!”
In the same way Abraham wondered,
“Can it be that the world has no-one to take responsibility for it and ensure it survives?”
Then the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself and said,
“I am the Master of the world: I care for My creation!”
Our own times have literally seen the world in flames, almost consumed by wickedness. In our agony we have asked,
“Can God have forsaken His world?”
And in the midst of our anguish we have sensed the Divine assurance:
“I may appear to have averted My gaze momentarily, but I am still Master of the world and I care for it. Human evil-doing has threatened to consume the world: and if men wish to survive they must return to Me and My law!”
There is a second version of the Midrash of the palace. Some suggest that the word “doleket” means not “in flames”, but “with a light burning”.
The man saw the light and asked,
“Can a light burn in a palace without an owner to kindle and tend it?”
In recent years, the boundaries of knowledge have been pushed far out. Our minds have achieved wonderful things. We take nothing for granted any more, neither facts nor ideas. We want to know why, we must know why. Surely life has meaning, surely peace of mind is attainable.
Human beings are thinking and agonising: they are embarked upon a deeply spiritual quest. They are convinced there is a light in the palace; they seek to come closer to the light and to learn of the One who has kindled it.
In two senses, the moral and the spiritual, there is the beginning of what is undoubtedly a religious revival.
In many cases, however, it appears to be by-passing organised religion. One of the reasons is suggested by Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”
Shall it be said that people began to want religion – and religion was found wanting?
Q. I notice that the Yom Kippur poem about the Ten Martyrs mentions Rabbi Ishmael. When did Ishmael cease being a rabbinic name?
A. One of the greatest sages of the Mishnaic period was certainly Rabbi Ishmael the son of Elisha (2nd century). Among other achievements he re-worked earlier material to produce the 13 rules of rabbinic exegesis which are reprinted at the beginning of the Siddur.
There were few rabbis with the name of Ishmael from the time that Islam emerged, presumably because of the significance in Muslim teaching of Ishmael, the son of Abraham.
Yet there were still some Rabbi Ishmaels, such as Ishmael ben Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen of Modena, Italy (d. 1811), who was one of the Jewish leaders to whom Napoleon addressed questions about Jews and Judaism.