The old witticism about “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to be changed!” resonates deep within me. After over a half-century in the rabbinate and in Torah education I have witnessed the truth of this shrewd observation time and again. Change is rarely accomplished by purely outside pressures, legislation or even coercion. It requires inner will and a commitment to somehow alter one’s course or to rethink one’s position on issues and challenges.
If the bulb is unwilling to be changed then one hundred psychiatrists will be unable to change it. It is true that the great changes in Jewish life over the past three centuries were all stimulated by outside pressures and changes in the general society. Yet these changes were, in the main, really generated internally by the inner dissatisfaction of Jews with the status quo of their spiritual and physical state of being.
Chasidut spread quickly in Eastern Europe in spite of the fierce objections of great and revered rabbinic leaders, because the inner Jew en masse hungered for some sort of emotional attachment to Torah over and above pure intellectual attainment and knowledge.
The Mussar movement in nineteenth century Lithuanian Jewish society gained traction because many of the great Torah scholars felt an inner urge for creating a higher form of Torah society and education. Mussar, so to speak, was the “Chasidut” of Lithuanian Torah scholarship, the drive to achieve self-improvement and a value-oriented Torah society.
These movements were self-generated stemming from the desire of the Jewish ‘bulb of the time to be changed. Thus both Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant respectively had fertile ground in which to implant enormous change in the Jewish world of their times.
The other great changes in Jewish life in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries were also driven by inner forces, albeit certainly influenced by the outside zeitgeist of their age. Reform in Germany was a product of the inner Jewish drive to be emancipated from persecution, discrimination, ghettoes and poverty.
No amount of bans and threats could still that drive for change and it seemed then that there was no other avenue of change available except for Reform. The same is certainly true for Eastern European Jewry’s love affair with Socialism, Marxism, Communism and the ideas of the Left generally, an affection that still has not waned completely in our current times.
The inward Jewish drive for fairness and equality, the utopian dream of a just and equitable society that would banish war and poverty forever propelled millions of Jews into the Left in all of its forms and secularized them completely. The drive for change in Jewish society overwhelmed all barriers and even eradicated traditions of faith and religious observance that existed.
The same is certainly true for Zionism, again in all of its different permutations. The drive to end the Exile and to have an independent Jewish state established in the homeland of the Land of Israel struck a deep chord within the Jewish masses. Against all odds and opposition –religious and secular – they succeeded in achieving the improbable if not even the seemingly impossible. The bulb wanted to be changed.
The growth of Torah study and education that has taken place in post-Holocaust Jewish life is also a product of inner impetus within the soul of many Jews. Jewish young men and women wanted to study Torah and were and are willing to sacrifice greatly in order to do so.
The love of Torah that exists within Jews brought about this great change. The nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries possessed great Torah scholars and luminaries. But they did not affect the change in Jewish society that our current rabbis and educators have achieved. The inner drive to achieve this change was lacking then and for some reason is now present.
The same is true regarding the slow but steady return to tradition and observance that has overtaken Israeli society over the past number of decades. Left-wing kibbutzim that have now instituted synagogues, kosher kitchens, Torah study sessions as part of their societies and life-style have done so due to soul searching and not because of outside coercion or legislation.
And the slow, gradual and yet inexorable change that is taking place in the religious world of Israel and its integration into general Israeli society – charedi colleges, organized army service, over forty percent now in the workforce, etc. - are also due to an change in mindset. That bulb also wishes to be changed. One should never underestimate the strength of inner change and of the eternal attachment of the people of Israel to its Torah and land.