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Tradition or Progress?

Tradition or Progress?


Paradox, I believe, is the trademark of all things Jewish: If you've resolved anything Jewish without any trace of paradox, go back and get your facts straight. There ain't no such animal. In fact, that's how most misunderstandings arise: They are the creations of innocent minds that will go to all extremes of distortion to save their souls from the discomfort of eternal, sustained paradox.

One paradox that lends itself to disastrous sins of misunderstanding is the tension between tradition and progress in Jewish life. Are we the guardians of the past, our chief mission and mandate to preserve our heritage at all costs, untainted by the winds of change? Or are we the opposite—the fomenters of revolution and dissent, ever out to upset the status quo and leave nothing untransformed?

Quite clearly, we are both. Think of the image of the first Jew—who was also the first iconoclast: A recalcitrant teenager smashing the idols in his father's home. Think of our birth as a nation through a revolt against social injustice. Think of our people's contribution to history: The Jewish idea of innate human dignity, of social justice, of purpose, of a goal of world peace, of a G‑d that cares about His world—this has always been the radical element to which all social change can ultimately be traced.

Yet our identity is preserved through our traditions. We adapt by returning to them for precedent and fortitude. We study them continuously and cherish them more than any other possession.

So there is a dual dynamic here, and as in any duality, we must determine which side of the coin is dominant and which secondary: Does progress serve tradition, as a sort of adaptation scheme to preserve the species called the Jewish People? Or does tradition serve progress?

The second proposal is inescapably evident: The thrust of Torah is to change the world. Tradition is no more than a safeguard to effective change.

The essence of Torah, after all, is Halachah (Torah law)--and every Halachah can be reduced to the same statement: The world as you find it is like this. You must make it like that. The same with the stories of our people: The story of Genesis, of the forefathers, of the Exodus, of our entire history, all move in a well-defined progression towards a purpose and a goal. Indeed, it has been posited that the whole idea of progress originates with the Bible.

Tradition, then, is the guardian of progress. Because progress without tradition is just change for the sake of change, spinning about in hopeless circles. To truly move forward, you need a tradition of progress—so that you will remember from where you are coming and to where you aim to go. You need traditions to preserve identity, so that when you participate in the world's progress, you do not forget who you are and what are your true goals. To be effective in the long term, you need to stay on the outside while working on the inside—yet never forgetting that the true purpose lies on the inside. Tradition is the foundation dug deep in the ground to support the monument of progress towering in the air.

So obvious, yet so easy to forget—especially for those who will always seek the easy way to resolve all paradox: by clinging to one side at the expense of the other.

Which for me explains otherwise astonishing phenomena:

In the early 1980s, the Rebbe began talking much more about the messianic idea in Judaism. Moshiach moved from the realm of ideas to the reality of a full-blown campaign, from tradition to buzzword.

I was studying in Yeshiva at the time and it had all the look and feel of an electric storm. The sense of empowerment was awesome—the whole world stood on a precipice and any one push could carry it over the threshold. And the tension only magnified from year to year.

I was puzzled, however, by the cold reaction in much of the Jewish community. For many, the term "moshiach" had almost left the lexicon. Statements were made to the effect that messianism just was not a Jewish idea!

How could Moshiach, so central to Jewish destiny, have become alien to Jewish thought? Today, in retrospect, I can understand: Torah life, in the 300 or so years of reaction to the "enlightenment" and assimilation, had become tradition centered—to the point of abandoning the other pole. The purpose of that tradition had been buried in its dust. Jews had come to identify Judaism with preserving the past. So when someone now discussed moving towards a future, to that mindset it sounded alien and downright dangerous.

Twenty years later, everyone talks of Moshiach—including those who were so stunned by the idea 20 years ago. The danger is that this too can become another traditional, quaint legend. We can all sit quietly, minding our own business, believing that eventually the Moshiach is going to come due to our being so good.

True, it is beyond the scope of us human beings to transform the world so radically on our own. As the Maharal of Prague writes, there is a certain inescapably supernatural element to our messianic belief. But—and perhaps this is another of those paradoxes—that never freed us from doing all that is in our power to turn the world on its head. And how do we turn the world on its head? As our tradition teaches us: By opening the floodgates until the deepest wisdom of the Torah is made accessible to every human mind, and by carrying that wisdom into acts of beauty and caring for life and for our planet. Proactively, with guts and with savvy.

By tradition we are the bearers of that torch. And the world awaits us to carry it high once more.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Matthew Levine London, UK April 7, 2005

Many thanks for your article. It brings to mind an extraordinary mathematical object called the Mandelbrot Set, discovered by French mathematical Benoit Mandelbrot around 1980. Without going into technicalities, it is a set of numerical values which stay within limits (whereas all other values are said to 'tend to infinity'). (See eg:

But where is the boundary? You have to zoom in on it, by repeating or 'iterating' an equation to approximate ever-more closely to it. As you do, you see such incredible beauty and variety of form. Perhaps it is similar with the Torah and Jewish history. We start with an 'equation', the written Torah, that we 'iterate' through the dimension of time, constantly refining halacha. Progress is indeed based on tradition, because the Set keeps repeating itself (but never exactly the same way). And progress can be endless yet still remain within a clear boundary.

Roland P. Young Brooklyn, NY April 7, 2005

The Clarity of Paradox Thank you for your concise and illuminating article. Paradox lies at the essence of a Jewish spirituality and practice. Ain Sof as the all encompassing no-thingness. Unchanging parshas which change every time you read them, the was that has passed, the future that never will be and the perpetual present. What great paradoxes of an evolving Judaism, a force for change grounded in the preservation of Torah. Moshiach to come must have been and is now as all that was, and is will be. Reply

Lee R Tracy Los Angeles, CA April 4, 2005

Perfect Timing As much as I try to embrace new mitzvot each year as I develop a deeper Jewish practice, I often dismiss other mitzvot as merely "tradition," without modern meaning and value. But I have found itimpossible to fairly dismiss tradition without learning each one and practicing it first. I learned this most recently while putting together a haggadah for this year. I have traditional components and adding complementary readings and explanation. In the "concise" haggadahs I've seen, the Five Wise Rabbis story is tossed in with no explanation. After a few years of thinking "how random!" and moving on, I decided to find out why the story was there. And I found that there are many layers of importance and meaning in what I initially thought was an odd little tangential story that was just kept out of habit. It's both reassuring and scary to realize that the mizvot and traditions I have yet to embrace are the same-- deeply meaningful and vital while easy to dismiss as mere "tradition." Reply

Elchonon Kranz April 4, 2005

Dear Tzvi,

I have trouble relating to some of what you are saying. I grew up in "Frum Brooklyn" in the 1970s in a non-Lubavitch home attending a non-Lubavitch school. Many of my friends, Rebbaim, Parents & relatives spoke passionately about the arrival of Moshiach. Why are you saying that until the Rebbe's Moshiach campiegn Jews reacted coldly to the idea ?

For me, there are many valuable chiddushim in the Rebbe's teachings about Moshiach. But that doesn't diminish the reality that many Jews were waiting & are waiting with or without knowledge of these chiddushim.

Perhaps the "reserve" & "caution" that you experienced was not a coldness to Moshiach, but psychological measures not to fall under the sway of a "false Moshiach". Jewish history had too many sad dissapointments in this area. Reply