“From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed is He, has nothing in His world, except for the four cubits of Halacha.” (Berachot 8a).
This soulful rabbinic reflection is both an expression of grief over Jerusalem’s destruction, and an affirmation of the religious power of halachik study. Only in the places and times where Halacha is being studied, can the Divine Presence that had formerly dwelt in the holy of holies, now be found.
I wonder whether this rabbinic teaching has been taken way too far in our contemporary context, to disastrous effect.
It goes without saying that we don’t actually believe that God has abandoned the vast swaths of world that exist outside of Halacha’s four cubits. Every morning we speak the sacred words, “The One who mercifully gives light to the world and all who inhabit it, and in Whose goodness renews daily the work of creation”. After every meal we acknowledge God who “sustains the entire world in His goodness”. And every Monday and Thursday we plead, “have compassion upon us and upon all of Your creatures”. On Friday nights we even call upon the entire Earth to sing to Him. We definitely believe that God is still everywhere, and that His care and concern continue to be universal.
But it’s impossible, of course, to reconcile this conviction that God’s eyes are everywhere and that His mercies are upon everyone, with the awful behavior of Orthodox Jews that has captured public attention over the past months and years. Unquestionably, many factors contribute to a religious person’s (a religious leader’s) decision to behave illegally and unethically. Greed and base temptation figure in prominently. But we shouldn’t underestimate the mindset which confines God to the beis hamedresh, to the four cubits of the yeshiva and to the “heimishe” community, to the exclusion of the wider world which is populated by those who do not enter the beis hamedresh, or who are not part of the halacha-bound fraternity.
You can’t launder money unless you’ve convinced yourself that God doesn’t really know from the IRS, and doesn’t really care about the beneficiaries of taxpayer-financed government programs. You can’t abuse and manipulate people who are hoping to convert to Judaism unless you’ve concluded that God looks away from the anguish of the non-Jewish “stranger”. You cannot protect men who are utilizing a “get” as an instrument of extortion against their ex-wives unless you believe that women – who in many communities are outsiders to the clique of the beis hamedresh - fall outside God’s concern. And you cannot underpay and otherwise maltreat Guatemalan workers unless you don’t regard them as being God’s creatures in quite the same way that you are.
It’s a disturbing and dangerous sort of arrogance that can arise from a misreading of the Talmud’s statement that God is only found within the four cubits of the yeshiva. If the great contribution that Modern Orthodoxy makes to Orthodox Judaism is to restore the God of Israel also to the world outside the Beit Midrash, and to speak with clarity about what needs to be fixed - dayenu.