In comparing and contrasting the conventional virtues of modern secular society vis-a-vis those of traditional Judaism, a surface evaluation may suggest a kindred spirit between the two. The modern world sets upon a pedestal the widely-endorsed ideals of dignity, human rights, peace, and progress. As a set of values, these initially seem admirable and proper. However, delving beyond the superficial appearance of such contemporary aims reveals their relative shallowness and unfulfilling nature as ends in and of themselves.
In truth, the differences are essential and stark: Whereas the world is satisfied with dignity, Judaism sees dignity as but the stepping-stone towards sanctity. Whereas peace is hailed as the prize, Judaism sees peace merely as a footstool to lovingkindness. Whereas the world insists upon human rights, Judaism underscores human responsibilities, without which rights are undeserved entitlements. Whereas the civilized world views Man’s supreme achievement as intellectual enlightenment, Judaism demands the edification of character. Whereas society is too often swayed by the eloquence of words, Judaism is only contented with the elegance of good deeds. Whereas people become hysterical for change, Judaism only gets excited about improvement. Whereas the world champions (horizontally-minded) progress, Judaism emphasizes (vertically-minded) elevation. Whereas other religions are preoccupied with salvation for the next world, Judaism focuses on exaltation in this one. While the world congratulates itself for asking the right questions, Judaism requires making right decisions (posing questions without proposing answers is literally what children do; for grown adults, therefore, it is infantile and insufficient).
Lest there be any confusion over what ‘type’ of Judaism is referred to here, it should be underlined that these ideas are fundamental throughout normative Judaism and can be found identically across the religious spectrum, as in the writings of a purely utopian socialist like Aaron David Gordon, or a deeply Orthodox sage like Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. All are agreed that, within human relations, social positiveness comes from the polishing of personal character and transcending individual interests.
Thus, from the perspective of Judaism, modern secular values represent the minimum; they are pit stops mistaken for the finish line. At best, they are mid-point markers, part of the journey but far from the ultimate destination. At worst, they are the least inconveniences which a lazy, self-centered civilization is willing to experience to assuage its collective conscience.
Indeed, Judaism is paradoxical, for it believes in liberation through restraints, in freedom through burden. It urges upon naturally selfish mankind the voluntary yoke of self-refinement. It is the constant summoning to a higher standard. By calling for discipline and selflessness, Judaism encourages the exalting of one’s essence to the utmost degree…and believes it offensive to humanity’s innate spiritual splendor to settle for anything less than the continuous attempt thereof. Judaism is elitist in the best sense, while modern secular values are those of mediocrity.
Seen from this viewpoint, it is a wonder that the values of Judaism and modern society could have ever been seen as comparable, for they are actually as distant from each other as stars from city lights.