One of the problems Jewish education has had for the last 1500 years or so is a lack of priority in studying the Bible. The Torah gets memorized, to be sure, but once Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, ascends Har Nevo for the last time interest quickly falls off. Some books have reamined popular, like the five megillos and Tehillim, while other parts are familiar because they are found in a haftarah somewhere. But huge chunks of the Bible never get read, other than as disjointed verses which appear to prove a legal point or two in the Talmud.
This is a terrible shame since, as my father loves to say repeatedly, you can learn how to do Judaism from the Talmud but you have to read the Bible to know how God wants you to be a Jew.
One of the main books that prove this point is the book of Yirmiyahu, Jeremiah. If there's one book that warns us in the modern day of the dangers of complacency and false piety, it's Yirmiyahu. From warnings against political disunity to a reminder that God's protection is not unconditional and that we have to earn His respect and guidance, Yirmiyahu hammers away at misconceptions that still plague us today. As this article notes:
From this it is easy enough to discern where Lau locates Jeremiah's contemporary relevance. The state of Israel is weighed down today by serious social problems, from the status of foreign workers to forced prostitution—problems often pushed aside by the need to focus on the country's strategic situation. Among some, there is also a kind of insouciance about the country's supposed indestructibility, an attitude no less superstitious than the ancient dependence on the Temple. As Lau notes toward the end of his book:
There are still false prophets in Jerusalem proclaiming, "We have a tradition from our forefathers that the third commonwealth [i.e., the state] won't be destroyed." Their function is to put us to sleep and make us forget our weighty responsibility: to be deserving of this house.
Lau's Jeremiah is thus a rabbi's warning against national and/or religious self-confidence divorced from a social conscience and the commitment to moral excellence. In one sense, it may be said (though Lau doesn't say it) that his warning goes to the heart of the modern project itself, and to the war waged by hard-boiled thinkers like Machiavelli and Hobbes to emancipate politics from theology. Reversing the trajectory, Lau's Jeremiah reconnects the two by implying that their disconnection was what doomed the Jewish state in the first place. In this sense, his warning is pertinent to contemporary situations, and dilemmas, well beyond the state of Israel.
More specifically, though, Jeremiah constitutes a challenge to Zionist and religious-Zionist pieties. Among secular Israelis, interest in the Bible has waned with the passing of the heroic phase of the Zionist revolution. Meanwhile, within the religious-Zionist camp, a battle has been waged between those who would read the Bible "at eye-level"—meaning, on its own terms and without the mediating presence of traditional commentaries, and those who consider it forbidden to read the text without the aid of those commentaries.
Yirmiyahu reminds us that it is not enough to go through the motions of doing Jewish. He repeatedly informs us that the first Jewish state was not destroyed because women wore denim skirts, the children watched television, or that people didn't wait long enough between meat and milk. The state was destroyed because of theft, violence, murder and marital immorality. It was destroyed because people saw God the way a child sees Him - give Him a gift and He has to give you what you want. It's okay to sin. Just remember to bring a sacrifice to Him afterwards and He has to forgive you. The Torah says so!
Is that so different from many in the religious community today who countenance theft, pedophilia and political corruption but turn around and shout about their piety when it comes to tznius and avoiding the temptations of secular culture? What would Yirmiyahu say to them today? How would they respond? With the same dismissiveness and violence that our ancestors treated him with?
There is no question that every single mitzvah in the Torah is of inestimable value and that a Judaism that bypasses some in order to emphasize others is incomplete and improper. The Reform Jew who works hard at giving charity and what he thinks is tikun olam while not keeping Shabbos or kashrus is not doing well. The religious Jew who only eats mehadrin food and waits two hours extra for havdala but cheats his employees and on his wife is no different.
But if we are to emphasize what is absolutely necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, then some things do rise to the surface. Decency, honesty, respect for our difference and for one another. An acceptance that while the halacha is binding it is deep and multi-faceted so that there is rarely only one answer to an important question. But most importantly, a constant remembering that God is above us, watching our actions and hoping for us to do well. Like children desiring to please a parent, we too muc always remember that what we do is for our good and to please Him, not the guy watching us through the blinds across the street. This is the message of Yirmiyahu and one that needs to be preached again in our day.