Thursday, April 5, 2007

Not Doing When Justified – So Prove It

Best-est Friend-

For generations Reform Judaism has asked its adherents to be active and social people of character. It has called upon its followers to do good and act justly. But it hasn't asked them to perform meaningless acts of ritual that have lost meaning over time. Because of this Reform Judaism has grown and been able to expand to fit the needs of modernity.

I disagree with your statement “the idea that sacrifice having nothing to do with the elevation of our spirit is a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice." That is why sacrifice isn't done now and we shouldn't be working for the coming of the next Temple. The idea of the "Temple," where all people will work together and live in peace, is wonderful.

But a return to a hierarchical structure where folks with the correct linage will lead the Jewish people would make a majority of the men in your Yeshiva pretty upset. For when Steven Cohen of Fairlawn, NJ (a non-kosher non-shomer-shabbos type) comes to the Temple, he will have more access than rosh yeshiva thus destroying all of his holier than thou platform.

The act of taking on responsibility from within creates a much more personal and mature connection with tradition. By simply praying for something you want, use for example the Temple or the Messiah, and not actively pursuing it in a way that is based in the reality in which we live, is as if you are acting as a child.

So to borrow from your parent example, say you want something that your parents don't want to give you, so you sit and hope that it comes your way. You could however do something that would be pleasing to your parents to gain favor. You clean your room. You wash the dishes. You do your homework. (All of these things are logical and necessary obligations given to you by your parents.)

This will bring about two things, your work will be done and you have a better chance to get what you want. But if you don't do the actual work to fulfill some of your responsibility, then you are stuck without anything at all. Same goes with religion.

I would love to see a time when the Messiah comes and we all live in peace and such. Odds are slim. So I will work hard, by taking responsibility to make the world better. Is this selfish as you say? Sure and I don't care if it is. I want to live in a better world and I want my children to live in a better world. Period.

Will the world be a better place if I welcome the stranger and visit the sick? Yes. Will the world be better if I keep the lights off on Saturday or not use a razor during the Omer? No, I will be in the dark and hairy.

You say "God, being infinite, doesn't gain from you sacrificing anything. But in the act of sacrificing an animal the intended pyschological [sic] implication is that you are a human and are falable [sic]. You've made a mistake, a sin of some sort, and want to repent in hopes of bettering yourself." This idea is inconsistent with most accounts of reasons for sacrifices and commandments. Why are we doing anything according to rules if God is infinite and un-needing? And why are we selfishly killing an animal for our own good if not for the benefit of God?

We pray for ourselves, for our people, for the world, and for God. Prayer took the place the sacrifice and the idea of scapegoating in favor of creating a version of self-reflection and acceptance of responsibility. This was both because the Temple was destroyed and that it was a logical next step in the evolution (or reform) of Judaism. There is evidence that prayer was taking place in synagogues even before the destruction of the Second Temple.

I say we need to make educated choices of how we engage in our comandedness and how we work towards creating a better world. The idea that placing the onus of our responsibility into the blood of an animal to wash away your sins is barbaric and juvenile. Moving on and growing up past our younger states is what the Judaism I know is all about. This is why on Yom Kippor we may pray for forgiveness but only are forgiven for the sins when we apologize to those whom we have sinned against.

Now if you argue that this isn't really Judaism, then I say you are only looking at what you were told at Yeshiva and not thinking about it.


Anonymous said...

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Best-est friend said...

To quote you: “For generations Reform Judaism has asked its adherents to be active and social people of character. It has called upon its followers to do good and act justly. But it hasn't asked them to perform meaningless acts of ritual that have lost meaning over time.” Every religion, every political party, every organization at its core has this same request of its people. The only difference between all the groups is how they define what active, social, good and just is. Even Hitler thought he was doing good. Killing the Jews, according to Nazism was an act of justice and was looked at as “good” as they were ridding the world of consciousness in order to restore humanity to the laws of the animal kingdom...or so the idea went. I wouldn’t dare be as bold or inflammatory to compare Reform Judaism to Nazism, but please understand that I’m taking it to the extreme to make a point.

The question then becomes how do we define what is right and what is wrong? The Reform Jewish movement, from my understanding of your writings, seems to be concerned with getting rid of rituals and customs that have lost their “meaning” in today’s modern society. The problem I have with this is quite simple: who decides what has meaning or not? Is it the head rabbis of the Reform movement? How do they decide? Is it simply a matter of looking at the surrounding society and seeing what they value and adjusting to their ways? In other words - killing animals for the sake of sacrifice is selfish in today’s society so we’re going to drop that. Well, all killing of animals is selfish when you think about it. We, as humans, are completely capable of surviving as vegetarians and even vegans with a carefully balanced diet. So the only reason we eat meat is because we selfishly want the pleasure of tasting an animal’s flesh. How is that any different from killing an animal for another selfish reason? So really, you see, all killings of animals have a selfish basis, and if you shouldn’t kill animals for selfish reasons than the entire world should become vegetarian by your argument. And since I know you and know you’re not a vegetarian - what is your response?
What criteria do they use to pass judgement on whether or not something is meaningful in today’s society? To take this idea a step further...what happens when society changes yet again and decides to do something that we would consider radical in terms of Jewish thought? Take for example the idea that stealing is okay. We’re, in fact, not very far from stealing being legalized on higher levels of the social circles. Major mergers, manipulative tactics to get companies to sell at half their value, corporate take overs are a normal part of ever day life in America and in fact on an international scale. We’re really not too far from the mentality that in a Capitalist society it’s every man for himself and you have to take what you can regardless of the tactics necessary. Some people already embody this line of thinking but, thank God, this has not yet become a national mentality. But what if it did? What if stealing became legalized or on a more practical level impossible or even improbable to prosecute effectively? We hear lawyers saying things like possession being nine tenths of the law so this idea really isn’t that far fetched. So what then? Does the Reform Jewish movement say that we can throw out that one of the ten commandments? I could draw parallel examples for several things including murder, adultery, rape...the list really doesn’t end. But perhaps it’s not up to the Rabbis it’s up to the individuals. Well
Or, conversely, is it left up to the individual to decide what is meaningful to them? If the latter is the case, is there a line that is drawn as to what is appropriate or not? After all, if it’s left up to me as a person to decide what is right and wrong and every law in the Torah is up for debate on a personal level than I can chose to kill, I can chose to rape, steal, even burn the Torah as a form of rebellion and it would be okay by that line of thinking. But I’m fairly certain that the reform movement isn’t about to condone killing or burning the Torah - even though on a practical level that does no physical harm to anyone. The idea of people making their own personal decisions of what is right and what is wrong actually provokes a much bigger question: If it’s up to me why do I even need to belong to an organization at all? I’m curious to see the reasoning in this, and I’m sure you have one. I mean if we don’t need to be told what is inherently right and wrong than why go to temple at all? Why ask rabbis for advice, or turn to the Torah at all? Why not just figure it out on your own?

The Orthodox Jewish mentality is that all men, regardless of how educated they are or even how holy they are, do and will continue to make mistakes - going back to the idea of Moses hitting the rock. Nothing is infinite but God. So if you want to know what is ultimately good and evil there is only one source that is reliable - that which NEVER makes a mistake - namely an infinite source or God. So we follow rules because we can’t understand everything that is good for us. Just like a child might not understand what is or is not good for him, a parent sets up rules in the best interest of the child.

Going to your criticism of my parent analogy - that in order to get things his way, a child should engage in practical application like cleaning their room or what a great point and is in fact very much in line with Torah true thinking. That’s why it is a sin for an Orthodox Jew to do NOTHING but pray. Giving away 10% of their income to charity, inviting strangers in for food, helping others. This is all within the idea of Tikun Olam. But if what you’re asking for is not good for you the answer God will give you will always be no. Or another way of saying it is that God answers ALL prayers, it’s just that some if not most are answered with a no. Going back one last time to the parent example - let’s say a child wants to cut his left arm off. He’s left handed and hates not fitting in with his right handed friends so he decides that if he cut off his left arm he would be forced to use his right arm and become right handed and then fit in with the crowd. Now, I would hope, that no matter how well that child cleans his room, no matter how many times he brushes his teeth, helps his siblings with their chores, or does whatever the parents ask him to do that the parents would never let him cut off his arm.

To address a couple more of your well thought out points:
“Will the world be a better place if I welcome the stranger and visit the sick? Yes. Will the world be better if I keep the lights off on Saturday or not use a razor during the Omer? No, I will be in the dark and hairy.”

There are two points here.

1) keeping the lights off on Saturday
2) using a razor
First of all, you don’t have to keep the lights off on Saturday and in fact most religious Jews don’t leave all their lights off on Saturday. The idea is to not turn the lights on or off. You can keep some on you can keep some off. There’s even a great little mini light that doesn’t require a switch but is on a pole that you can turn to hide the light and that’s totally Kosher. The idea of keeping Shabbos isn’t about not doing work, it’s about stopping all creative activity of your own so you can appreciate God’s creation. So if you’re turning on or off the light you’re getting in the way of reflecting on God’s creation of night and day and how great it is to have time for your body to rest and your eyes to naturally close under the shade of night. But in today’s society where we can sleep with closed windows through part of the day there’s no reason to keep all the lights off. There’s an old expression that says those who don’t eat chulunt on Shabbos are suspicious of not being Jewish. The reason being that people who don’t eat chulunt are saying that you’re not supposed to use fire on Shabbos - they’re not analyzing the text with Oral law. The law is not to use fire, but to start a fire. So if you start it before Shabbos there’s no reason not to enjoy the benefit of fire in the form of chulunt. So someone who doesn’t enjoy Chulunt doesn’t value Jewish Oral Law which, as we’ve seen through history, is one of the four major components of what makes a Jew a Jew - an idea beyond the scope of this post.

To address the second point of using a razor. You asked if the world would be a better place if you didn’t use a razor on the Omer. The answer is of course not when you ask it in those simple terms, but let’s rephrase the question to understand the real reason for not shaving. Are you valuing your hair or your physical appearance so much so that it dictates the way you live your life? Will the world be better if you shave or don’t shave? No. Will the world be worse if everyone puts their physical appearance as their first priority? Absolutely.
The idea is to keep in mind that you are not your body, the body is temporary and houses the soul. So to obsess about something as temporary as the body or better yet youthful appearance so much so that everything else comes second is a terrible mistake that will lead to great depression. How many of us in Los Angeles have spent time talking to a man or a woman so obsessed with their own appearance that they don’t have anything of value to add to a conversation? It’s a very sad fact that I’ve come across many people who put their physical appearance before their own happiness and become anorexic, take steroids, or go on crazy diets to try to fit in with the modern idea of what physical beauty is. How many couples who get married based on physical attraction alone find that there love disappears as gravity takes its tole on the body and their partner looks very little like they did on their wedding day?

The last thing I want to address was something that was a bit offensive to me. I know, since we’re great friends, that you would never want to offend me and for the most part I find these little debates very respectful and in fact lots of fun but when you said the Rosh Yeshiva has a holier than thou platform I thought you went a bit too far.

To be reasonable and fair, you’ve never met the Rosh Yeshiva. And in the small amount of time I spent with him and the few lectures I had the pleasure of attending, I found that he never put anyone down, never made anyone feel badly for not being more religious and only wanted the best for anyone Jewish or non-Jewish who walked through the Yeshiva. He’s of the mentality, like most Orthodox Jews that Judaism is nothing more than a way of life that teaches you how to get the best out of life. If you found the cure for cancer you’d share it with the world, wouldn’t you? The Torah, in traditional Jewish terms, is the solution for everything. Depression, business affairs, marriage, health - everything can be found in the Torah. So if you have the secrets of life it’s only fair to share it with those who want to listen to it. For those who don’t want it, there was never a sense of force. There were, in fact, people who came into the Beis hamidrash without a yarmulke and nothing was said to them. One of my first days there someone asked if I would like to put on Tfillin and I said no - there was no argument. In fact, there were several rabbis I had the pleasure of talking to who disagreed with the Rosh Yeshiva on several sociological and political points and he ALWAYS respected their opinion when it was well thought out and fair. So the idea of this “holier than thou platform” is a bit unreasonable. I’m not angry with you for saying so but I would prefer if you would really ask yourself if you are being fair when you make such emotional statements without any basis of intellect. The Torah makes a clear point that you can never kill a man if not to save yourself or another, regardless of who he is. Jewish or non-Jewish, a criminal or a saint. We can never know the personal struggle someone is going through so we can never judge how many obstacles they have to overcome and therefore we cannot assume that any one person is holier than another. This was something I had the pleasure of learning from the Rosh Yeshiva and I think it perfectly illustrates his humility and the humility of just about everyone I met in my short time in Jerusalem.

Finally, I can’t tell you how great it is to engage in a very logical debate with a respectful Reform Jew who truly understands the philosophy of the movement. Unfortunately, I’ve had a hard time finding such a person elsewhere. I hope we keep this up.