Jewish Mysteries- A Look Back

I was looking through the Archives and came across this and thought that I’d share it with you all. New stuff to come.

I am an independent in many ways including both politics and religion. Every now and then someone decides to take a swipe at me because they think that I pick and choose.

For example, I don’t keep Kosher, but I would never drink a glass of milk with meat. There are other examples, but I don’t want to make this post about me but about the mysteries of Judaism.

That is the term that I used when speaking with a friend about his kollel and their outreach program to unaffiliated Jews/Jews who are unhappy with their shul. But it really is most applicable to Jews who do not have a real strong Jewish education and their approach to Judaism.

What I mean by this is that Judaism is highly sophisticated and filled with layers and layers of ritual and for a lack of a better term obligations/responsibilities that we usually refer to as the 613 mitzvot.

Add to that the minhagim (customs) that have been acquired over the centuries and many people do not know whether the things that they do are based upon minhag or halacha and even if they do they often do not know why they are being asked to do them.

Consequently there are many mitzvot that are not followed because people do not feel/see the connection and or reason for them to do it. You cannot tell someone who does not know if they believe in G-d that this being/person/creature has commanded them to do anything and expect that they are just going to do it. And you especially cannot expect a thinking adult to engage without provding them with substance and reason for why they should do whatever it is you are asking them to do.

So what you end up with is a group of people who look at the mitzvot/commandments and see them as being optional. Earlier this week Mirty wrote about her feelings when she accidentally ate something that was treif. I thought that it was interesting because my heart tells me that I should be keeping Kosher but my brain says why.

My head wants to know what is the reason. What does it do? I already know that lightning will not come out of the sky and strike me down if I do not. I know that if I drive on Shabbos I am not going to be stoned. I know that if I commit an aveirah I am probably, more than likely going to be ok.

And what this means is that I have to search harder for a reason to stop my behavior and change. I need more than just because. I need something that speaks to me and thus far I haven’t found it and I am someone who searches for answers.

Take me out of the equation and go back to the person who has little to no background. Now stick them in shul and watch how many of them squirm because they do not understand what is going on, why we bow at some times and not at others. They stumble through mechayei meytim without any idea about the hours of thought and discussion that those words created, they do not understand what they do but go because of guilt.

I watch and listen because even though I can say that I received a solid Jewish education it has some holes in it and there are places that are more like gaps. I watch because this time of year is a huge struggle for me. It makes me crazy, I go meshugah because I feel like my heart and head are in two different places. My heart says to just go with the feeling, follow the passion and daven because it will take me to where I need to be and my head scoffs at this.

My head laughs at superstition and takes a simple position of trying to be a good person. Be a good person, teach your children, give back to your community and do what you can to be a mensch and everything will work out.

I’ll go to shul and I’ll wrestle with being there. I’ll think about the streets of Yerushalayim and the hike I took in Yosemite. I’ll go to the bathroom and be distracted by beautiful women, by watching the young children look up in awe at their parents and by the sound of people davening. I’ll sit down and consider the mysteries of Judaism and ask myself how much I really know and realize that my depth of knowledge is good, but never enough. I’ll shake my head and feel like I’ll never be satisfied and then I’ll sigh.

And in between and throughout all of it I’ll come here and write a post that started out with a serious nature and just became a stream of consciousness and wonder if I really said anything or made sense to anyone.

The New Year is coming and I feel unsettled.

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  1. Jack's Shack April 22, 2007 at 6:57 am

    At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves, if it’s true, will I do it even if I don’t find it meaningful.

    There is the rub. If it is true than it is much harder not to do it than if you question its veracity.

    What we do makes us who we are.

    I can agree with that, but as you said that begs the question of why be Jewish.

    You can still be good and moral without being a Jew.

  2. Kol Ra'ash Gadol April 19, 2007 at 4:20 am

    What the deeper question is, is why be Jewish at all?
    But I’ll speak briefly to the surface one… there are some god studies out there that tell us that people for themost part, don’t actually have reasons for what they do; people mostly act by habit or impulse, and then after the fact rationalize their action as a decision. The interestingthing about this, is that if you ask them, they don’t know that they’re doing this – they think that they reasoned it all out first, and then mae a decision, even if at the time they were clearly not doing that.
    So the wisdom of the rabbis is to create asystem that focuses on what we do rather than what we think.
    Thus the intro to the midrash in lamentations says:
    R. Huna and R. Jeremiah said in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba: It is written, They have forsaken Me and have not kept My law (Jer. XVI, 11)–i.e. would that they had forsaken Me but kept My law, since by occupying themselves therewith, the light which it contains would have led them back to the right path.
    R. Huna said: Study Torah even if it be not for its own sake,1 since even if not for its own sake at first it will eventually be for its own sake.

    What we do makes us who we are. If we want to be Jews, the meaning comes out of the action, and in Judaism, the system is holistic, so when we give up parts of it, the whole makes less sense.
    Then, after we are practised at being Jewish, we will draw meaning from it.
    Iwill point to one more thing: when the plagues fall upon Pharoah, after each time, he relents, and then gets a hardened heart, the rabbis struggled with the idea of aGod hardening Pharoah’s heart. Maimonides noted that in fact, the first three times it says that his heart was hardened,a nd then afterwards, it says God hardens pharoah’s heart. Maimonides notes that this is how behavior becomes fixed: people do things on impulse once or twince, and think it will be easy to change their behavior, to turn back the the right path. But after a person has done the same thing a few times, it becomes harder and harder as their habit becomes fixed.
    This is essentially the corollary of the above; choose what path you habituate yourself to, or it will choose you.


  3. rabbi kollel April 18, 2007 at 5:16 am

    I think at the end of the day, that’s really the critical question when it comes to religion. While it’s certainly possible that each person can discover their own personal meaning in the various rituals and commandments, those feelings will come and go, and we certainly won’t be able to find personal meaning in everything. At the end of the day we need to ask ourselves, if it’s true, will I do it even if I don’t find it meaningful. It’s a difficult question, you’re right. But a critical one in a relationship with religion I think.

  4. Jack's Shack April 18, 2007 at 5:12 am

    What is more important, truth or meaning?

    It is a good question. In this context I am not real sure that you can separate the two. I have to think about this a bit more.

  5. rabbi kollel April 18, 2007 at 5:01 am

    What is more important, truth or meaning? I don’t mean to imply that they are necessarily mutually exclusive, but if you have only one, without the other, would that be sufficient? Only one way and not the other?

  6. Jack's Shack April 17, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Hi Shoshana,

    I am glad that you enjoyed it.

  7. shoshana (bershad) April 16, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    OMG, Jack, you have put into words the issues that are consuming me these days! For many years, I was a nonpracticing Conservative and pretty much agnostic. In the past year, I’ve become close to some Chassidic friends, who have opened my eyes to the depth and substance of my own religion. Yet I have such conflicts with regard to prayer and Hashgacha pratis (in view of the Holocaust and other tragedies); I find it very difficult to pray. I think it’s because I have doubt that G-d knows or cares what I do, as an individual. So why keep kosher or observe the other mitzvot? And yet something within me tells me that if I start going through the motions and continue to read and learn about Judaism, I will start to really feel it and want to practice–at least to the standards of a Conservative. It’s almost like someone who has recently met their potential beshert and is on the brink of falling in love. Thanks so much for writing this!

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