Monday, March 24, 2014

Pirkei Avot 3:13: Jewish Ethics > Jewish Rituals

Judaism has a reputation for being a religion of nuance and complexity. Looking at Jewish texts such as the Talmud or Shulchan Aruch, you can see nitpicking and attention to the smallest detail. That can help explain the adage of "two Jews, three opinions." With a religion that can be as complicated as Judaism, one would think that succinctly summarizing the essence of Judaism would be difficult. Some of the rabbis of yore have tried. Hillel summarized Judaism on one foot by saying "Do not do others as you would have done unto yourself. The rest is commentary (Talmud, Shabbat 31a)." Rabbi Akiva (Sanhedrin 38a) used the positive dictum of "love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18)" as the guiding principle of Judaism. In a similar vein, this mishnah reaffirms this underlying message:

כל שרוח הבריות נוחה הימנו רוח המקום נוחה הימנו. 
וכל שאין רוח הבריות נוחה הימנו אין רוח המקום נוחה הימנו.

If the spirit of one's fellow is pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is pleased with him; but if the spirit of one's fellows is not pleased with him, the spirit of the Omnipresent is not pleased with him. -Pirke Avot 3:13

What R. Chanina ben Dosa was illustrating here is the importance of making an impact on the light of another. The ethical, interpersonal mitzvot are a directive from G-d to take care of His children. This would extend to all of His children, not just His Jewish ones, hence the usage of the word בריות. I also found it interesting to see what was not listed, and that is the more ritualistic aspects of Judaism, such as Shabbat or keeping kosher.

This is not to say that ritual does not have a role in Judaism. Rituals are a way in which Jews connect to G-d. Rituals are actions that define the particularistic aspect of Judaism. Rituals are supposed to invoke something in us and help us connect to G-d. However, as I've argued before, rituals are the means to a more spiritual life; rituals are not performed for their own sake. If rituals are meant for us to get closer to G-d, then much like parents who is most proud when their children get along with another, the best form of knowing that we're doing a good job is G-d being pleased about how His children treat their fellow human beings.

But if mitzvahs between G-d and men (בין אדם למקום), as well as mitzvahs between man and man (בין אדם לחברו), are both directives from G-d, why would the latter be the one that causes G-d to be pleased with us?

While both are directives of G-d, when an interpersonal mitzvah is violated, it's a double violation. With interpersonal mitzvahs, it's a proverbial smack in G-d's face [because a directive has been violated] and it harms another individual, and that individual is created in G-d's image. Interpersonal mitzvahs are the way that one can be both good in the eyes of G-d and man (Proverbs 3:4). Look at how atonement on Yom Kippur works (Chavot Yair). To atone for one's sins that are בין אדם למקום, one has to recite Kol Nidre. For sins that are בין אדם לחברו, however, G-d will only forgive those sins if the individual seeks forgiveness from the one that has been wronged. The way that we make teshuvah for our sins in Jewish practice should tell us plenty about which one is more important in G-d's eyes.

If we want to connect to G-d, one of the best ways to do so would be to do that which makes Him happy, and that is because a sound metric of a relationship's success, whether that relationship is with family, friends, or G-d, can be measured by the extent to which one is pleased with the other in the relationship. From what we have here, how we treat fellow beings is more important than ritual, and if G-d is pleased when we act ethically, that should give us pause as to how we should view our Judaism.    

No comments:

Post a Comment