Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pirke Avot 6:3: Judaism and How to "Keep it Simple, Stupid!"

K.I.S.S. "Keep it simple, stupid!" For someone who is a public policy wonk such as myself, trust me when I say I have an appreciation for the nuanced and the complex. However, sometimes the best explanation is the simplest, and sometimes, the simplest approach is the one that helps make your life most sane. That thought ran through my mind when I was recently studying Pirke Avot. In Pirke Avot 6:3, there is a discussion about respecting someone who has taught you even a single chapter, word, verse, letter of the Hebrew alphabet, or a single law. It then proceeds to say that "there is no reverence but Torah" (ואין כבוד אלא תורה). One of the proof texts they used was most intriguing:

ותמימים ינחלו טוב.
And the whole-hearted shall inherit good. -Proverbs 28:10

What my chevruta study partner and dear friend pointed out was that the word תמים can also mean "simple person." This would render the verse to say "[and] the simple ones shall inherit good." Going off this interpretation of the word תמימים, there is an equivocation with good and simplicity. In spite of all the nuances in Jewish law, is there something to be said for a simpler Judaism? And my answer to that is a resounding "Yes!" 

At least from my personal experience observing the more observant community, there is a trend in which one worships the halachic system instead of worshiping G-d. The halachic system was always meant to be the means to connecting with G-d, not the end unto itself. I analogize it to the Taoist concept of the Dao (道), or "the way." In Hebrew, the word הלכה (halacha) comes from the root word ללכת (to go). Regardless of how Jewish practice has evolved and continues to evolve, it should keep in mind this concept. R. Nathan Cardozo recently wrote a verbose, but stunningly spot-on critique of Orthodoxy in this vein, in which he says:

Today most of these [Orthodox] communities view themselves as observant, not model communities. An observant community is one that is primarily concerned with religious observance. As such, it views halacha and a proper Orthodox environment to execute its demands as a priority...It lacks the language and spirit necessary to be a model community conveying the great message of Judaism to all other Jews, and even Gentiles.

In being focused on the nuances, it's all too easy to forget the great message of Judaism. I'm not saying that we should necessarily ignore nuances because the world is a nuanced place. We should come to an understanding of the world around us with that in mind. However, we should still remember the simpler points of Judaism that form its profundity. What might those points be?

First is that G-d exists as Infinite Oneness. What does G-d expect from us? Although it is mighty difficult to summarize a religion as complex as Judaism into a sound byte or a single sentence or concept, the Rabbis nevertheless tried. For R. Hillel (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a), it was "What is hateful unto you, do not do unto others. This is the entirety of Torah. Now go and study." For R. Akiva (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 30b), it was "Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). The rest is commentary." The Prophet Micah asked this question. His response? "You shall act justly, love chesed, and walk humbly in all His ways (6:8)." Treating others the way you would want to be treated is a significant part of the great message of Judaism.

It should even play into how we view ritual practice. Ritual practice is not meant to be done for its own sake, but rather to invoke something and transform ourselves. In the Introduction of the Mussar text Orchot Tzaddikim (Path of the Righteous), it states that "if you do not have good traits, you do not have Torah and mitzvahs because all of Torah hinges upon the perfection of one's traits" (וכשאין בידך מדות טובות אין בידך תורה ומצוות כי כל התורה תלויה בתקון המדות). That is why ritualistic practice (בין אדם למקום) requires a bracha (a blessing, i.e., a statement of intent) before undertaking a mitzvah, and a mitzvah involving interpersonal relations (בין אדם לחברו) does not. Take tefillin as an example. When one wraps the tefillin on around the finger, the following is uttered:

 וארשתיך לי לעולם. וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים. וארשתיך ליבאמונה וידעת את הי.

"And I will betroth you unto me forever. I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, justice, loving-kindness, and compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness, and you shall know G-d." 
-Hosea 2:21-22

Since we are created in G-d's Image and are supposed to act imitatio Dei, we are meant to act in justice and kindness. How we perceive our actions and how we treat others should stem from that idea. If you're donning tefillin and that's not what is running through your mind, you're doing it wrong. If you're obsessing over minutiae such as not eating kitniyot on Passover instead of remembering the spiritual significance of chametz or why celebrating freedom on Passover is important, you're doing it wrong. If you berate and embarrass someone for not covering the challah on Shabbat, even though the purpose of covering the challah is to teach us the importance of not embarrassing the wine (and as an a fortiori inference, not embarrassing other human beings), you're doing it wrong. If you're praying not because it changes you into a better person or makes you more aware of G-d, but because you treat the rote recitation as a magic formula [or even less so], you're not doing it right. If you're not fasting on Yom Kippur because it spiritually awakens you to do teshuvah and to help out others, but because "it's what we've always done" or doing so for the sake of fasting, you're not doing it right. Rituals are a way to moment in time in which we establish a moment of G-dliness. If one's actions are contrary to these simple and basic meta-halachic principles, you're not doing it right.

Regardless of the mitzvah, we should ask ourselves what the greater spiritual meaning behind the mitzvah is instead of acting by rote. We should be able to discern the underlying principle behind what we do. Whatever complexities there might be behind the Jewish law, we should remember why we do what we do and ask ourselves if we are transforming ourselves in the process. In summation, when performing mitzvahs, we should keep it simple.

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