Friday, August 29, 2014

Parsha Shoftim: "Faith in G-d" Is Not Supposed to Translate Into Passivity or Complacency

Just have faith in G-d. G-d knows what's best for you. G-d wouldn't give you a test you couldn't handle. This is G-d's will. There are many Christians, and even some Jews, who fall for this paradigm. When something bad happens, G-d is testing you and you just have to "keep the faith." I find this annoying for enough reasons, some of which I will elucidate upon in this blog entry. For those who hold this theological view, we come across what can arguably be a prooftext in this week's Torah portion:

תמים תהיה עם הי אלהיך.
You shall be wholehearted [perfect in faith] with G-d. -Deuteronomy 18:13

The word תמים can be tricky to translate. It can mean wholehearted, blameless, or perfect. It can even mean "simple." Since it is not clear, let's look at some rabbinic commentary to clear up the context of the verse. According to Rashi, this means that you should follow G-d with complete trust, without feeling a need to know what will happen. Sforno and Nachmanides follow suit by saying that Israel should have complete faith in G-d, and given the previous verse, relying on soothsayers and sorcery is subsequently idiotic (Deuteronomy 18:12). Here it is: Deuteronomy 18:13, the supposed license to passively accept what happens around us, good or bad, as G-d's will.

Let's not even get into the notion that the idea of passivity and submission does not fit within the greater context of Judaism. Take a look at the beginning of this week's Torah portion at Deuteronomy 16:18. There is a reason why the Torah portion is called Shoftim. We have judges to make rulings. We are told the ever-famous צדק צדק תרדף, or "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (ibid., 16:20). We are not meant to sit back and accept what happens to us. Otherwise, what would be the point of having humanly courts to adjudicate wrongs committed? As the prophet Isaiah said (1:17), "Learn to do good, seek justice, aid the oppressed. Uphold the rights of the orphan, defend the cause of the widow." As R. Abraham Joshua Heschel points out, צדק צדק תרדף means that we must actively pursuit justice, and we need to do so by just means (Simcha Bunem) because the ends don't justify the means.

Judaism is not the opiate of the masses. We are meant to be agents of justice in this world. If the Talmud (Moed Katan 29a) is correct in saying that "the righteous have no rest, neither in this world nor the next," then what does it mean to be תמים? What Rashi is saying in his commentary on Deuteronomy 18:13 is to accept the present as it is. The juxtaposition with the verses about soothsaying, sorcery, and prognosticating makes much more sense now. Why do people feel the need to go to a psychic or a soothsayer? Answer: they are anxious about the uncertainty that the future begins. These supposedly psychic individuals bring false hope into peoples' lives by thinking these individuals have some divinity or clairvoyance to accurately predict the future. Neither the commentary nor the verse says that you have to like everything that happens to you or that it's ideal. I don't think Abraham was completely okay with having to leave the homeland he knew his entire life, nor was he too thrilled about having to sacrifice his son. In our own time, we don't even have to happily accept our travails or rough patches. We are meant to function in spite of the uncertainties that are bound to exist.

This is what is meant to be תמים. Faith is not blind acceptance, but rather the ability to develop a sense of equanimity. This does not mean that we aren't going to have our off-days or have emotional angst (quite the opposite, actually). This doesn't mean we have to like everything that happens. This doesn't mean we should stop actively pursuing a better future or stop caring. It means that we develop a certain internal calm amidst the craziness of life. If we are to be whole, it means that we accept what is going around us and emotionally making the best of it. Looking at ourselves and being wholehearted, it also means to stand before G-d with both your faults and virtues because we have to realize that no one is perfect. Ultimately, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about the future, but rather that we should do it with the calmness of knowing who we are and our current situation. By working towards that equanimity can we develop a true sense of wholeheartedness with G-d.

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