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Balancing Process and Purpose—Part I

By Fred Treuhaft  |  Oct 31, 2013

A few weeks ago, I was having breakfast with my good friend, Pete Silverman.   When it was my turn to order, I asked for my usual, scrambled eggs with cheese and ham.   Pete lit up at this and proclaimed “Fred, come on, ham?  meat with cheese?   These aren’t kosher!   Not halacha (Jewish law)!”  This lead to our discussion on following the ritual or process of being Jewish, with the purpose of being Jewish.   Now you have to understand, Pete has been encouraging me to write this so he can respond.   You will find that he will be extremely thoughtful with many references to commentary and Jewish law.   My thoughts are mine, sorry Pete, and how I choose to  live my life.

I talk and write often about these two intertwined subjects.   Can you have process without purpose?  And can you have purpose without a process?   When I think of my religion, the process would be formal ritual and the laws of daily living.   But what of purpose?  While most  can speak of many of the rituals, can they speak of purpose?   Not the “How”  but the “Why”?

I have thought throughout my life about purpose.   The “Why” of being Jewish.   Perhaps this is how my brain works as compared to others, but, it does guide me as I live my life.   Even still, I do appreciate the process of the religion.   First let me share purpose.   To me, the central theme revolves around Tikkun Olam, which translates to “repairing the world”.  Tikkun Olam is the covenant between Abraham and G_d.  The promise that G_d would make the Jewish people chosen if they forever committed to make the world better, not for them, but for all.   Now to understand this, one has to understand that chosen doesn’t mean special or better, but, chosen for this purpose.   Never to forget, never to drift, never to cease trying to enhance life for all.   This is not about choice, this is a contract that carries over from generation to generation.

On a daily basis how do I strive to fulfill my responsibility of Tikkun Olam?   Through Tzedakah, Gemilut Chasadim, and Mitzvot.  What do these mean?   Many people think of Tzedakah as charity or philanthropy.  This is not the case.  Tzedakah is responsibility.   Where charity is a choice, tzedakah is not.   Tithing is an example of this.   Allocating a set portion of one’s salary allows a sharing of the fruits of one’s labor, similar to the farmer of times past, leaving 10% of their crop in the field for those in need.   It is our responsibility and not a choice.

Gemilut Chasadim is living a life with “acts of living kindness”.   Looking at the interactions with others,  those with challenges or other needs and seeking to understand the good in all people and actively treating all people with kindness.

Mitzvot are good deeds.   Being both Jewish and a Boy Scout, I have this covered from every angle.   Good deeds can be large or small.   Anything from calling my mother daily to helping those in crisis.   The key is good deeds should be part of daily life and done with intent.

Can I live my life as a “good Jew” by living and practicing these?   Or, does ritual and intricate laws dictate this?   Following the rules of kashrut, Jewish dietary laws, requires discipline.  The discipline of process and fulfilling G_d’s commandments and halacha interpretation throughout the ages.   The discipline of ritual, daily, for major and minor holidays and for weekly Shabbat.   This discipline becomes routine and routine becomes habit.   Certainly our forefathers recognized that the discipline and comfort that arose from this would allow the traditions to pass from generation to generation.    However, have we become so focused on the requirements of ritual and routine that we neglect the understanding of purpose?

An analogy of process and purpose could be the physical states of water, which there are three.  Steam or vapor, liquid and solid, ice.    Purpose often is like vapor.  Difficult to contain, taking many forms, and easily dispersed.  While process if more like the solid, ice.   It can be molded, formed and stays in it’s state for a period of time.  The solid is easier to see and understand and can be replicated.   This is where balance comes in.   Should we just focus on the discipline of ritual alone?  Or should we ensure that there is a solid understanding of core purpose?    Should this core purpose be subject to individual interpretation?  Or should generations of thinkers and teachers guide and mold thought?  Like water, it should move between states as we age, grow and understand.

Many years ago, I attended a Shabbaton, which is sort of like a think tank weekend for Jewish brainstorming and studying.  It was for the CLAL organization, a progressive group within the Jewish world.   I conveyed these ideas to a young Jewish Rabbi who was part of the program.   I was amazed with his response of “Fred, if you want to share these type of ideas, first go to Israel and study for many years, then we can talk about this!”.   Needless to say, that was the last Shabbaton I attended.   This is not to speak negatively about this person, but, to recognize that the journey toward purpose has many stops of teaching.   Each of us learn and understand differently and over different periods of life.  To get to a destination of purpose does require a journey and a discipline of process, however, balancing both, will increase that many will reach the destination and more than one route perhaps can be taken.

What People Are Saying

So much to say…

I. God

Let's start with God. He's not discussed in your piece. But my hunch is you'd agree that religion is partly about him.

There's certainly something mysterious about our existence. Did the world begin? How? What was there before? Where does space end? Why is there something rather than nothing?

At a more personal level, do you ever feel a connection to something beyond you? Do you sense you have a soul?

I can't tell you there's a right or wrong answer to these questions. But Judaism — study, prayer, celebration, ritual — gives you tools to explore them. I think this is what you refer to as process, but my sense is you think much higher of it than your essay suggests.

II. Being a good person

You talk about tikkun olam, gemilut chasadim, and tzedakah, basically contributing to our communities, doing kind deeds, and giving charity. You give each of the concepts a Jewish twist, but they’re basically what most everyone would consider being a good person.

If that’s all there is, why do you need Judaism? You could be a Rotarian, Boy Scout, Unitarian, social worker, philanthropist, or volunteer regularly at the homeless shelter. What does the Jewish twist add?

My hunch is that the Jewish twist adds two things that you may feel but haven’t articulated. One is that in some way you may feel commanded. But if you feel commanded as to these things, why stop there? Are you commanded to do only what everyone agrees is the right thing to do?

Two is you may feel a God-connection in these acts. Judaism says doing commandments is the way we speak to God. It’s as if our parents like us to behave in certain ways and we’re careful to do that around them – it communicates love, respect and caring.

If you do feel commanded and a God-connection in doing the right thing, then I’d suggest you can’t dismiss all the rest of Judaism as mere process. You get that same feeling avoiding ham-and-cheese omelets.

Here’s another problem with just being a good guy. Are you? How much charity should you give, how much time to your community, how many acts of kindness? You’re a very generous guy with your time and money, probably in the top 5%. But should you be in the top 1%? Or perhaps should you take a step back and just be in the top 10%?

I think most of us think God has expectations of us, and that basically we’re hitting his stride. But of course that’s just our own satisfaction with ourselves, and has nothing to do with God.

Judaism offers answers to the questions of how best to serve, but my hunch is that searching out those answers – studying and trying to understand the Torah’s teachings on them – may be part of what you’d consider process.

III. Purpose (plus or without) process

About midway through your essay, you write:

Can I live my life as a "good Jew" by living and practicing these [good deeds]? Or, does ritual and intricate laws dictate this?

I expected the answer to be “Sure I can. That’s just what I do and I’m a ‘good Jew.’ I don’t need the rituals and intricate laws.”

But that’s not the answer you gave. Your answer contains the unstated but implied assumption that rituals and laws are important to being a good Jew. I infer this because you write, hedging your thesis, that we should not be “so focused on the requirements of ritual and routine that we neglect the understanding of purpose.”

That’s a classic Jewish position, stated time and time again by the Prophets. Judaism is ritual and law + purpose. That is a far cry, though, from purpose is all there is.

** ** **

So think about sprinkling a little ritual and law on your purpose. Egg white omelets with vegetables and cheese are a fine low-carb meal.

Your friend and admirer Pete

Pete, I have been thinking about your comments. The relationship between me and G_d evolves. Continuing to think, talk and debate about this, in a non-threatening manner, brings a sense of comfort. Lets keep chatting!

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