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.