Friday, May 20, 2011

Behuqqotai 5771 - The Five Pillars of Judaism

As we approach Shavuot, when we commemorate the giving of the Torah, I have been thinking of the great complexity of Judaism and Jewish life. Ours is the most complicated religion I know. There are so many things to learn and discuss and understand, so many possible points of entry. Think about it for a second:

Shabbat / Holidays
Halakhah / Jewish law / 613 mitzvot
God (a lot of material to talk about there)
Conservative Judaism (the focus of our Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot)
Tefillah / prayer
Tiqqun olam / social action
Torah (shiv’im panim / the 70 faces of Torah: many different ways of reading it)
Hebrew language
Aramaic language(s)
Rashi / commentators
Poetry and literature
Home rituals
Synagogue rituals
Ancient philosophy
Medieval philosophy
Modern philosophy
Ancient History (and on and on; you get the idea)

It is all-encompassing, and more than slightly intimidating.

As such, through the ages, there have been various attempts to outline a simple guide to the basic principles of Judaism. Consider the following from Pirqei Avot (1:2), which we studied two Shabbatot ago at se’udah shelishit:

על שלושה דברים העולם עומד--על התורה, ועל העבודה, ועל גמילות החסדים.
Al sheloshah devarim ha-olam omed: al ha-Torah, ve-al ha-avodah, ve-al gemilut hasadim.
“On three things the world stands: on Torah, on service to God, and on deeds of lovingkindness.”

That’s pretty good, but not really enough information.

How about this, from the opening mishnah of Massekhet Peah (1:1):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא
כיבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם
Elu devarim she-adam okhel peiroteihen ba-olam hazeh, veha-qeren qayyemet lo le-olam ha-ba: kibbud av va-em, ugmilut hasadim, vehava’at shalom bein adam lehavero; vetalmud torah keneged kulam.
These are the things for which a person reaps the fruits in this world and his reward is in the world to come: honoring father and mother, acts of lovingkindness, and bringing peace between people, but the study of Torah is equal to them all.

This is better than the piece from Avot, I think. It speaks of the essential duties we have to our fellow people, and the centrality of learning Torah, and points to an incentive (i.e. rewards in this life and what comes after). But there is still more!

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, whom we also refer to as Rambam or Maimonides, lived in Muslim Cairo in the 12th century and, perhaps responding to the Five Pillars of Islam, counted 13 principles of faith. We echo these when we chant the piyyut (liturgical poem) Yigdal at the end of Friday night services here at Temple Israel.

Most of the 13 principles are about God, but they also include statements about the Torah, about divine reward and retribution, and belief in the coming of the mashiah / messiah and the resurrection of the dead that comes with it.

But these are mostly beliefs, not actions. Four of the Five Pillars of Islam are actions; it is clear that Rambam was a heady guy, arguably more interested in thinking than doing.

What do we have that can serve as a simple guideline to us, modern, thinking people, who are looking for a moderate, centrist approach to living a Jewish life in today’s fast-paced, pressurized world? What are the basic things that we should do to be Jewish, and to ensure Judaism’s vitality in the future?

* * *

This morning we read from Parashat Behuqqotai, which features a series of blessings and curses. The theological premise of these is that if we follow God’s words, we will receive the litany of blessings, and if not, we get the curses.

The reality is, of course, not so black-and-white. In reviewing the opening verses of this parashah with my 7th-grade class at the Youth House on Thursday, one of the students asked a great question: what if you miss a few of the mitzvot? Does that mean that you get none of the blessings and all of the curses?

The answer is that nobody can really fulfill all of the mitzvot. We try, and, being human, we inevitably miss the mark. So we aim for getting those blessings. But it’s not all or none.

Our parashah opened this morning with the curious phrase, “Im behuqqotai telekhu.” Literally, “If you walk with My laws...” We do not simply believe in God, or submit to His will (as some other religions suggest); rather, we Jews walk. We walk through life, ideally trying to follow the path that God has laid out for us. The word for Jewish law, halakhah, means “walking.”

What does it mean to walk in God’s way?

I’ve assembled a quick reference guide. Here are what I am boldly calling the “Five Pillars of Judaism,” a fundamental (but not fundamentalist) guide to Jewish living. I’m thinking of having this printed on the back of my Temple Israel business card:

1. Treat others respectfully - derekh eretz, the way of the land

Six out of the “top ten” commandments / mitzvot are about treating others with respect; great swathes of the Torah are about interpersonal relations. And in particular, the laws applied to the “stranger in your midst” are the most important. It is not enough just to treat your family and friends and the other people like you with respect. The Torah teaches us to give dignity to our employees, to take care of those in need, to respect all people regardless of their status or station, to treat both your friendly neighbors and your enemies with a modicum of fairness. Derekh eretz literally means “the way of the land;” as we are walking through life we cannot neglect this path.

Here are the words of Rabban Gamliel from Pirqei Avot 2:2:
יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון
Yafeh Talmud Torah im derekh eretz; sheyegi’at sheneihem meshakahat avon.
The study of Torah is commendable when combined with respect for others, for when one toils in both, sin is forgotten.

It is not enough to learn Jewish text, says Rabban Gamliel. You also have to know how to apply it in our interpersonal relations.

2. Treat yourself with respect - na’aseh venishma

Feed your mind with good stuff: Jewish learning, Jewish knowledge. The more we know about and understand our tradition, the more valuable Jewish practice becomes. And commit your physical self to living Jewishly. It’s good for you!

An article crossed my desk this week, forwarded to me from more than one of you, with the provocative title, “Science Confirms What Rabbis Understood: Jewish Practice Makes You Happier and More Fulfilled.” Upon reading the article, I discovered that this title was more than a bit misleading. “Science” has not confirmed any such thing. However, the article cites one or two recent books that suggest that “behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings." Or, put Jewishly (from Ex. 24:7), na’aseh venishma - “we will do and we will hear.”

This is the response that the Israelites gave, while standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when offered the covenant of Torah. It is also the classical Jewish answer to why we should perform mitzvot - i.e. after committing to them and growing accustomed to living a lifestyle in accordance with Shabbat, kashrut, and other Jewish observances, we will eventually understand why. Na’aseh venishma, said our ancestors - “we will do and then we will understand.”

Meanwhile, it’s not enough just to feed your mind. “Im ein qemah, ein Torah.” If there is no bread, there is no Torah. Kashrut is important. But I would argue that just as important than the letter of the law is the spirit; kashrut should also reflect our ethics. We should think carefully about what we eat, about what we put into our bodies. If a food is kosher, but bad for you, should you eat it?

Furthermore, the Conservative movement is finally bringing Magen Tzedek, its ethical-hekhsher initiative, to the market. Look for it next fall. If you want to learn more about Magen Tzedek, I’ll be teaching about it at our Tiqqun Leyl Shavuot on Tuesday night, June 7 here at TI.

3. Treat God’s creation with respect

By now many have you heard me say this many times, so I will be brief: God created this world, and the Torah constantly reminds us that it belongs to God, not us. Just as hikers passing through a forest exercise the standard known as minimum impact, leaving no trace, we should work harder to leave less of a trace of our presence as we walk through life. If that means reducing greenhouse gas emissions or conserving resources, then we should work harder to do so. God wants us to make sure that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren will pass through the same forest and find it still populated with (as one story in the Talmud puts it) carob trees.

4. Express gratitude to God

Come to Temple Israel on Shabbat, or weekdays, for your daily dose of tefillah.
Prayer is powerful stuff. It’s not easy, but it’s really good for you.

But you can also pray alone! Don’t fill all of your empty time by merely playing with your smartphone, or with idle chatter. Make meaning with your words and thoughts, and float them up to God. You’ll come to appreciate that opportunity.

5. Commit Yourself to Israel

We need the State of Israel, and she needs us. Modern political Zionism and Israel represent the youngest stream in Jewish life. We have a diversity of opinions in this room regarding what it means to support Israel, but here is my formula:

a. Go there. Often. I go at least twice a year. If you have not been yet, go now. Even leaving aside the spiritual component of Israel, as a mere vacation destination, Israel rivals the best places in the world. If you’re looking for an opportunity, Rabbi Stecker will be leading a Temple Israel trip to Israel next summer; watch for more info.

b. Buy Israeli products and give to Israeli charities. The least we can do as Diaspora Jews, when Israel puts her own teenagers in the line of fire defending her borders and security, is to give as much economic support as possible.

c. Learn about and become a goodwill ambassador for Israel. Israel is being subjected to more and more negative criticism. Become familiar with the facts and the history, so that you can learn to discern hyperbole from real issues. As we have seen just this week with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current visit to Washington and President Obama’s speech on the Middle East the other night, there is much spin out there, and the depth of most media presentations is paper-thin.

Israel is not just the Kotel and the Tel Aviv beach, and she is definitely not an apartheid regime. As pressure mounts both here and abroad for Israel to engage with the new Palestinian unity government that includes the Hamas party, equip yourself for those hard conversations. Learn to argue her case amongst your friends and support Israel within our current political landscape.

* * * *

To summarize, the Five Pillars of Judaism are:
1. Respect for others / derekh eretz
2. Respect for yourself
3. Respect for God’s creation
4. Express gratitude to God
5. Commit yourself to Israel

Remember, this is not meant to be all-encompassing; rather, this is merely a guideline.

Im behuqqotai telekhu, if you walk in God’s way, maybe there will be a few more blessings for all of us. Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 5/21/2011.)

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