Monday, November 14, 2011

Phrase of the Day: Being "Religious"


I've written before that I don't like the phrase "religious Jews." Now I have a better explanation for it, thanks to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I'm still looking for a better phrase if you have one!


Rabbi Telushkin sums up the situation very well in Hillel: If Not Now, When?:
...[I[f two Jews are speaking about a third, and one of them asks if the person being discussed is religious, the answer is invariably based on the person's level of ritual, not ethical, observance. "He keeps kosher, he keeps Shabbat; yes, he is religious," or "She doesn't keep kosher, she doesn't keep Shabbat; no, she's not religious." It is virtually inconceivable that you would overhear the following conversation: 
"Is so-and-so religious?"
"Oh, definitely."
"How do you know?"
"Because he's very careful never to embarrass anyone, particularly in public. And he always judges other people favorably."
Conversations such as this simply don't happen. Religiosity today - and perhaps even during Hillel's time - is assessed on the basis of ritual observance. If a Jew is known not to observe Shabbat or kashrut, that individual is regarded as nonreligious, even if his or her ethical behavior is exemplary and is based on what the ethics of the Torah and Talmud demand of him. In such a case, people might say, "Unfortunately, he is not religious, but he's a wonderful person." On the other hand, if a person keeps Shabbat and kashrut, but violates, for example, Jewish laws on business ethics or, in violation of the Torah, speaks unfairly and inappropriately of others, it wouldn't occur to people to say that such a person is not religious. Rather, they might say, "He's religious, but unfortunately he's not ethical."

Food for thought.

9 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful line of thought, and really the entire point of Telushkin's "Words That Hurt, Words That Heal." It's what I wish some in the Israeli Haredi community would remember when they use religion to justify blatantly hateful actions or bigoted actions. Nobody who spits on the cleric of another religion (Failed Messiah recently covered this happening in Jerusalem), or rains garbage down on the heads of innocent people (i.e. in Hebron) is religious, no matter how tightly they wrap their tefillin in the morning.

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  2. Hi Kochava,

    Sorry for leaving this request here, but I wanted to know if you could post what books did you buy&read for the conversion (conservative&now orthodox if possible). It would be interesting.

    THanks in advance.

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    Replies
    1. Originally posted: November 14, 2011 at 2:34 PM

      Anonymous: I was not assigned to read anything for my conservative conversion due to my prior knowledge. As for the orthodox conversion, check out the books page and the post titled "Kochava's essential Jewish library" (or something close to that). That book page is just a fleshed-out version of an RCA beit din's booklist that I received. I even broke it down based upon what should be bought and what can be borrowed! You can also find a suggested book list on the RCA's conversion website.

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  3. Ok, sorry, I should have look better.

    Thanks.

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  4. It's interesting how we percieve a distinction between rituals and ethics but, originally, they were seen as quite similar. We do have the distinction of mitzvot (commandments) that are bein adam l'chavero (between man and man) and bein adam l'Makom (between man and God). Ultimately, the Torah sees all of these behviors as related. Historically, there was an interesting evolution in the development of Chasidism and a related tangent of mussar ("personal development") within the non-chassidic communities. Lot's of food for thought.

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  5. I thought being religious was about believing in God and seeking to have a better relationship with God.

    Someone can be doing that and mess up in the area of rituals and/or the area of ethics.

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  6. @Susan: actually, the concept of religion being centered on belief is a Christian concept. Since faith, not acts, is a central Christian tenet, the nature of that faith was subject to much debate in the early Church. As the Church developed, "heresiology" became an important theme: getting rid of those who "chose" (Gr. haireses) the wrong belief.
    Philosophically and historically, Judaism is much more interested in what you DO, not what you believe. This is not to say that faith is not important but that our relationship to God is really shown in our behavior.
    I don't mean this in a negative way but that to a certain extent, God asks "so what did you do for me today?"
    Better still, you ask yourself "what did I do for God today?" and your answer should include things like "I said a blessing over the food God provided" as well as "I didn't lose my temper" or "I didn't spread that juicy bit of gossip" or "I smiled when I met someone" (yes, that last one is actually listed in the Mishna).

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  7. This is why you should describe a person who is shomer mitzvot as traditionally observant, not "religious". To describe them as religious insinuates that those who observe Judaism differently, or who adhere to different faith traditions entirely, are not religious, which is a) insulting and b) not true, even objectively speaking.

    You can be religious without being halakhically observant and you can be observant without being religious. Best to be both, if you're a Jew, but this is up to the individual to decide and up to G-d to judge. And no one else.

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  8. Gotta love Rabbi Telushkin. I don't think I've ever read a single word from him that I didn't like.

    I am reminded something which Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz repeatedly says in his Eyes to See: Recovering Ethical Torah Principles Lost in the Holocaust: he bring the Gemara in Yevamot 79a, which says "This nation is distinguished by three characteristics: They are merciful, bashful and benevolent", and the Gemara in Beitzah 32b which says, "Whoever fails to show mercy towards people is not from the seed of the Patriarch Avraham", and he concludes: nowhere does the Gemara ever question the Jewish bona-fides of a person who eats treif or violates Shabbat, but someone who is immoral, the Gemara impugns his Jewishness, and Rabbi Schwarz even shows that this is a practical halakhah l'ma'aseh in the Shulhan Arukh, that one must suspect that any immoral Jew is not really a Jew at all.

    I highly recommend Rabbi Schwarz's book, by the way, as it easily one the greatest book I have ever read. I also recommend everything by Rabbi S. R. Hirsch (about whom, Gershom Scholem said, "If Judaism were what Rabbi Hirsch thinks it is, there would be no such thing as antisemitism"), and Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz's 1927 book, Affirmations of Judaism. (In the last-named, my favorite passage is when Rabbi Hertz says something like, "The acme of religion may be the holiness of God, but if so, then Isaiah has already told us that האל הקדוש נקדש בצדקה, ha-el ha-kadosh nikdash b'tzedaka, "the holy God is made holy through righteousness.")

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