Friday, July 25, 2008

There is no point in fearing G-d if you don't even trust yourself. None. Part One.

As I read on in theology, especially Orthodox Jewish philosophy, I am struck by the constant theme of fear. Fear it is posited must be in the hearts and minds of everyone who would do G-d's will. I understand the viewpoint. It's laid out quickly and simply in the movie Dogma when Barnaby tells a boardroom of about-to-be-executed sinners basically that lacking fear, they feel free to do whatever. Only fear of ticking G-d off will make people behave.

This is a simplistic notion, really, and one that smacks of distrust of human potential for goodness, for love, for faith. It says that by default, without fear of punishment, people will choose the bad course and do the wrong thing.

Okay, then if that is so, how can the story of the Besht and Elijah where the Besht refuses to tell what he did on his Bar Mitzvah to Elijah have any weight whatsoever? Did he do it strictly in fear of G-d? No, he did whatever it was in service of G-d. We do not serve those we fear, we merely do what they tell us when they tell us, or do without being told because we fear reprisal, but we are not serving. Service requires some measure of affection. We do service for love of G-d. The Besht did a good deed out of love for G-d, and that was all he needed to know. It wasn't for reward or fear of punishment or fear of not being rewarded and he purposely didn't answer Elijah despite the prodding, knowing full well that he wasn't going to get the promised reward if he maintained his silence.

NOT out of fear did the Besht act, but out of love. Are we expected to believe we are inherently so much less worthy that we default to doing worse? The story of the Besht is that of a simple soul who had a choice and chose well. We each can do as well and the Besht himself taught that.

Yet do we teach it today?

Today we teach fear and distrust. We've given up on enlightened self-interest and embraced the fallback of ages, unenlightened self-interest. The first of course takes into account positive emotional concerns such as love and caring for others and that we will out of desire for those things do many other things to ensure them, some out of fear of loss, others merely as a constant way of maintaining them which feels natural to us.

The second revolves around fear and greed and while I am all in favor of using the fear and other negativity of others to counteract those same things, it must always be towards a goal of bringing about amplification of their positive affectations. We must not encourage selfish unenlightened self-interest for in that way there is no reliability. Those who do only for fear of punishment if they fail can be fairly guaranteed to not act of their own accord should they either not be ordered to, or should the act not present itself as obvious enough to make sense to avoid punishment. Further, other actions they might in their heads see in fear as needing doing to avoiding punishment might be done and they might be wrong. Act in haste, repent in leisure they say. It is as equally valid when you replace the word haste with fear.

We teach fear first of others, secondly of not having a rabbi to follow, and lastly ourselves. We internalize it, and then we make it our guiding force.

You may wonder why I put fear of not having a rabbi in there. Do I mean to badmouth the entire rabbinate? Heck no. I mean to badmouth our collective dependency on the position and those who hold it without any proper recognition of the great responsibility which goes with it on the part of everyone, both rabbi and congregant.

The responsibility that goes with being a rabbi is that of the spiritual guidance of those that ask for it in all trust. If G-d gives us Torah, and the rabbis then are the position of authority on its meaning and application, then the desire of G-d to educate and guide us is being handled by them. This is clearly an awesome responsibility. One must never try to be an intermediate between someone else and their Creator, but must be a scout and ranger to lead them through the wilderness of unbelief and ignorance to the Torah.

How can any rabbi do that in fear? In fear, do we not slow our progress on the trail? Do we not in fear poke bushes with our staff and timidly take only the safest and most boring way possible, missing out on all of the other places G-d put in the way for us? Of course we do. We take the path most traveled, not the path less traveled. A path where everything is the same, we are put to no challenges, our character decides nothing because all is rote, all is programmed response. Known boulder, walk left and follow path. Step over log one hundred feet on. Continue down hill to your right. Sidestep the gravel.

Is not much in Charedi Orthodoxy of today a clear expression of this fear? Dress the same, look the same, speak the same, do not expose yourself to anything which might require your decision, do not think for yourself, simply do and learn as told.

I think it is and I think the Besht thought it then of the Judaism of his time. I think all the fear first and foremost brought out a reaction of revulsion and sickness from this loving man and his response was to lead from love more than fear. Fear of disappointing someone you love outranks fear of being punished by someone you don't love. The latter takes the course of least resistance and effort, the former takes whatever course may come and often, all the effort in the world.

When I say sickness and revulsion, I do not mean to imply hate or dislike or even disregard for those who were steeped in it. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Sometimes, the feeling of sickness and pain is in the love of someone else, namely fearing that those you care for are in serious error that will harm them and damage their spirits. When a loved one is filled with hate and anger, do you not care that they are hurting their own hearts, and perhaps pray for them to see a better outlook and a calmer mind?

Another place we proceed in fear is fear of not being religious, or righteous, or good enough. Not for fear G-d will be dissatisfied but because we fear that WE will not be satisfied or more to the point that we will not have the satisfaction we yearn for. At what point will you be religious, righteous, or pious enough? People never ask that. They need to. What is the yardstick? The point of a goal is that it defines a journey. Even an endless journey to an unreachable ultimate destination still has the definition of that destination. What is the definition of righteousness? Ask an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi. Ask a Reform, a Conservative, and a Modern Orthodox. See how many definitions you get.

Without an idea of whether we're getting any closer, it's no different than a starship traveling in a void with no landmarks. We have no idea if we're better. When it comes to righteousness, absent a yardstick, we instinctively say, well, more must be better. More conservatism, more suppression, more oppression, more holding back.

Remember what I said about fear, timidity, and choosing the path more traveled. We are at two counts in favor of more stringency. Is it getting easier to see why we keep defaulting in religion to more and more suppression?

However, there is another path. The path of love. The path of effusive good feelings, of embracing openness and caring. The doing of right things because they are right, because your heart tells you that they are right, and not because G-d might smite you.

No, we experience fear. Fear that we do not know enough to make our decisions in religion for ourselves. Fear that we do not know enough to help make decisions in religion for ourselves with the rabbinate. Fear that we can do nothing. The only way to salvation is to follow the rabbis.

(to be continued shortly)

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