Sunday, September 2, 2012

Teshuva for Believers and Non-Believers

I was reading Rabbeinu Bachya's commentary on Ki Tetzei over Shabbat. Devarim 22:1 talks about "hashavat aveida", returning a lost object to its owner. R. Bachya puts it simply: "Each person should desire the benefit/welfare of his friend." And he goes on to say:
This is what is meant by: "You may not hide yourself" [so as to ignore the lost object and not return it]. Don't understand this as referring to a lost object only; rather this is the law regarding ... all the other benefits that a person has the ability to bring to his friend, or to remove and push off damage from him. He is obligated in all of them, as it says: "You should love your neighbor like yourself."
It struck me after reading this that regardless of whether you're an atheist or a believer, THIS IS WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT Jewishly - namely, simply wanting the best for one another, not wanting to see them suffer, and actually taking action to improve one another's welfare, and to prevent them from incurring harm. And it has nothing to do with the issue of "belief". If we have any commitment or love for Judaism, THIS is the foundation. This needs to be the focus, the essence of our spirituality as Jews.

And unfortunately we look around and see that this is very often not the case. Disappointingly, we see that religious Jews all too often lack this basic foundation - being so hyper-focused on externals, whether relating to dress code or minute details of this or that ritual halacha, far more focused on perfecting "their mitzvah" and gaining "their Olam Haba" (or simply caught up in everyday life) than they are on desiring the benefit/welfare of people around them. It's not that frum Jews are any worse than others in this regard, but someone who is truly "frum" should positively excel in the area of concern for others. They should conduct themselves as if this is their very reason for being. Love for one another should ooze out of their pores. Because THAT is what it means to be religious. That is what it means to thwart the human tendency toward self-interest at the expense of others, the tendency that makes kids cruel to one another, and which makes adults look at one another in the street as "noise", people in the way, ahead of us in line, taking up space and resources, or as means to ends. If we don't combat that tendency and start looking at each other as people whose well-being we genuinely we care about, what exactly have we accomplished? How have we evolved or matured, and how can we possibly think of ourselves as "spiritual"?

But I bring this up not just to harp on frum Jews who aren't getting it right. I also have to say I'm disappointed in the skeptical "community" for often being shameless offenders in this regard. Not only is the tone of discourse routinely used in blogs and comment sections highly disrespectful, devoid of sensitivity, filled with flippant, sneering and cutting remarks, but there doesn't even seem to be an awareness that there's anything wrong with it! It has so become the norm that no one bats an eyelash at it, let alone speaks up and rejects it as immature, mean-spirited, and not in keeping with our ideals. There's no "conversational pressure" against it. And again, it's not as if the skeptical Jewish community is worse than others - indeed there's no corner of the internet where you don't see people ripping one another apart with shameless abandon.

I'm suggesting here that when we post comments, we try to remember that we're speaking to another human being. And if we want to think of ourselves as mature, sensitive, spiritual, evolved people, we should be every bit as concerned with that person's benefit, their physical and emotional well-being, as we are with the point we're trying to make. If we're in that head-space, how on earth would we say something designed to make them feel bad, feel stupid? Yes, there's a place to disagree - of course there is. And there's a place sometimes to be sharp. But as I've said before, people are more important than ideas. So we can try to destroy an idea, but don't destroy the person in order to kill the idea. That's a big mistake.

I'm reminded of a Gemara I saw recently, in Berachot 10a. There were some hooligans in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood, and he davened that they should die. His wife Bruria chastised him that he should daven that they do teshuva, quoting a pasuk that "sins will cease and there will be no more evildoers" - it says "sins" should cease, not "sinners". So Rabbi Meir davened for them, and they did teshuva. (Happy ending - halavai it were that easy!) Point being, even for the lousy people of the world, we should desire their well-being rather than their destruction. "Kal v'chomer" (all the more so) for the vast majority of decent people out there, we need to desire their well-being. We need to act on that desire, and we need to be vigilant about it.

And I'll say further. If Jewish skeptics/atheists don't conduct themselves in a refined, dignified, evolved, sensitive manner, all this does is feed into the idea that without God to tell us how to behave, we become a bunch of "behemas" (animals). So it's particularly incumbent upon such people to make a statement that this is NOT the case. How? By demonstrating that it's not the case, with our words and our actions. Yes, it is possible to be rational and uncompromising in matters of truth, AND to be of the finest character, highly sensitive and evolved. It is possible to reject the part of Torah that is worthy of being rejected, AND to enthusiastically embrace and fulfill the part of Torah that is worthy of being fulfilled and embraced.

That's the teshuva we all need to work on - skeptic and believer alike, Jew and non-Jew alike. So with that, a happy and productive Elul to one and all!


  1. Nicely said! Could you imagine if religious branches and movements competed by out-nice-ing each other?

    FWIW, there have been a number of studies in the U.S. concluding that religious people give more to charity than atheists and agnostics -- not just in terms of giving to religious charities, but in general terms (for example, supporting charities that feed the poor). My guess is that religious folk are no more generous than secular folk, but religious folk are under more pressure to give when they're in church and synagogue. In any event, you atheists need to get busy! ;^)

    1. Re: getting busy, remember that while I'm an atheist, I'm also a religious Jew! That's my whole "thing". :-) So maybe it's "you atheists AND you believers, who don't practice or affiliate religiously..."?

    2. AJ, thanks for the clarification. Even if it does make my head spin. So, I should describe you as a "religious atheist"? You realize that in most circles, particularly outside of Judaism, that characterization sounds like an oxymoron?

      I guess there's a question buried underneath your response, whether you identify with atheists generally. I assume that when atheists behave well, that reflects positively on all atheists, religious or not.

    3. As far as being an oxymoron, it really depends on how you define "religious". If you define it in terms of supernatural beliefs, then I'm not religious. But if you define it in terms of a commitment to Judaism, engaging in Torah learning, having one's life built around Jewish practice, feeling very connected to Jewish past/present/future, then I'm indeed very religious! (Now one could argue that part of the commitment to Judaism involves belief in God, which makes me not fully committed, and perhaps not committed in a very significant way. I accept that criticism.)

      Do I identify with atheists? First off, there's a difference between "identify with" and "identify as". I identify "with" atheists in the sense of sharing skepticism about claims regarding God or the supernatural. But generally I don't identify "as" an atheist except in the limited sense of this blog. It's not something I build my life around or have any "communal" association with, unlike being Jewish. Good question!

  2. AJ, perhaps what has me off-balance is this statement from you: "If Jewish skeptics/atheists don't conduct themselves in a refined, dignified, evolved, sensitive manner, all this does is feed into the idea that without God to tell us how to behave, we become a bunch of "behemas" (animals). So it's particularly incumbent upon such people to make a statement that this is NOT the case. How? By demonstrating that it's not the case, with our words and our actions."

    Given the importance you assign to making the "statement" and performing the "demonstration" you describe above, it seems critical that you self-identify in a way that allows others to identify you as a Jewish atheist. Otherwise, what proof comes from your words and actions?

    1. Too true! But for the moment, my "statement" is limited to what I do online, which in any case is really the main place Jewish (ex)religious atheists "congregate" and make their voices heard.

  3. Couple a points:

    First: consider writing more. You have a very unique blog – but without posts, it will whither. To paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall: “A blog is like a shark, it needs to constantly move forward or it dies.”

    Second: I have a question for you – because you are the rational man out there, not romanticizing the religion, or frumkeit, yet keeping it and living the dream, as it were.

    We learned in Aish that G-d is the infinite source. We all want what’s best for ourselves, so keeping the mitzvoth is connecting to the infinite. So it just makes sense.

    I found this a fairly powerful idea. I didn’t really understand Torah at the time, but I found this idea of connecting to the infinite through mitzvoth very memorable. Also, very guilt inducing – like someone telling you smoking is bad for you, so you should not do it. Hard to argue with that one too.

    Then of course I spent time with James Kugel and others – some who explain in much finer detail the details of why academia thinks that the Torah came about over hundreds of years – and I was certain that, indeed, our religion is like all religions: probably derived from humans who – at that time in the fertile crescent – were obsessing over wisdom.

    But Kugel is a halachic Jew. And he believes in G-d. And so do I. And I want to do the right thing by G-d.

    But I don’t really believe in my rabbis. I don’t think anyone really knows anything. I can’t stop this idea in my head that rabbis are just guys who are sort of indoctrinated into an orthodox way of thinking, and it isn’t even all that healthy when it comes right down to it.

    As much as I love orthodox people – the haimishness – I think there are just too many problems in that world. I can’t join, I can’t believe – not the way they want me to. Not the way they (pretend to?) believe.

    But I’m torn. What do you think? If our religion is really devised by men with a keen interest in wisdom – well, isn’t that a terrible thing to think?


    1. Hi Tuvia,

      About point #1, I'm an Annie Hall fan, so I got your reference! My time is fairly limited at the moment, but I also know what you're saying.

      Re: #2, the fact that you brought up Aish and Kugel means you're well aware of the wide range of Orthodoxy that exists, a zillion different groups - some of which you'll undoubtedly feel more comfortable with than others. So when you say there are a lot of problems in "that world", do you mean the whole shebang, all of Orthodoxy? Or are you thinking of the more yeshivish/black hat circles?

      I'll say for myself, sometimes I think about what it would be like to live a secular life, just toss out all the religious mishegoss. And then I see some of what goes on out there, and I compare the worst of the religious world to the worst of the secular world, and I say thank God I'm religious! And that also helps me to put the religious world's problems into perspective, helps me to be able to live my life without second-guessing myself too much.

      Yes it's true, there's no escaping religious institutions (schools, shuls, etc.), and I certainly don't go along with all the beliefs and attitudes found there. But I can pick my friends. I can pick the atmosphere in my home and what I choose to impart to my kids. I can choose teachers/rabbis who I can relate to. So it really is workable - at least it has been for me.

      In terms of "doing right by God", clearly that's the question - what does that mean, and who can you trust to tell you? If I were to assume that God exists, my gut tells me there's no better place to start than Isaiah Chapter 1. If we can't be good to each other, the whole ritualistic side of Judaism is for nil. God doesn't want it. To me, being a force for stellar "bein adam l'chavero" (interpersonal) conduct, contributing to other people's happiness and well-being, is really what it means to do right by God. I vote with Isaiah. And the good news is, I'd feel the same way, God or no God!

      The problem is that while "love your neighbor" is at the center of it all, it doesn't give you a "Jewish" life. It doesn't keep your kids Jewish. For that, you need what I call all the "weirdness" that goes with ritual Jewish life. You need to sit in a sukkah. You need to fast. You need to put on tefillin. You need to do the "stuff", at least to some significant degree. I see the ritual laws in a certain sense as a "structure" for continuity. Some of them are enjoyable too. And kids love ritual. Anyway... I don't know if I've hit on what you're asking about, but that's some of what I think - for what it's worth!

      Take care,

      BTW, always feel free to contact me via email: