What ever happened to “real-life” Judaism?

1 May

Judaism, life every other culture, has its share of stories and legends. These serve to make Judaism rich and colorful.  In particular, stories are useful as tools for conveying central values that we as Jews are responsible for imparting to other Jews,  especially the children of the next generation.

However, it seems to me that there comes a time when we grow up, a stage when the stories need to be recognized for what they are – and real-life needs to become the focus of our attention.

For instance, on Pesach, I was searching for words of inspiration in one of the many Torah handouts that appear each week at our synagogue.  There, in one such handout, I came across an article with an appealing title: The Exodus from Egypt-In Days Gone by and Today. I noted that the writer was a religious Zionist rabbinic scholar, and I looked forward to reading what he had to say.

He begins with a story about a Hassidic rebbe (already a bad sign!) who once proclaimed the following:

“Come and see the greatness of God’s personal providence! Once a fly drowned, and the king decreed harsh servitude, with mortar and bricks, upon 600,000.”

He explains that the rebbe meant to say, that it was God’s will, He commanded the fly to fall into the wine goblet that the butler was about to bring before Pharaoh.  And then, one thing led to the next. Joseph explained that dream correctly, which gave him the opportunity to explain the dreams of Pharaoh, which enabled him to rise to viceroy of Egypt which allowed him to provide sustenance and shelter for his family in Goshen, which led to their enslavement, as well as the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of their descendants.

The message, wrote this rabbinic scholar, is that nothing happens by accident.  God had the fly fall into the wine goblet in order to bring about the fulfillment of his promise to Avraham.  The people, he reminds us, had fallen to the 49th level of tumah, or spiritual impurity, and so God acted to prevent them from falling beyond the lowest level, to the point of no return. He then went on to apply the lesson to our dire situation in modern day Israel: No matter how bad the corruption, no matter how messed-up the political system gets – even if the level of moral depravity within our leadership sinks to rock bottom, even if the majority of Jewish people are not able to say Shema Yisrael – we must take with us the lesson of the Exodus: God’s providence is with us and on it alone we must rely. Just as they had reached the rock bottom of tumah and were nonetheless redeemed, so too will God redeem us at this dark hour of national disgrace.

I beg to differ. 

It is clear as day to me that the straight-forward message of the Torah was found in last week’s Torah reading, Parashat Acharei Mot – Book of Leviticus, 18:4

And you shall preserve my laws and my ordinances, which a person shall perform them and live through them, I am the Lord.

The Torah is a book about real people, living real lives, making real decisions and suffering real consequences. Period. The Children of Israel suffered slavery in Egypt as a result of their decision to remain there.  Sure, God promised Abraham that he would ultimately take them out of their bondage, but the simple straight forward telling of the story does not blame a fly sent by God for 210 years of hard labor.  The lesson we are to learn is completely missed if we make such an assumption, rewriting what really happened through the looking glass of the midrash whose purpose is to expound, not to replace.

The Torah commands us to take action, to live by the Torah’s laws, to create just socieities and to take responsibility for their failures.  We cannot, should not, and have not the luxury of relying on God to rescue us from our current state of tumah here in Israel.  We have collectively brought this upon ourselves, and we must look to ourselves for the remedy.

Real-life Judaism is about applying Torah law to our lives; it is not about relying on midrashim to solve our problems and put us at ease. 

In real-life Judaism there is no room for relying on God to bail us out – God gave us the Torah and its laws for that purpose. 

We must not allow ourselves to believe for a moment that God will come to our rescue – even if He might! For in doing so we abdicate our responsibilities to living in the real world, the world that God created for us, the world He asked us to guard and protect.

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One Response to “What ever happened to “real-life” Judaism?”

  1. Trudi Galblum Tuesday, May 8, 2007 at 4:09 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more. Reading this reminded me of the ideas and teaching that made Larry and I sit up and listen some 10 years ago. Didn’t know about your blog but glad to have been put on the list.

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