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Rabbi Gidon Rothstein

Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012 Symposium on Connectedness

To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.

Searching for God Where God is Found

AT FIRST GLANCE, the terms “religious fulfillment,” “spiritual connection” and “service of God” would appear to be reasonably interchangeable. On the other hand, within the nuances in their shades of meaning we find the seeds of concern laid out for discussion by the editors of Klal Perspectives. I’d like to explain how, and then show that elucidating the problem also leads us to the solution.

In one sense, religious fulfillment refers to observing a religion properly; in the case of Judaism, that would mean serving God as revealed to us in the Written and Oral Torah, and as Hazal, our Sages, have explicated. But to me, the term ‘religious fulfillment’ risks implying that each of us is best qualified to judge our success. Whatever fulfills me is the goal; my fulfillment is the focus.

I stress that ‘religious fulfillment’ can also be another expression for “doing what God and Torah tell me to do.” Done right, these can be, and ideally are, very personally and immediately fulfilling – physically pleasurable at times, solemn at others, or simply serving as a background joy to life, leaving the servant of God with a sense of deep satisfaction, knowing that he or she is fulfilling the purpose for which God created us. If we recognize that fulfillment properly comes from serving God as prescribed, there will be no distinction between religious fulfillment as a lived and felt personal experience and the true service of God.

In my experience, however, many Jews – even highly observant ones – seek only ‘personal religious fulfillment,’ which to them means ridding themselves of obligations, thereby freeing themselves to act largely as they wish. Some such people might think of the religion as revolving around Sabbath and holiday observance and kashrut, some include thrice-daily minyan attendance in their list, some even engage in regular Torah study and some might be among those who are most flamboyant in their Jewish dress and ways of comporting themselves.

But regardless of the degree, the common denominator is that their sense of fulfillment comes from having checked the necessary observances off their list, from not having to experience a sense of failure, and from then being allowed to spend their time and focus on what they really want – so long as it does not run afoul of a particular prohibition. As Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, zt”l, pungently commented, “The problem with American Jews is that they don’t want to daven; they want to have davened.”

To daven is to speak with God – to pour out one’s heart to the Master of the Universe. To have davened is to have performed an act of necessary life-maintenance, such as shaving or getting a haircut.

That approach, however, is not the only one in which religion is interpreted subjectively. Another approach seeks religious fulfillment – and spiritual connection – in extreme and often purposely countercultural activities not mandated by the Torah or halachah, but which provide an immediate sense of connection with God. They will observe mitsvot in unnecessarily dramatic ways or gravitate towards practices and experiences that move them (obvious examples include wearing peyot longer than necessary, davening for extended periods of time or wearing distinctive garb that is not more halachically valid than other clothing). These Jews seek a connection with God but find satisfaction in shallow performances that reassure them of their excellence in God’s eyes.

To the extent that they expect to feel that connection immediately, or even in the short term, I think they differ from what tradition tells us that even our loftiest figures can expect. In the view of Ta’anit 30b, Moshe Rabbenu spent 38 years in the desert without significant prophecy from God (not to mention that his first prophecy did not occur until he was in his late seventies). At a crucial juncture in the Book of Yirmiyahu (chapter 42-43), an expected prophecy is delayed ten days, leading the people to renege on their promise to listen to Yirmiyahu, which may have doomed him to live the end of his life in Egypt. Countless rabbinic figures have lived lives when the spiritual connection, as we like to think of it, would have been hard to see or feel.

Again, some might intend the words “spiritual connection” to refer to doing exactly what God wants of us, so that the knowledge that we are acting as our Creator directed us fills us with joy and awe in the presence of the Holy One, but I think the more common use of the term is the satisfaction of feeling that connection to God, immediately or soon thereafter.

I prefer the term avodat Hashem, service of God, to reference religious devotion, since it takes the individual and ego largely out of the picture. The path to such service is both short and long. It is short in the sense that it involves many clear and simple acts such as studying Torah – both to know better how to behave and because the act itself molds us into better servants of God, keeping mitsvot with joy – confident in our knowledge of how best to express our Jewish version of humanity, celebrating the many happy occasions in our religious year, and generally acting on our study in as many of the prescribed ways as we can. While it is certainly more enjoyable when we find actions that provide satisfaction and fulfillment, we cannot use those feelings or their absence as the barometer by which we judge success. We do our part – intellectually, emotionally, and in our actions – and hope and pray that God is pleased with our service.

And yet the path is also long in that we have to always check ourselves in a number of ways. We must guard against rationalizations that God “won’t mind” if we indulge ourselves in a certain undesirable way. We must not allow ourselves to gravitate towards expressions of the religion that emphasize what God did not call for, misusing time and energy that might have better gone towards what God actually did call for.

Moving ourselves in that direction, as individuals and communities, and as rabbis and educators, involves a gentle but consistent process of putting God in the center of our decisions. Not the God we imagine or prefer, but the God revealed to us in the two Torahs – written and oral – as transmitted, protected, and interpreted by Jewish tradition. That means, at each juncture in life, instead of asking ourselves what we want to do, or what would feel most fulfilling, we ask what a clear-eyed consultation with Torah tells us is within the range of what God would want us to do.

Particularly for rabbis and educators, that involves resisting tempting challenges. When a student or congregant comes to us wanting to know the laws of some relatively minor but psychologically resonant area of Jewish practice, the temptation is to simply to answer the question – yes, you can do this, no, we don’t do that. What needs to constantly be remembered is that people tend to focus on those issues that are building their personal sense of religious fulfillment, which is often at odds with how God and Torah would define the term.

If a mechalel Shabbat, a public desecrator of Shabbat, asks how many dishwashers she needs to keep a kosher kitchen, for example, there might be good reasons to answer only the question asked. It could be she is asking to accommodate a more observant relative, and has no real interest in religion. To try to shift that discussion to deeper religious issues might be counterproductive.

But assuming the rabbi or educator knows this person, and has a relationship with this person, that question might be an opening to say: “Well, let’s see what God wants from us in this context,” and to move the conversation away from a technical detail – however important – to a broader assessment of what a relationship of service entails. Such a conversation, I submit, would find a way to suggest that true worship of God compels a focus on achieving Sabbath observance before addressing possible stringencies in kashrut.

The same is true in the context of synagogue decorum, educational curriculum and the choice of how to invest our limited days and years in this life. We can build shuls that are model communities, in which all social and cultural aspects of the shul serve to bring congregants closer to God and His Torah. Or we can allow those subsidiary aspects of a community to dominate and become that community’s nature. There are shuls, I am suggesting, where congregants find themselves inspired to joyfully grow in their service of God, whether through Torah study, acts of hessed, or some other avenue, and there are other shuls that are glorified country clubs. We can build shuls where our representative grouping of the Jewish people succeeds at investing the place with the Divine Presence, or we can build batei kenesset, gathering places for many Jews, where, sadly, da lifnei mi atah omed, know before Whom you stand, is only an adornment for the top of the Aron Kodesh.

When we turn to schools, we have the same challenge. Educational institutions across the spectrum of Orthodoxy present students with a welter of material. In some, that material comes packaged such that the students absorb it in the larger context of an awareness of God. Too often, in my experience, that vital framework is lost whether because of how the material is taught or in the rush to teach as much material as technically possible. Reminding ourselves that we seek the service of God and nothing less would also encourage us to develop curricula and teaching methods where that focus on God is always central to what students learn, and how they learn it.

And so too, with whatever endeavor a Jew undertakes. As Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 3:3) points out in his explanation of Mishlei 3:6: Bechol derachecha da’ehu, in all your ways know Him. Any action a Jew takes (other than prohibited ones) can be an act of service, if it is approached in the right way. I go to work to make shoes, so that people can walk more comfortably and build up God’s world. I eat and sleep to be healthful, to have more energy to serve God.

Service in which we engage humbly and consistently leads to connection, and connection to fulfillment. The only requirement is the starting point, and that has to be God and God’s Will, as defined in the Torah and the traditions with which it comes.

To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served as a congregational rabbi and educator, and is the author of several books of fiction and non-fiction, most recently, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, published by OU Press/KTAV.

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