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The hard questions
A friend recently recommended I listen to a podcast interview with Shulem Deen. Born and raised in the hassidic Jewish community, Shulem made the decision to separate himself from hassidism and eventually orthodox Judaism entirely. At the beginning of the podcast, Shulem discusses the difficulty of rejecting his own belief system.
The hardest questions a person ever has to solve are the ones that touch on beliefs so deep that they simply aren’t questioned. What do I value? Why do I love this person? Why do I do the things I do every single day? In the discussion, Shulem mentions that he was talking teens about “Jewish values,” and he asked them the simple question: “What are the ‘Jewish values’ that you practice?”
I’ve been Jewish my entire life and to this day I consider myself a fairly observant person. When I heard this question, it threw me through such a loop that I stopped the podcast to see whether I could answer it myself. It occurred to me that I hadn’t thought about this question in a very long time, simply because in living a life defined by these very values I had started taking it for granted that what i was doing every day simply was an embodiment of these values themselves. However, as any driver knows, no matter how carefully you align the steering wheel to the road, eventually you’ll have to correct course. The road may curve, the wheel alignment isn’t perfect, and—lets face it—you probably didn’t line it up 100% parallel to the road at the outset. Little adjustments aren’t just helpful, they’re absolutely necessary to make sure you’re on track to get to your destination.
Most people have many roles. Personally, I try to be a good father, a good community member, a good employee, spouse, friend, Jew. Some of those roles have some degree of, shall we say, automatic steering. A bad employee will be told “you are a bad employee, fix it or you’re fired.” That’s certainly motivating! A good father has it tougher, as no matter what he does his kids will always tell him, “you should give us more ice cream.” Determining whether you’re a good member of your faith is nearly impossible… with very few exceptions, God doesn’t hand out performance reviews until it’s quite too late to do much with it. The same is true for the roles of friend, or mentor, or community member. Your performance often only has a single judge… yourself.
Am I a good friend? Well, what type of friend do I want to be? Am I doing what I expect of myself as a friend? If yes, great! If not, where am I falling short? Each individual has a personal responsibility to review decisions they’ve made and assess themselves according to their own standard, for each role. The only person who can tell you that you’re doing a good enough job is yourself.
“But wait! What about my [friend/spouse/community/co-religionists/coworkers/etc]? They’ll be super mad if I don’t [something]! I can’t let them down!” There are approximately six bajillion books on dealing with social pressure, but the one that wins the “once I read the title I didn’t need the book anymore” is probably this one. Suffice to say that relying on other people to assess your own performance is definitely one way to deal with it, but it tends to result in a lot of unhappiness.
Returning to the original question, as a thought exercise, I’d like to write out my own attempt at an answer. Starting from text, Ethics of our Fathers 1:2 states the following: “Three things form the world’s foundation: Torah, service, and acts of kindness” (translation is my own).1 These three “things”, for lack of a better word, outline the entirety of the Jewish value system.
The first is the Torah, the living system of thought that outlines the Jewish moral framework. Virtually every aspect of the relationship between both man and God and man and his fellow man are outlined, discussed, and codified. Like any highly complex system, the details are incredibly nuanced. In many cases there is internal disagreement about appropriate behavior, sometimes in deeply fundamental beliefs about Judaism.2 The fact that disagreements exist does not interfere with the fact that the Torah is the foundation for the Jewish value system.
However, a value system is only as useful as the action it inspires. The second fundamental element to the Jewish value system is action, as driven by the Torah. Simply knowing that the Torah supports giving charity does ; one must actually give charity to fulfill their moral duty. This demand for activity differentiates Judaism from other belief systems where the primary fulfillment of the system relates to holding a belief. Judaism demands that its aherents behave in a specific way as well.
Many of the actions outlined in the Torah relate to religious duties; temple service, holiday observance, religious rituals. While these are necessary elements of the value system, they are not at all sufficient. Judaism places strong emphasis on interpersonal behavior; social support networks addressing the poor, ill, and disadvantaged, social norms detailing business dealings and interpersonal relationships, even societal ills such as gossip get pretty extensive treatment. The observation of God and the relationship between man and his fellow men are both strongly emphasized.
That’s my answer; I hope this has inspired you to think through your own.
As an aside, while thinking through this, I found myself questioning whether it was appropriate for me to begin my foundational belief with texts from that belief system. Should this be a textual/theoretical exercise, or one more rooted in observing what actually happens in practice? I don’t have a good answer to this; my particular thoughts follow the former, and I should try as my own thought exercise to follow the latter and see where it leads. ↩︎
A few, just for fun: Can there be such thing as a “chassidish rebbe”? What is the correct relationship with the modern state of Israel? How should Jews interact with the modern world? ↩︎