Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ten Commandment Jews

Have you ever heard of the expression "Ten Commandment Jew"? Perhaps today its less in usage. Years ago when I would speak to people about their level of observance often one would tell me "I am a Ten Commandment Jew". What they meant was that yes, s/he identified with the moral principles of the faith but s/he did not keep the rituals. Of course his/her concept of The Ten Commandments did not include the laws of Shabbat observance. The Ten Commandment Jew made clear that s/he loved his/her faith. It was just that the burden of taking on all the mitzvot was more than they felt they could carry. We might call it "Judaism light".

This week in the parsha of Mishpatim, a reading that immediately follows last weeks reading of the giving of the Decalogue at Sinai, we separate the men from the boys, as it were, at least in terms of living the Jewish life in its fullness. The Ten Commandments, of last week, were only the lead-in. This week the laws begin to be fleshed out. The portion of Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot. And while many of the laws are civil laws for the ejudication of disputes according to the truth of Torah, the message is clear. The Torah is all encompassing.It addresses every asepct of life with no exception. There is no way to separate the moral from the ritual, nor the religious from the secular. To be a Jew is to embrace a lifestyle.

That very wholistic imperative is what frightened the Ten Commandment Jews. The sacrifice it called for was too extensive and consequential. They chose to limit their observance and make it more bearable.

The truth is the attitude of the Ten Commandment Jew is not so far off from each of our attitudes. We all, even those of us who embrace the full 613 commandments of Judaism and accept our Judaism as our way of life, nonetheless have depths of observance and practice of faith that we say are beyond us. We do not deny they are worthwhile practices or that they are religious expectations. We simply say that to keep them requires too great a sacrifice. And so we give ourselves a pass.

I don't think I need to find examples here for you. Each of us on his/her own level can think of things that s/he knows and believes to be part of what it means to be a good Jew in the best sense, yet s/he does not maintain in practice. For some it may be about the laws of kosher in the home or when travelling, for another it may be about the Torah he studies, for a third it may be about the spirit of the Shabbat in the home or perhaps the level of materialism s/he embraces, or the amount of tzedaka s/he gives. We all have places where in one way or another we say "the sacrifice is just too much. Up to here I can go in my committment to observ,e but no further".

Yet there is a paradox here that we must confront. Let me frame it in the context of a vignette. I once knew a young man name Jeremy. He moved from London of the UK to live in the community I did which was London, Canada. He had a post at the University. Jeremy, at one time, was involved in a secular movement for Jews on campus at the University of London (in the UK) called the "Non Jewish Jews Society". He was a classic case of one who embraced the notion of The Ten Commandment Jew.
And then something changed for Jeremy. He found himself being drawn to traditional observance. He tried the Shabbat and found he liked it. He discovered, to his amazement, that what he saw as a burden and something to be discarded was actually a gift to his life and not a burden at all. The Shabbat he once saw as representative of Judaism's oppressiveness he came to value as a great blessing to his life and indeed no sacrifice at all to maintain.

Rav Aharon Kotler, the founder of the great yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey and the acknowledged 'gadol hador', the leading Torah authority of a generation ago, pointed out that all sacrifice for the doing of the good is illusory. Until we have committed ourselves to the mitzva it appears to us that much will be required of us to get it done. We become intimidated and struggle to make the sacrifice. Yet the irony is that, just like in our vignette with Jeremy, once we make the committment and take on the practice, we find it does not feel like a sacrifice at all. What we now do and embrace as our practice feels right and good and even pleasurable.

Whenever we think of breaking through a barrier we have created to do that which we know to be right, despite the sacrifice, we need to know the sacrifice we imagine we will have to make is not real. Yes, it feels real. Indeed at times it feels too much to ask of ourselves, but in reality, once we cross over, we will not feel like we are sacrificing at all. What we do will bring its own rewards that will engender a sense of wellbeing and joy. Sacrifice? What sacrifice!

I suspect each of us has known the truth Rav Aharon Kotler spoke of in his/her own life. We each have had some place where we expected the sacrifice would be great, and nonetheless resolved to the task. Once on the other side,to our amazement, we discovered their was only blessing with no price paid.

What we need to do is trust that precedent and build on it. Again and again, we need to break through the fears and anxieties of the new for us and the intimidating and confirm that, in the face of doing the good, sacrifice is an illusion.

The consequeunce of moving to the next spiritual level in our lives is not a price to be paid but a blessing to be gained !

Shabbat Shalom

Get many of these thoughts in book form in "The Torah and the Self" the book. Available online at Barnes and Noble and at Amazon, and at Pomeranz Books on Be'eri St in downtown Jerusalem.
Thanks very much.

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