February 3, 2000
An Acquired Taste
Parashat Mishpatim: (Exodus 21:1-- 24:18)
"No, you want these," said the elderly Jewish woman who was serving her, pointing to the apricot hamantaschen instead.
"No, I want those," the woman reiterated pointing again to the prune and poppy seed variety.
"Honey, these you will like" the Jewish woman replied pointing to the apricot flavor, "Those," she said looking at the prune and poppy seed tray, "need an acquired taste."
An acquired taste -- enjoyment or understanding resulting from regular exposure -- is something Jews have appreciated from the beginning. Remember what happens this week in the Torah at Mount Sinai? A cloud descends from the mountain top; a strange brew of mist and ash. Moses appears from out of the cloud, takes a long, sweeping look before he speaks and then, in one mighty blast, laws tumble forth from his stony face; an avalanche of statutes and ordinances, thou shalts and shalt nots. When Moses finishes, as if in some great, unrehearsed symphony, the 600,000 Jews listening to him shout "Na-a-seh v-nish-ma" (We will do and we will listen).
From the start, Jews affirmed that in order to really understand Judaism they had to practice it. I often tell my students who study with me in order to convert to Judaism that becoming a Jew is like learning to swim -- a textbook only takes you so far. A student behind a desk can read every book ever written on swimming, see every instructional video, hear the best motivational speakers and then, no matter how lengthy or extensive their training, enter the deep end of a pool and quickly drown.
Everyone understands the difference between learning and doing when it comes to swimming and to a lot of other things, too. How many times have your kids stared at something on their plate and heard you say, "Try it -- it's good?" How many of us really enjoyed our first beer? We readily accept that our first trip to the symphony might not captivate or inspire us, but if we work at it each concert gets better. We have to study, read up and ask questions. Any skill that enhances our life and brings us pleasure -- painting, playing the piano, even a decent game of tennis -- takes time, effort and practice. It's a fact of life most Jews understand; except when it comes to Judaism.
Many people want simple answers to tough personal and societal questions. People want "spirituality" without taking the time to acquire the religious knowledge and the skill that real spirituality demands; they want the keys to inner doors of wisdom without first unlocking the outer doors of study and practice.
I hear it almost daily; every rabbi does. "Rabbi, I'm not very religious and I don't know or do very much but I feel Jewish and that's the important thing."
To this statement I usually reply, "I'm not very knowledgeable and haven't practiced at all, but I feel like a doctor. Why not let me try bypass surgery on you?" The two statements, it seems to me, are equally absurd. It's not that feelings are unimportant. Pride in our heritage as Jews is crucial. But if it's pride without any real understanding or commitment then it's false pride. Feeling Jewish is not enough.
New Age religion, minimalist Judaism, easy answers and liberal social policies are meager responses, mere avoidances of the real effort required to find meaning. Judaism isn't easy. Seeking meaning involves living, praying, making Shabbat, giving tzedaka, mourning, celebrating and even eating like a Jew.
Our ancestors understood that doing preceded insight; effort necessarily came before reward. It's an equation that seemed clear to them and seems equally clear to a lot of us in every aspect of life except our spirituality. Why do we deny that a Jew who wants to find meaning in his tradition has to put forth at least as much regular effort as the Jew who wants to improve his golf game?
The woman behind the deli counter was right. Judaism is an acquired taste. We have to try it over and over again in order to discover just how sweet it is.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things" published by Behrman House.