Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
People often tell me they are uncomfortable with religion. You may think it odd to tell that to a rabbi but it happens all the time, usually in the form of an apology, though they have nothing to apologize for, certainly not to me. They then continue and explain, that while they are not religious they do consider themselves spiritual.
Such a dichotomy begs the question of course, what is the difference between the two, between being religious and being spiritual?
The answer is found in this book, in the book of Leviticus, a book literally overflowing with religious practice. Indeed gallons of blood and whole herds of animals are spilled and sacrificed in the name of religion in the book of Leviticus – nothing could seem farther from spirituality than these ancient rites.
And yet our rabbis teach that Leviticus is the MOST spiritual book of the entire Torah. In fact so important are its teachings for living a spiritual life that tradition holds that when we begin teaching a child Torah we start with this book. Not the stories of Genesis or Moses and the Exodus but with sacrifices. WHY?
Because sacrifice is not religious ritual, it is sacred communication, it is about having a relationship with God, and a relationship with God is spirituality.
In this week’s Torah portion God says to Moses, “When a person sins by stealing, cheating or lying they not only sin against their fellow they sin against me.” In the Talmud Rabbi Akiva asks, how is a sin against a person also a sin against God, presumably the person stole from or cheated his neighbor not God – how possibly could such an action involve God?
Then as all good rabbis do, Rabbi Akiva answers his own question by explaining that when a person loans a friend money or an object and does not return it, he sins not only against the person he stole from but also the Third Party that witnesses everything; the ever watchful eye of God. Deny the loan or the theft and you deny that God saw what you did as well as your fellow.
The Torah text continues that the offender must first restore the stolen item, the broken pledge – with interest no less - THEN he makes a sacrifice to God to repair that relationship as well.
Spirituality is to live as though God sees and hears everything and then to act accordingly. God, G-O-D is as one teacher described Good Orderly Direction.
Leviticus teaches how we treat others is a direct measure of our faith and our faith must always be made manifest in how we act in the world. The challenge is to remember that there is a Third Party to any human interaction or relationship, one who urges us to be our best selves at all times, at the office, at home, between friends. This challenge has its own reward as well because every interaction with another can also become a meeting place between us and God.
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March 21, 2012 | 10:44 am
Posted by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz
A few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story in their Week in Review section about how the decline of religion in the United States has contributed to a decline in community. The article written by Alain de Botton made the point that one of the great losses of our modern society is a sense of community. That we have replaced neighborliness with a ruthless self interest, that we pursue contact with each other for primarily individualistic ends, financial gain, social advancement, romantic love.
Botton sees a correlation between this aggressive individualism and the decline of communal religious experience. He sees a return to communal religious life as the antidote to these societal ills, a response to the unmitigated individualism that is undermining our communities. In the words of noted sociologist Robert Putnam, “Too many people are bowling alone.” Puttman and Botton both make the case that when we withdraw in to ever smaller and more narrow social circles we become strangers to one another this then leads to a deficit of deep relationships and social capital that the more socially connected generations before us relied upon to meet life’s challenges and celebrate life’s joys.
Take for example the typical secular Friday night ritual going to dinner and a movie – a microcosm of how isolated we have become from each other. A few years ago my wife and I found ourselves without kids and me off the bima on a Friday night. We did something we have honestly never done before or since in our marriage, we went to a movie on a Friday night. I know shocking, radical – Friday for us is family night, its either shul or Shabbat dinner, sometimes both. But that Friday evening we entered the other sacred space in America, we went to the mall. The whole world was there, all having the same experience – and yet everyone was essentially alone and isolated from each other. Two observations:
Juxtapose that with what we do in synagogue on shabbat, the other Friday night experience. We come in alone or in couples but our experience is not isolated, rather it is interdependent. What happens in shul what is created there exists in large measure because of the expectations we bring to the place. The invitation to greet with each other with “Shabbat Shalom” is an invitation to go deeper than just “hi how are you?”, the point of the exchange is to connect with those around you. If there was a dinner before or after services it would be the furthest experience from that of going to a restaurant. The impetus, indeed the mitzvah is to reach across the table to share the meal with others, to make friends of strangers or acquaintances.
Imagine for a moment if that was the how a restaurant worked, you made your reservations, then they sat you with total strangers and encouraged you to engage in conversation. That’s what we do here at synagogue. The prayer experience itself is not like a movie or a concert or a play. Though we struggle with that because it is maybe what is more familiar to us – the idea is that it is collaborative that the ‘audience’ (to use the metaphor) is also the actor. Prayer comes from you and from the bima and God and holiness is found in the middle, in between.
In prayer we speak in the third person plural, we pray for this, we acknowledge that. We want healing, we want security, we yearn for peace, we crave acceptance of our prayers and supplications – together/collectively. This is the great contribution of religion and in particular the synagogue to our society – it helps us transform strangers into friends. As Botton points out religion serves two central needs that secular society has not been able to meet with any particular skill.
In his words, “Religion is a collection of occasionally ingenious concepts that attempt to assuage the most persistent and unattended ills of secular life.” I would add, religion exists to bring people together for sacred purpose – to connect and direct us toward greater ends, through honorable means.