August 7, 2009
Torah Alone does not a Mench Make –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner
A congregant of mine was confounded by the reports of Rabbis who were arrested for illegally trafficking in human organs. One person in the group said that some might justify their acts claiming the money would be used for yeshivahs and other important Jewish organizations. They turned to me and demanded to know if there really is a way to justify such things through the Torah?
I answered that Judaism, whether the Torah or the Talmud, contains many diverse ideas, not just one opinion and not just one way of thinking about God or the world. For instance, regarding the question of how we should view non-Jews and how we should act toward them we could look at Abraham. Abraham left a conversation with God, the Torah tells us, in order to run out into the desert and welcome three nomads who were not Jews. Abraham was the first Jew and these nomads, as far as Abraham knew, were idol worshipers. This would be one way to answer the question of what our attitude could be toward non-Jews. On the other hand, one might look at the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe commands the Jewish people to destroy those who are idol worshipers. (No doubt the two cases can be seen in different lights and many lomdishe hairs be split, never the less it is the divergence in general attitude expressed by both sides that I am calling attention to.)
Another example of the variety of theological stances within Judaism is with regard to the question of asceticism. A statement in the Talmud tells us one will have to give an account for every pleasure they did not take advantage of in this world (Tal. Jer. 4:12). Additionally there is an opinion that the Nazir (Nazerite) brings a sin offering at the end of his Nazarism to atone for the sin of forbidding upon himself that which the Torah permits. On the other hand there is a second opinion in the Talmud that the sin offering of the Nazir is due to his leaving behind a higher ascetic state. The rabbis tell us, “Sanctify (separate) yourself even from that which is permitted.” In Jewish history there were of course whose central practice was extreme asceticism such as Chasidey Ashkenaz in the 12th century. Which direction should we take?
Direction can not come only from reading the Torah or even the oral tradition, these are varied and can be used to rationalize anything, including selling human organs for gain. In the end Torah, written or oral, (at least in their written forms), are not enough to guarantee that we will live a life that is right and good in the eyes of God or others, -our own moral worldview and personal theology must be brought to bear upon Torah as a meta guide. And this too must be part of the Torah and mesorah (oral tradition). What we quote from the Torah will be filtered based on who we are and what our world vision is, so we must thoughtfully cultivate a correct worldview. In Judaism today there are many world views: Zionist/non-Zionist, Torah u’Madah/Torah Im Derech Eretz, Open Orthodoxy/Insular Orthodoxy, etc., etc.
Morethodoxy does not claim to change anything in Torah (God forbid), rather to help present a set of glasses through which to see the Torah, a guide for balancing the varied approaches which are within the Torah. It is a path accentuating an attitude of rachum v’chanun, first and foremost merciful and loving. When faced with two approaches within Judaism it is a guide and path for choosing the approach that is, (within halacha), more inclusive not less. It is not, God forbid, a path of molding the Torah to our selfish desires or to the vagaries of modern life and low brow chapters of western culture, but of opening our eyes and souls to the Torah in ways that Torah alone may not allow us to see.
The Ramba”n said it long ago (v’etchanan and k’doshim) . It is not enough to keep the Torah. If one only keeps the law one may still be a disgusting person. Jewish law demands that we go beyond the law to do what is right good at the eyes of God and people. Ours is a religion that is quite legally based yet if one were to just keep the law that would not be enough in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God. V’asita Ha’yashar V’hatov –“Do what is right and good”- go beyond the letter of the law with regard to how you treat others and Kidoshim Tihiyu, -“You shall be holy”-sanctify yourself beyond the letter of the law in your relationship to God.
The Torah alone does not a Mench make. It requires also spectacles through which to see the Torah, ones ground from the glass of things like moral training, philosophy and musar, learning the great ideas of other religions and moral and philosophical systems, chassidut and kabbalah, reading the great secular books, seeing the great works of art, appreciating the natural world God has made and its aesthetic and scientific beauty, exploring the important human ideas and insights -within humans in general and within ourselves in particular (usually through psychotherapy)- so that we can move beyond their own needs and see those of others more clearly.
In the end if our glasses through which to see the Torah and the world are placed correctly and our filters though which to sift the torah and our experiences are honed well we will achieve the goal of being Jews, to be merciful and gracious in imitation of the Divine One and to be a “light unto the nations”; we will not be selling illegal goods to further spiritual life.