Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Dear David,

All right, now that we’ve both been chagrined, we can move on. I sense we’re both eager to do so. It’s amazing, I think you’d agree, how splendidly e-mail communication can beget instant friction; I have a feeling our conversation would have begun rather differently had we sat down face to face in a coffee shop. But this is what Slate was counting on, I’d imagine. I also just noticed the headline of our “Dialogue”: “Who Is the Better Jew?” Egads. (Note to self: essay on Kinsley as the smart set’s Jerry Springer?)

Anyway … I agree with you that we are obliged to use our minds to seek out God, though I am less comfortable saying that we should use our minds to, as you write, “see out the Truth about Him.” It is the capital T that makes me uncomfortable. While I’d like to think that I treasure the idea of the Revelation at Sinai as much as you, I’m simply less convinced of its literal nature than you are. This goes back to my comment about envying your faith–which was not remotely sarcastic, I assure you. But I disagree with your claim that “We Jews don’t seek faith at all.” When I think of faith, I think of a belief in that which can’t be proven, or at least that which can’t be grasped in our hands or even our minds, and the Sinaitic Revelation would certainly seem a subject that requires great faith. Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, taught that faith “is a faculty that recognizes truths that are infinitely, incomprehensibly greater than ourselves and accepts them as real and relevant.”

You and I both follow this teaching, though to differing degrees. I find it inspiring that Schneerson’s assessment of faith includes “truths” and not “Truth”; similarly, “real and relevant” is a vastly less monolithic construction that one might have imagined coming from a man who, after all, was a standard bearer of a certain kind of Jewish Orthodoxy.

I also agree with you that “being religiously observant is not the same as being ‘good.’ ” Quite not. But, to be wildly reductive, isn’t goodness the aim, or at least a chief aim, of religious observance? To what end do we serve God? I’ll offer an anecdote, perhaps banal but meaningful to me, that has informed my thinking. A few years ago, I took my first trip to Israel. A few minutes after arriving in Jerusalem, I set out on foot to find a hotel where I would be meeting a friend. I got lost. I came upon a traffic cop, who happened to be a Hasid, writing a parking ticket. I asked him for directions, and he brushed me off. OK, fine; he’s busy, he’s cranky, whatever. An hour later, after I’d found the hotel, I passed the traffic cop again. He was sitting on a stone wall studying his prayer book. I was pleased for him that he could find time on his job to pray, but couldn’t he have found the time to help a stranger?

Yes, I know, it’s a simplistic story. But it made me think a lot about the aim of all our study and prayer and reverence. Hillel, whom tradition tells us was a pretty smart fellow, was once asked by a non-Jew to explain the essence of Judaism. He replied, and I’m paraphrasing: Don’t do to the other guy that which you wouldn’t like done to you. He added: The rest is commentary, now go and study.

What Hillel didn’t say was: Go and study the commentary and then do properly unto others.

All I’m saying, David, is this: It is the act that is paramount. Yes, I understand that Judaism has provided an intricate and inspiring framework of law and commandment as to how to arrive at that act, but there is more than one route of arrival, just as there is more than one way of being a Jew. To fail to embrace this possibility is not, in my view, a strength; just as I wouldn’t argue that the Orthodox route is overly rulebound and hidebound, as many have, nor would I wish you to argue that other routes are less concerned with attaining acts of goodness.