My plan for today was to post some much-overdue commentary on an audio file Avi sent me like two weeks ago, but, once again, something else came up that I wanted to write about. Look for that audio later this week (!ב”ה).
I spent some time reviewing some material by Rabbi Art Green this morning, mostly his book Ehyeh: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, which is available here from Jewish Lights Publishing. It’s a really good book, with a lot to offer the prospective beginning student of Jewish mysticism.
The teaching that grabbed my attention this morning was about the journey in to ritual observance. His words speak for themselves pretty well, so I will quote the relevant section from page 101, and then comment below:
The important thing is that the forms stimulate us to open ourselves to that deeper place where we come to know, to love, and to service the One within and all around us. Some of us will do so in an abundance of religious practices, unfolded in great detail. Others will be satisfied by more simple forms of religious life. These differences are affected by temperament, by training, and by past associations. They should never become a basis for judging one another, as none of us knows another’s soul and the path it needs to take to come close to G-d. the important thing to remember is that, in acts of faith, quality rather than quantity counts. “One does more, another does less,” teach the ancient sages, “the main thing is to direct your heart to heaven.” It may be that through a single deed you can add more to the treasures of divine light than is offered by endless hours of unfeeling practice by others.
Now, as anyone who reads my posts knows, I am (1) not a fan of labels, and (2) if I have to use a label to describe my Judaism, it’s Conservative/Masorti (in the philosophical and largely clergy-lived sense…) . While I feel labels tend to pigeon hole us, and that they stifle thinking and sharing between respective pigeon holes, I also believe in a halakhic approach to determining standards within the religious Jewish community. I don’t feel that people should be brow-beaten in to practicing a certain way, but I also feel that the very vast majority of non-rabbis (and some rabbis, to be honest) lack the knowledge to speak in an informed way about Jewish law and tradition. I believe that halakha provides a goal toward which Jewish practice can be aimed.
Having said that, I tend to be a bit overbearing about this sometimes. Elsewhere in the book, Rav Green writes about the fact that people with compulsive personalities can tend to focus on taking up traditional practice, well, compulsively, and that this orientation toward the mitzvot makes them compulsions, not actions taken out of a depth of kavanah and understanding. This is certainly how I began my journey in to Jewish observance, and while I feel I’ve made some progress along these lines, it is a constant work in progress.
I like what Rav Green says about quality being more important than quantity in matters of observance. Doing a few mitzvot really well, the ones you know you were created for, must certainly be better than adding more than you can handle more quickly than you realize, and burning out on them. Sometimes I wonder if the issue Shimshonit brought up in her post about conversion requirements and in the comments after plays in to this. As potential converts we are often taught – even in non-Orthodox circles – that our understanding and practice of Judaism will, and probably should, be more rigorous than that of the average born Jew in our communities. Why? Doesn’t this set up a dynamic in which converts are saddled with responsibility than the broader community? Doesn’t this lead to a sort of parroting of the mitzvot? Can’t we determine the sincerity of a potential convert and his or her commitment to the Jewish People in more effective ways than consulting a checklist of “tackled” mitzvot?
I think the same point holds for ba’alei teshuvah, born Jews returning to observance. As an educator in my synagogue I have the opportunity from time to time to help someone raised as a non-religious Jew learn a new practice (laying tefillin is the one I take the most joy in teaching…). In the experiences I have had doing so, it seems to me that going slow and appreciating the depth of a mitzvah or two at a time makes the most sense. Not being a BT, I assume that the burn-out factor is a real possibility for them as well, and when experienced probably turns them off with respect to engaging the tradition.
So, although I believe there is a standard to shoot for, or at least a system for establishing and reinterpreting that standard, perhaps sometimes starting with less is actually starting with more.