Rabbi Nachman on simplicity in serving G-d

The Essential Rabbi Nachman is online here. What follows is a selection of his thoughts on serving G-d simply (words are from the Rabbi Nachman website):

  • No sophistication is needed in serving God – only simplicity, sincerity and faith. (Sichot Haran #101)
  • Simplicity is higher than all else. For God is certainly higher than everything else, and God is ultimately simple! (Sichot Haran #101)
  • Even if you possess true wisdom – you must cast aside all wisdom and sophistication and serve God with complete innocence and simplicity, with no sophistication whatever....The main thing God wants is the heart. (Likutey Moharan II, 44)
  • When a person follows his own mind and clever ideas, he can fall into many pitfalls and errors and come to great evil.(Likutey Moharan II, 12)
  • The essence of Judaism is to conduct oneself in pure innocence and simplicity, with no sophistication whatever....If it enhances God's glory, do it. If not, then don't. This way, you can be certain you will never stumble. (Likutey Moharan II, 12)
  • Be careful to act with true innocence and simplicity but not foolishly. Sophistication, however, is quite unnecessary. Simplicity, innocence and faith can bring you to the highest level of joy. (Likutey Moharan II, 12)
  • Don't follow excessive stringencies in your practice of the Torah. “God does not rule over His creatures with tyranny” (Avodah Zarah 3a) – “The Torah was not given to ministering angels” (Berachot 25b) .(Sichot Haran #235)
  • There is no need to look for extra stringencies: this is foolish and confusing. The essence of serving God is simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah and carry out many good deeds without seeking out or inventing unnecessary restrictions. Simply follow the path of our forefathers. “The Torah was not given to ministering angels.” (Sichot Haran #235)

A Conservative guide to Jewish law

Sources of information on Conservative Jewish forms of observance are difficult to find on the Internet. Here is a guide that may help.

Finding your higher purpose--the importance of self-analysis

In a speech called “What are you doing here?” Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz talks about the significance of the Three Weeks, a period of time in the Jewish calendar before Tisha B’Av when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and “the resultant galut – physical exile and spiritual displacement – in which we still find ourselves.”

Tatz explains that during the Three Weeks, we look inwardly to “identify areas that need work, elements of direction that need to be set.” It’s a “time for self analysis.”

What should we be looking for?

To get to the answer, Tatz raises the question of why the empire of Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed. The Jewish prophet Yechezkel says the reason is that “they didn’t give charity.”

This raises a huge question: Sodom and Gomorrah was known to be a “negative, depraved, brutal, immoral” empire. “Surely, not giving charity was minor” in comparison with their misdeeds. Why were they destroyed for such a seemingly minor reason?

The answer is that they didn’t contribute anything positive to the world. They had no sense of higher purpose. Their philosophy, says Tatz, “was completely insular and isolating – what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours…They were completely closed.” They even tortured visitors to teach the lesson that they don’t give to the outside world.

So in the end, Sodom and Gomorrah were wiped out because there was “no (positive) output, no production at all,” so what were they here for? The fact is, “breaking the rules is not as bad as lack of production.”

To clarify this point, Tatz gives the example of hiring a maid. Let’s say she cleans well but steals also. It is possible that you will fire her, but it is also possible that you will not—you may confront her instead, or hide your things—because she is still doing what she is supposed to do.

But let’s say the maid comes in at nine a.m., sits in the living room all day, and doesn’t move until she leaves. She doesn’t steal, but she doesn’t clean either. You definitely fire her.

When the world had nothing from Sodom and Gomorrah of a positive nature—when they decided to be totally insulated and isolated—they got destroyed as a result.

The deeper insight here is that G-d expects three things from people: To perform the positive commandments, to not do the negative commandments, and to seek out a higher purpose to their lives. (What Tatz does not say is that #1 and #3 are linked…clearly, doing what you are supposed to do in a positive sense is linked to realizing your higher Torah purpose in life.)

* * *

More explanation of this point from Tatz:

“The Gemara says that when your life is over you transition to another life. Many things happen when you get to that side of the divide. One of them is that three beings come to greet you. Each one has a separate function. The first comes to add up all your mitzvos (positive commandments). The second comes to add up all your sins. The third one comes to see ‘where’s your Torah,’ and is it complete in your hands. You have to express your particular part of the Torah. Each of us is put here to achieve that unique part of that cosmic tapestry.”

Jewish people believe that before a child is born, he is taught the Torah by an angel. That Torah learning includes exactly what his role in life is. And when the child is born, “the angel strikes him on the mouth and he forgets everything that he knew…it is driven deep into the unconscious.”

Thus when we hear something that is spiritually true, we have the sense of “recognizing something that you knew already….Some things strike a chord…when you come close to your purpose in life.” (This is why “one of the main sources of depression is moving along the road that is not where your purpose lies.”)

“The Gemara says that when you die and those three angels come toward you, you recognize the third one as the one who taught you Torah. He’s waiting to see if all that he put into you, if you brought it out.”

The question here is: why do you need three angels? “If you count up all positive actions and all negative actions what else is there? There’s nothing neutral. Even sleeping is a mitzvah if you need it, and wasting an hour sleeping that you don’t need is a sin. If that is so, then what’s the purpose of the third one?”

The answer is that when you get up the world of judgment, you are first asked if you lived by the rules (things you were supposed to do and things you were not supposed to do). But then there is another question: did you follow your higher purpose in life?

Says Tatz: “You can be a meticulous Torah observant Jew and forget who you’re supposed to be.”

The concept of mitzvos is not just to observe for its own sake, but to build yourself as a unique individual. You need to ask the question, “Are you becoming who you’re supposed to be?”

The Rambam, says Tatz, says that “one mitzvah done for the right reason gains you an entire eternal existence in the next world.” True, Hashem does not withhold the reward of any creature. Even if you do a mitzvah for a wrong reason you get a reward.

So you can have excuses for your behavior—that’s in the rules. But there is no excuse for not becoming who you could have been had you lived according to your higher purpose.

* * *

Related points on this issue from Tatz:

The idea of a positive mitzvah is that you are building the spiritual world; the idea behind a negative mitzvah is that you are holding the spiritual world together.

When you violate a negative command, you are literally destroying the spiritual world. That is why the punishment for breaking a negative command is worse than that for breaking a positive command.

Nevertheless, the primary kind of commandment is the positive command—to build, generate, be productive. For example, says Tatz, when you get married, the primary idea is to “build the love”—the positive aspect. Only to protect that love do you have negative commandments—a protective fence against “things that might lead to a lack of loyalty.” But “the positive actions are the essence of what you’re doing.”

* * *

Therefore, says Tatz, “the message is, in this particular time of year, there’s a necessary element of self analysis – who am I and where am I going? “Cheshbon hanefesh” – sit in your bed, and say how am I different now than I was twenty four hours ago? Or once a week at least, on Shabbos? Ask, am I different now. Take stock – sit down and ask yourself, am I different than I was a year ago…aside from mitzvahs. The whole idea of Torah is to change your inner being.”

“It’s time to make that first resolution so that when you finally come face to face with that (angel’s) face that is familiar, that you’ll be able to stand up and show what you’ve done.”

Conservative Judaism: What Jewish traditions to keep and what to change

Source: “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants” by Elliott N. Dorff

Philosophically, Conservative Jews study Judaism historically. This means that Judaism is understood to be “influenced and changed by the various people and ideas with which Jews came into contact and the political, social, and economic conditions under which Jews lived.”

At the same time, “we still call our patterns of behavior and thought ‘Judaism’ because our form of Judaism has much in common with the various types of Judaism that existed before and that exist elsewhere and because we can trace the gradual process by which Judaism changed in form and even sometimes in content from Moses to our own day."

Conservative Jews believe that “Judaism should change from one time and place to another. The simple fact is that the world does not stand still, and consequently all living organisms must learn to live under new circumstances if they are going to survive.”

So how does Conservative Judaism decide what to keep and what to change?

In short, Conservative Jews turn to the community. “There is no guarantee that the community or its representatives will be any wiser than an individual, but at least then we will be drawing upon the collective wisdom of the people involved. Moreover, that method has preserved Judaism until now.”

Who constitutes the community? In short, the community equals an interaction between the rabbis, who are knowledgeable about the legal tradition, and the community of “Jews who try to observe Jewish law.” For “Those who are not observant may still be Jews, but their own choice to neglect the laws of Judaism excludes them from consideration when we want to know the minhag” (custom).

Modern Conservative Judaism is sensitive to the fact that there may not be one Judaism for the entire community – but that “there may well be several separate understandings of proper Jewish observance among the various communities of observant Jews.”

Dorff adds: "Deciding when such additions or modifications are necessary, and how they should be made, requires considerable judgment and risk, and consequently the Conservative Movement has made the decision a communal matter for both rabbis and laymen. Rabbis may refer questions to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly. If that Committee rules unanimously on a given issue, the decision becomes a binding practice for the Conservative Movement....If the Committee splits in its vote, then a Conservative rabbi may follow either the majority or the minority opinion, depending upon which best fits the needs and circumstances of his own congregation and which coincides with his own understanding of Jewish law.

"This structure is a combination of the two traditional ways in which Jewish legal decisions were made - namely, by majority vote of a central body, when a given Jewish community was sufficiently organized to have a body, and/or by the decision of the local rabbi (the' 'mara d 'atra," or "teacher of the community"). This structure also explains why you probably have observed considerable differences in the practices of Conservative synagogues and rabbis. It is important to realize that these differences do not represent a lack of decisiveness or commitment on the part of the Movement; they rather reflect the fact that the Conservative Movement wants to deal with life as it actually is, and that requires that it be open to differences among people and communities. This plurality may make some of us uncomfortable at times, but life does not lend itself to a neat, unchanging structure, and so people must learn to accept changes in law without at the same time discarding it completely. This is the approach of Jewish law historically, and it is the approach of the Conservative Movement."

Torah observance - what is the best way?

Conservative Judaism used to be the most popular Jewish denomination in America. Now, it has waned significantly. According to the Jewish Journal, "The Conservative movement has been losing members in droves over the last two decades: It went from claiming 40 percent of American Jewish households in 1990 to 33 percent by 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01." (I don't have more recent numbers)

Now the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Conservative rabbinical school, has a new chancellor (as of September 2007) who is setting out to renew Conservative Judaism. But as the Jewish Journal notes (OK this was 2005, maybe things have changed a bit since then), "Numerous Jewish startup communities...don’t even take the Conservative label, despite their similarities to the movement, namely, a focus on egalitarianism, an evolving halacha and an adherence to tradition."

There is a dichotomy between the stated beliefs of Conservative Judaism and its practice by actual people. Theoretically, Conservative Judaism argues for Jews to "conserve" the law -- to keep the Torah. As Dorff writes here:

"Conservative Judaism requires observance of the laws of classical Judaism, including the dietary laws (kashrut), the Sabbaths and Festivals, daily and Sabbath worship, and the moral norms of the Torah, Prophets, and Sages. It is not the case that you are "Orthodox" if you observe the dietary laws or Shabbat, as many American Jews think: Conservative Judaism requires that too! Following the mitzvot is the "Tradition" part of the motto "Tradition and Change," and it is the reason why the Movement is called "the Conservative Movement"; as we have seen, its founders wanted to conserve Jewish law. That must be the case because Conservative Judaism insists upon studying the tradition historically, and acting in accordance with the mitzvot has always been a key factor in what it means to be a Jew. No non-observant form of Judaism is historically authentic."

Yet in real life, Conservative Jews are "known" (perhaps this is only a reputation?) to be non-observant. Certainly their intermarriage rate is high: 32% according to the National Jewish Population Survey.

So what is the problem with Conservative Judaism? My take on it is that groups tend to go to the lowest common denominator -- and Conservative Judaism, though in theory it sounds good ("tradition + change"), created an opening for people to throw off observance and still call themselves religious.

Similarly, Orthodox Judaism has its own lowest common denominator--people who are technically observant but who are spiritually distant from a sense of achdut (brotherhood/sisterhood) with the Jewish community--judgmental and self-satisfied.

Then there is Reform Judaism, which has its own lowest common denominator--a sense that "anything goes" and can still be called Jewish. I don't think this is what Reform preaches, but it is what people practice.

What is the answer for those who want to be Jewish and still participate in the mainstream of secular life? There is "modern Orthodoxy," which seeks to blend the best of both worlds...integrating solid Jewish observance with participation in the "real world." I recall growing up in a "normal" modern Orthodox community, where there was no distinction between being a good Jew and a "regular" American. However, nowadays the Orthodox community has shifted rightward, and standard modern Orthodoxy is in short supply.

I think the answer is somewhere in between Conservative Judaism and modern Orthodoxy. I certainly would like to learn more about both practices; in fact I'd like to celebrate the best of Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform Judaism and synthesize them into one integrated whole that makes sense -- that could unify the Jewish community around true service to G-d.

Judaism and Free Will

In a speech called "Free Will--The Real You," Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz talks about the Jewish concept of morality and how we are held accountable for our choices. Essentially what he says is that a person is held responsible for their moral decisions at the level where they stand--no higher and no lower.

What that means is that everybody is understood to inhabit a certain spiritual level. They would not normally do things that are either "beneath" them or too spiritually elevated for them. Therefore, they would not get rewarded for not doing something beneath them, nor would they be punished for not doing something above their level. But they are held accountable for moral decisions which are at their level of understanding.

Tatz gives the example of a mugger, who has grown up and spent all his life mugging little old ladies. The mugger sees a little old lady crossing his path, and next to her on the ground is a half a brick. It is "expected" that the mugger will do what he has always done, and mug the lady. For that he incurs no special spiritual punishment. (Of course, on earth, in a Jewish or any court of law, he would be punished and held accountable for mugging her. This is necessary so that society can function.) But in heaven, he is spiritually accountable for his real choice--whether he will simply take her purse, or hit her on the head with the brick first and knock her unconscious, then take the purse. If he resists the temptation to hit her on the head with the brick, that is considered a spiritual victory. Conversely, if he hits her with the brick, he is punished, because he could have chosen not to.

What this means for us is great hope, for we are not measured against some abstract spiritual ideal. Rather, we are only measured against ourselves. We all have the capacity to grow spiritually, from whatever level we stand at today. So there is no excuse for failing to try--no matter how low we may feel our level is or how trivial our moral choices may seem.

Why and How Should We Observe the Torah? Judaism and Revelation

In “The question of authority: Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative Theories of Revelation,” by Associate Professor of Philosophy (at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles) Elliott N. Dorff, the question of the revelation of the Torah is explored through the Orthodox, Conservative (multiple Conservative), Reconstructionist, and Reform points of view.

The question of how revelation occurred is critically important for Judaism because it provides the basis of our observance of the commandments (mitzvot) and all of Jewish law (halacha).

The key issue, according to Dorff, is this:

  • If the entire Torah (written and oral law) was transmitted by G-d at Sinai, without human intervention, then we are theoretically obligated to keep every thing in it, with no change except to extend the law to apply to new situations. Moreover, the ability to criticize the text is limited because it is all Divine.
  • If there was human intervention of any kind, the possibility exists that we can change our observance of the Torah more liberally, to keep pace with the historical times and with the culture of the Jewish community. Moreover, we can criticize the text more liberally because there is a human factor involved.

To me, the whole issue of whether Revelation is Divine or had a human hand is irrelevant because:

  • We will never know what happened at Sinai, so any position one takes is a matter of faith. And however you understand what happened—whether G-d transmitted the Torah Himself (Orthodox) or Moses wrote it down (Conservative) or the Jewish people wrote it with divine inspiration (Reform)—it is all from G-d not man.
  • The Torah was transmitted at a certain place and time in history, and we are living in another place and time. Therefore, its principles have to be translated into our historical context in order for us to observe them. There is no way to keep it all “unchanged.”

The point of it all is that we Jews are bound by the Torah because it is G-d’s law. At the same time, we are bound to wrestle with the law and make it contemporary—to make it a living body of law whose principles remain unchanged, but whose practice is always updated to suit the times.

As a way of understanding how to act as a Jew, I like the concept of “progressive revelation” held by the Reform movement. That doctrine states that G-d reveals more and more of Himself to people over time—“as humanity has more and more experience on this earth, human knowledge of what is and ought to be grows, and so the scope and accuracy of revelation progresses as time goes on.” To the Reform Jew, this means that “Jewish law of previous eras is not binding, and…the individual…decides what to observe.” While to me this is taking things too far (I do not believe that Jews can simply cast off the mitzvot because they were given to us in a prior historical era), I do believe that each individual must individually wrestle with faith, and decide for him- or her-self how to observe the commandments. At the same time, every Jew is obligated, before making decisions like that, to learn the relevant Jewish codes that apply to a particular mitzvah, so that his or her decision is based on something more than personal whim or fancy.

We cannot escape the fact that we were given the Torah, and that it is binding upon us. At the same time, we cannot escape the fact that the Torah was given to human beings, not just as a flat set of rules, but as a body of law to be engaged with, updated, and made relevant to every Jew at every place and time in history.