Leaping, Losing, and Loving
A leap of faith is beautiful, but it comes at a cost. You have to leave some people behind.
In the garden of Eden, God asked Adam “Where are you?” The rabbis teach that that question echoes throughout eternity, that it is still being asked. Fifteen years ago, I answered. I decided I believed in God and that I would observe Jewish law and live my life as a response to that question.
This was not a decision I made once and put to rest. It is thousands of decisions I make in countless moments of my daily life. Years later I continue to believe, although not unwaveringly, in God, in God’s law, and in the wisdom of my decision to live my life the way I do. But I must acknowledge that my leap of faith casts a shadow over my family and friends and the way I feel about myself and the world.
On Saturday mornings in my youth, we ate bacon cheeseburgers in restaurants after swim meets. To this day, my parents, like many other Jews whom I love, continue not to live according to the strictures of Jewish law. My parents are good people and good, if not perfect, Jews. I believe they raised me well, and I even believe my childhood was blessed and holy. But how does Jewish tradition require that I look back at that childhood, with its Shabbat morning bacon cheeseburgers? How does our tradition ask me to feel about others, people who, at least according to a plain reading of Jewish law, sin?
My questions are personal, but they are not unique to me. They are questions that should trouble rabbis, mentors, and educators who continue to encourage religious growth in others, even when they are aware of some of the problems that growth can create. At stake is nothing short of the love and respect I feel for my parents, my siblings, and many of my closest friends, as I struggle to reconcile that love with my religious convictions. Anyone who has made the choice to leave his or her old self behind and become someone new feels the sting of these questions. A leap of faith is beautiful, but it can come at great cost.
Halachah provides some guidance for situations where Jewish law intersects with obligations to family. Leviticus 19:3 says “Every man shall revere his father and mother, and keep my Sabbaths.” Rashi explains, “Keeping Shabbat is juxtaposed with honoring your father to say that even though the Torah warns you about honoring your father, if he says to you ‘violate the Sabbath,’ don’t listen to him, and thus with the rest of the mitzvot.” We may be tempted to compromise our principles to avoid offending our parents, but Jewish law warns against it. It is reasonable to ask even your own parents, whom you are required to honor, to respect your religious commitments. A child is the child of God first, of his or her parents second. When I spoke with my childhood teacher, Rabbi Leonard Cahan, about visiting my parents’ home, he told me, “It is your parents who should understand.” Keeping mitzvot bein adam l’makom – between yourself and God – should not become an excuse for ignoring the image of God in human beings, but neither may we compromise our own convictions.
Nevertheless, I still wonder how I should feel about my parents, relatives, and friends. Does the Torah ask me to look at them from my new, holy perch and believe they are wayward? How should I feel when a relative looks at me across the table, says “forgive me,” and then eats a piece of bacon? Should I feel anger or sadness or disdain?
Many Jews are under the misconception that Jewish law legislates behavior but not emotions. Jewish law, in fact, does legislate how we should feel. For Rabbi Akiba, the most important mitzvah was one that commanded emotion: “Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Sifra, Leviticus 19:18). The first paragraph of the Shema – a creed whose importance in the Jewish tradition cannot be denied – commands: “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). The Ten Commandments conclude with how we should feel about others: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:14). Other examples: “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Leviticus 19:17) and “Do not bear a grudge against the children of your people” (Leviticus 19:18). Jewish law cares about how we feel, not merely about how we act. It should. To live as a Jew is not merely to walk through the world behaving correctly – that would reduce Judaism to rules of moral etiquette. To serve God is to serve God with all of ourselves, with our minds and bodies and emotions.
In explaining the commandment to love God, Maimonides writes that we should be “like someone who is lovesick and who cannot stop thinking about a woman, and he thinks about her always, whether sitting or standing, or eating or drinking” (Laws of Repentance 10:3). In other words, our internal Jewish life is fundamental to the service of God.
How should any observant Jew feel toward non-observant Jews? If I believe Orthodoxy offers a wrong understanding of Jewish law, how should I feel toward Orthodox Jews? There are millions of Jews who do not observe the particulars of Jewish law as I do. Does the tradition demand that I love them? Hate them? Respect them? Pity them? Convert them? Rebuke them? How do I reconcile my understanding of God and God’s Torah, which make demands of all Jews, with my desire to respect and love all Jews? How do I live in community and enter into a genuine conversation without hoping to convert them? Is that my fate as a rabbi or as a person of faith?
How do I avoid the sin of arrogance?
These questions are ones of attitude, not behavior. I would venture to say that many, if not most, Conservative rabbis and rabbinical students live lives significantly different from the way they grew up, and different from their congregants’ lives. Many of us consider it a success when a congregant decides to keep Jewish law. But if we are honest, we recognize that our success stories often end up making us feel like strangers in our synagogues, unsupported in choices we made and unsure about how to feel toward people who have made different decisions.
I refuse to feel pity or anger toward those who remain on the other side of my leap of faith. I hope to suggest an emotional vocabulary for the faithful that might heal existing divisions between Judaism’s modern movements, between the believer and nonbeliever, between family and friends, and even between the selves we were and those we are now.
To hope for something for someone else is not wrong. In fact, those who love us most often see things about us that we cannot see for ourselves. Rabbi Yosi Bar Haninyah taught that rebuke creates love and that any love without rebuke is not true love (Genesis Rabbah 54:1). The Torah commands rebuke as a cure for the illness of hate: “Do not hate your fellow in your heart, surely rebuke your fellow, and do not bear sin because of it.” At least some commentators read the “it” at the end of that verse as referring to the sin of hatred – we rebuke to avoid hating a fellow Jew. Clearly, the Torah understands hatred between fellow Jews as a danger, and as something we are forbidden to feel. Instead, we engage in tochecha – translated as rebuke, but what I would call straightforward, honest communication.
However much we can hope for those we love, too often that hope is grounded in religious arrogance and leads to intolerance. We forget that however sure we are of our own path, we are not God, and we cannot know what path God has in mind for our fellows. We forget the limitations of our own access to truth.
Not so many years ago Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, announced that Hurricane Katrina struck the United States because of America’s support for Israel’s pullout from the Gaza strip. In repudiating Rabbi Yosef ’s statement, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles observed, “I hardly know what is happening in my own mind most of the time, much less what is happening in the mind of God.” Rabbi Yosef ’s statement was absurd and obscene because he claimed to understand God’s mind. True religion begins with humility, with an acknowledgment before the Master of the Universe that we are (decidedly) not God. To be a child of God is to acknowledge how little we truly know. I am reminded of my teacher, Dr. Eliezer Slomovic (z” l), whose knowledge of the Jewish tradition was indescribable. Dr. Slomovic once said to me, “Daniel, in what we know, I know a little more than you, but in what we do not know, we are both equal.” The wise rabbi is ordained with a deep sense of the vastness of the Jewish tradition and how little he or she truly knows.
We can accept the virtues and precepts of the Jewish tradition, but at the very moment we make a leap of faith to say “this holy text I accept as God’s will,” we should do so with full knowledge that we could be interpreting incorrectly. Scripture, tradition, and law can be perfect, but we cannot be. To say otherwise is to make of ourselves an idol. I can truly love the other by embracing the humility required of us, who are not perfect, by God, who is. It is God, not I, who has a plan for each holy soul.
I do not regret the leap of faith I took 15 years ago, and I do not love my family and friends and fellow Jews who did not leap with me any less. To know God’s will for my own life with absolute certainty would be a gift, not some matter of my own doing. What strengthens my relationships with others is a constant reminder that I could be wrong, a humble hope for them to grow in the love of God’s light, and a continuing desire to know them as they are, without judgment or agenda.
Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.