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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Observant and/or Religious?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on January 17, 2014)
Topics: Yitro

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Hearing and/or Doing

Yitro hears and comes. He is motivated religiously – to draw close to Benei Yisrael because of their God and their relationship with their God. He hears everything “God did for Moshe and Israel, God’s nation.”  He comes to the mountain of God, where the people are encamped. He rejoices and praises God, Who saved the Egyptians, and proclaims: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.” And he worships this God, offering sacrifices. And then – after offering some critical advice to Moshe – he leaves.  “And Moshe sent off his father-in-law, and he returned to his land.” (Shemot 18:27).

What is this? He recognizes God, he worships God, and then he leaves before the main event? What about Mt. Sinai? What about receiving the Torah?

It is perhaps due to this problem that some of Hazal place Yitro’s coming after the giving of the Torah. Doing so both solves a textual problem, namely, what were the laws that Moshe was teaching the people when Yitro offered his sage advice? If Yitro came after the Torah was given, then they are obviously the laws of the Ten Commandments and all of parashat Mishpatim. But doing so also reframes why, or with what understanding, Yitro came.

If Yitro arrives and leaves before the Torah was given, then Yitro is only interested in the religious, spiritual dimension. He wants to connect to the true God. He has no interest in the laws that will follow, in how such a belief can translate into a life of practice, of detailed ritual observance and scrupulous ethical behavior. Worship, praise, sacrifices – great. Shabbat, kashrut, liability for digging a pit and for my ox goring another ox – no interest. And to avoid this, he is willing to forgo the revelation of God at Mt. Sinai.

If Yitro comes after the Torah was given, things look different. He might not have been motivated by a life of laws, of mitzvot and mishpatim, true, but he was not scared away by this either.  He comes because of what he heard about God, what God had done for Benei Yisrael, but although these events had occurred, he still waited until after the Torah was given. He came knowing that this God is also a God who has given the Ten Commandments and all the laws. Maybe without this he wouldn’t have come. Maybe it was only when he saw how this relationship translated into the practical and the concrete that he saw how real and committed this relationship was. In the end this may not be the life for him – he does return, after all, to his own land. But he comes to connect to a people whose faith is defined not just by a deep spiritual relationship, but also by a detailed and committed practice.

In a way, this is the dialectic of na’aseh vi’nishma, we will do and we will hear. Observance on the one hand and connection and understanding on the other.  Ideally these two come together, but often they come separately. There are those who are very good about the na’aseh, the observance. But this does not reflect a deeper connection to God or to the mitzvot. It is all just about the doing. And then there are those who are really good at the nishma, who connect to God, who connect to the values of the Torah. People who will praise and worship but have no interest in a life of na’aseh, certainly not of the detail-oriented, all-encompassing kind.

Even when these two come independent of one another, there is much value in each phenomenon separately. We often refer to Jews who keep halakha as “religious Jews.” This is a misnomer. The proper term is “observant Jews.” They, I, observe the law. Whether they are religious or not is another matter. I know many deeply religious Jews (and deeply religious non-Jews), who are not observant, certainly not in a halakhic way. While I would wish that such a person’s religiosity would translate into observance, I would also wish that an observant person’s halakhic life would inspire, or at least be coupled with, religiosity. Both are the ideal, but each one by itself demands our respect.

If one does have to choose, Hazal teach that one should choose the life of observance. “If only they would have abandoned Me and kept My Torah, for the light in it will return them to Me.” (Yerushalmi Chagiga 1:4). The “light” that is part of a life of observance, its raising of consciousness, its implicit values, its creating of an intentional life, these hopefully will lead one to God. In other versions of this passage the word is not “light”, or, but “yeast”, se’or.  Halakha can serve as a fermenting agent.  It can be agitating, challenging the surrounding culture and its values, challenging one’s own commitments, creating productive conflict. Observance can lead to religiosity. The reverse, apparently, is not the case.

But maybe it is. The Sefat Emet (Yitro, 1877) quotes a startling Midrash, relating to the sin of the Golden Calf. God then says to the people, “You have lost na’aseh, the observance of the Ten Commandments. Guard closely the nishma.” Even when you do not keep the mitzvot, at least hold on to and nurture that relationship with God.

The Sefat Emet develops this in the following way. The ideal is to begin with na’aseh, to begin with an a priori commitment to observe God’s commandments.We must live a life of observance and halakha whether it makes sense rationally or not, whether it is consistent with our values or not.

But this is not always possible. There are those, like Yitro, like many Jews today, who need to start with the nishma. Those who need a reason to come, need a reason to connect with the people and to commit themselves to a life of observance. Perhaps the reason is religious -one comes to believe in God and in the Torah, maybe through history, maybe through an appreciation of the Godliness in Torah and halakha. Or perhaps it is a more mundane nishma. One wants to be part of the community, its structures, its lifestyle. For whatever the reason, for many people it needs to start with nishma. That can lead to observance.To paraphrase another statement of Hazal, mitokh shelo lishma, ba lishma. You come for the chulent, you stay for the Shabbos.  And even if you don’t stay, you still have the nishma.

For those who begin with a life of a priori commitment to the doing, a life of understanding, of being motivated because something speaks to you, remains critical.  It is needed for a religious life, connecting one to God, and deepening one’s connection to Torah. And it is needed as a safety net. For there are those who will wind up rejecting halakha. If their home, their school, their synagogue, never imbued them with the importance of a religious life, of reasons that speak to them, reasons that make them care, then they will reject it all. But if they have been given the nishma and can hold on to it, can nurture it, then even if it never leads back to the na’aseh, it will be of great value all by itself.  It is what will make them care about being Jewish. It will be what connects them to God and the Jewish people. It will be as central to their Jewish identity as another person’s halakhic observance is to his own.

Halakhically committed Jews, myself included, spend the vast majority of our religious energies on the observance of and the study of halakha. But that is not enough. The Pew study forces us to recognize that we cannot ignore the question “Why be Jewish”. Not for the observant community, whose children, once exposed to the larger world, are too often rejecting it all. And certainly not for the larger Jewish community, of which 20% define themselves as “Jews of no religion.” We need to give them something to hear, we need to teach a Torah that speaks to them, we need to find something – community, history, values – that is going to make them want them to come, to connect, to be at the foot of the mountain. We can worry later about whether they will also want to stay for Ten Commandments that will follow. For now, let’s work on the nishma.

Shabbat Shalom!