Pagans in Our Midst
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Rabban Gamliel answered and said:
“Righteousness will uplift a nation…” — That is Israel. As it says, “And who is like Your nation, Israel….”
“…And the loving-kindness of the nations is sin” — All the righteousness and loving-kindness that idolaters do, it is a sin for them, because they only act in order to glorify themselves with it. And anyone who indulges in self-glorification falls into gehenom, as it says “A proud and egotistical man, ‘scorner’ is his name, he acts in sinful pride” and sin is nothing but gehenom, as it says, “That day is a day of sin[, a day of tragedy and distress, a day of holocaust and desolation]…”
The gemara defines the key attribute of paganism is that it subverts all spirituality and kindness into acts of self-glorification. All of worship is selfish, in service of the pagan’s own ends. Lightening is scary, so the Romans attributed it to Zeus and the Germanic peoples to Thor. War appears to run out of control once ignited; it must be the whim of the Canaanite Anat, or Ares (Greece) or Mars (Rome). Once the force is reduced from something more powerful than themselves to a person they can appease through worship, the pagan can feel more in control.
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Whomever is busy in Torah in order to receive reward or in order that tribulations don’t reach him, he is busy in it “shelo lishmah — not for its [proper] sake”. And whomever is busy in [Torah] not because of yir’ah [of punishment] nor in order to receive reward, but because of love for the L-rd of the whole world Who commanded it, that one is busy with it “lishmah — for its [proper sake]. And our sages [Rav Yehudah, quoting Rav] said, “A person should always be busy in Torah [and mitzvos] even if shelo lishmah. Because through acting shelo lishmah, comes [being motivated] lishmah.” Therefore, when we teach children, women and the uninformed in general, we do not teach them anything but to serve from yir’ah and also to get a reward. Until their knowledge increases, and they gain greater wisdom. You reveal to them this secret little by little, and you pleasantly habituate them to this idea, until they grasp it, understand it, and act from love.
– Rambam, Hilkhos Teshuvah 10:5
According to the Rambam, ignorant people might need to be led to serving Torah through love of the Creator. However, this is just a stepping stone. All through the process they must understand that the ideal is different. Otherwise, we turn Judaism into a kind of paganism, ch”v. The Chovos haLvavos writes in Sha’ar Yichud haMaaseh ch. 4 that doing mitzvos out of this sort of self-worship is worse than idolatry in four ways:
- the self-worshiper knows Torah, and thus the warning against serving anyone but Hashem;
- he worships someone in rebellion against G-d, whereas the idolater worships something that isn’t;
- all his acts are tainted, whereas the idolater is only inappropriate in the worshiping of one thing; and
- the self-worshiper who goes through the motions of being an observant Jew will mislead others, the idolater is obvious.
Rav JB Soloveitchik gives an etiology for why this tendency might be on the increase in today’s society:
Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith. Â He looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society which is technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations — what can such a man say to a functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?
Adam the Second (Adam as described in Bereishis 2), who seeks redemption through relationships with others and with the Creator, the Man of Faith, seeks spirituality as an end in itself. As science and technology progress, the stance of Adam the First , who is charged (in ch. 1) to “subdue the world and master it” is a very successful strategy and popular self-image. But to him, religion gets reduced to a pragmatic tool. The “functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart” has decided that the value of praying is that “A Family That Prays Together, Stays Together”. Not that prayer is of value in-and-of itself.
There are a number of phenomena in today’s observant community that make me nervous, because for many they may be symptoms of a pagan, functional, religion. This is not to say all of these elements of our worship are inherently evil or wrong. But the disproportionate interest they are getting might be.
The most blatant way Orthodox Jews today may be turning avodas Hashem into a means for getting their own ends is the increasing attention segulos have been getting. Five metal rings, or rings made at the graves of particular famous rabbis. Red strings from Qever Rachel. All of these could have originated tools for kavanah and either aiding prayer or turning to Hashem with one’s problems in an act of “prayer”. Siblings to dipping an apple in honey on Rosh haShanah to underscore our prayer that it be Hashem’s Will that we have a good and sweet year. But they do not seem to be “sold” that way in publications and conversation.
The loss of this distinction, between actions that add passion to a request from the Almighty to believe in the power of the action itself is frighteningly similar to the Rambam’s description of the birth of idolatry:
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In the days of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave destructive advice. Enosh himself was one of those who erred. Their mistake was as follows: They said that since G-d created these stars and spheres with which to control the world, placed them on high and accorded to them honor, and they are servants who minister before Him. Therefore[, they said], it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor; that it the Will of G-d, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.
Since this idea came upon their hearts, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would – according to their false conception – be fulfilling the will of God. This was the essence of the worship of false gods.
And this was the rationale of those who worshiped them who knew the essence. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star. Which is what Yirmiyahu says (10:7-8): “Who will not fear You, King of the nations, for to You it is fitting….” I.e., all know that You alone are G-d. Their error and foolishness consists of conceiving of this emptiness as Your Will.
– Rambam, Laws of Idolatry 1:1
Idolatry began with confusing the means with the ends, looking at appeasing forces rather than remembering they are but things Hashem utilize, and everything depends on how He assesses us and our needs.
Closely related to segulos is our increased focus on the segulah aspect of mitzvos. Not to put up aÂ mezuzah as a reminder that protection comes from G-d, not our walls, or more purely putting it up because Hashem commanded us to. Instead, we increasingly view mezuzos as a means for obtaining protection. The ultimate object of worship is myself; my goal is my own safety. Similarly the belief that one should keep kosher in order to avoid the heartbreak of teen rebellion by eliminating timtum haleiv (the callusing of the heart associated with consuming non-kosher food). One who gives tzedaqah in order to have success in business, or gives to the tzedaqah that promises particular miracles or near miracles. And spend more spreading the word claiming credit for past “miracles” than explaining the nature and worthiness of their cause!
By the way, what started this post was a story in Bechadrei Chareidim by Yo’el Beitlman, dated 21-Nov-2012 titled “Mystery solved: Why dozens of children broke their arms“. Numerous children in a Satmar cheder in Borough Park broke in random events, falling and whatnot. Eventually, the school’s mezuzah was checked, and they found that the word “yadekha — your arm” was cracked. We are lead to believe that the mezuzah’s faulty state caused the injury to the boys — boys who were only left “unprotected” because they wentÂ to school to learn Torah!?
However, we can still understand this as a story of metaphysical causality without turning the mitzvah into something we observe for our own ends. Perhaps it’s common cause… Whatever higher force that was breaking the literal arms also broke the “al yadekha“. This spin calls on the community using this school to “yefashpeish/yemashmeish bemaasav“, rather than just replace the mezuzah and get on with life. And that defeats the motive of many of those focusing attention on such forces.
Which then impacts how we viewÂ hashqadah, and how we doÂ kiruv. (Kiruv being one of the few remaining venues whereÂ hashqadah is discussed at length among adults.)
There is an entire genre of literature based on this premise that mitzvos are a means to get what you want. That if one only became a little more religious and had a little more bitachon (trust in the Almighty) the only airplanes they would miss were ones that would ch”v crash or be delayed, or would take them out of the country just when they instead get the phone call that saves their career. A world in which one mitzvah stands between who was in the World Trade Center that morning, and who was not.
Of course, we all know baalei teshuvah whose lives do not go as smoothly as their non-observant relatives. And we know stories of those who died on 9/11 in the midst of acts of selflessness. The whole thrust of the book of Iyov is to disspell this notion that religion is a means for understanding what happens to us.
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Hashem responded to Iyov from the whirlwind and said:
Who is this, who darkens advice with words that lack knowledge?
Gird you loins up like a hero; for I will make demands of you, and you will acknowledge Me.
Where were you when I established the world? Tell me, if you know reason!
Who set its measures, if you know? Or who set a line against it?
– Job 31:1-5
Bitachon is trust that everything is within His Plan, not within ours!
But if religion is a means to feel in control of a scary and uncertain universe, the evidence of our lives and those around us is ignored in favor of security.
The typical sefarim store today has shelves of self-help books. But I am concerned with books that that conflate mussar with self-help. These books like this turn mussar from being a means of becoming the person Hashem made me to be into a tool for self-actualization, being able to be the person I wish I were. Observing the Torah as a means to be happy rather than simply because it’s the right thing to do.You want to write a self-help book, great. We need more happiness and self-fulfillment in this world. But don’t make the Torah “a spade to dig with”.
Much of kiruv is based around this notion — that we worship G-d in order to have a happy life. (Part of this is that too much kiruv is oriented atÂ marketing traditional Judaism rather than teaching it.) Again, yes we need to start out adulterating our motives with self interest. That is different than defining self-interest as the primary motive of religion, as the goal of observance.
G-d of the Gaps
My final instance is more subtle. One way in which paganism is the harnessing of spirituality for self-worship is in the creation of gods to explain the unknown.Â The pagans worshiped deities to drive out the fear of the unknown. Blaming lightning on Thor does give the person hopes to control lightning by appeasing its god. But logically prior to that, blaming it on Thor takes it out of the realm of the unknown.
And so the pagan associates the gods with things they don’t understand and can’t get a handle on. And thus the pagan stops seeing his gods in things they can explain philosophically or scientifically. This is the “God of the Gaps” — the god who lives only in the gaps in human knowledge.
And this mentality apparently motivates much of our internal science-and-Torah debates. On one side, we have people who feel that if we don’t accept every miraculous claim of every medrash in its maximal and most extreme sense, we reduce G-d. They see G-d inÂ the gaps, and therefore are maximizing G-d by insisting on the greatest possible gaps. On the other side, we have people with a near deist conception of G-d, where only that which cannot be explained in natural terms are left as miracles. His Wisdom is seen as being within nature, and miracles a concession. But they too are obsessing on G-d in relation to the gaps. However, with pride and confidence in science and technology, they feel more in control by placing G-d within science.
Neither are focusing on religion in terms of ethics and ideals, making the entire issue of Torah and science minor to our understanding of either, and its questions unimportant. Our obsession with the issue speaks of our placing G-d in the realm of explaining the world around us and thus of filling our need for security.