19 Iyyar 5774
Apparently I’m not the only person having trouble with that Orthodox poster on the conversion board I’m part of. Last night I received notification that he has been banned from the board for talking non-Orthodox movements of Judaism down, as well as attacking people who do Judaism differently.
I won’t lie; I’m relieved that he’s been banned. But on the chance that he was sincere and not just another internet troll, I must admit that I wonder what his life is really like, if his is that rigid about the rules. It’s been documented that keeping all 613 of the mitzvot is not possible, in part because many of them require the Temple to still be standing, and it isn’t. But even those that don’t require the Temple may not be always possible. In The Year of Living Biblically by AJ Jacobs, the author found that it was impossible to keep every single rule listed in the Bible, so thinking of the mitzvot as “something to work towards” might be more realistic. But it didn’t seem that that was how the Orthodox poster went about things. So I wonder how he accomplishes his reach for perfection without beating himself up for falling short. Perhaps he takes that anger or shame about failure out on other people instead.
Yesterday I received a gift of several books on Judaism, including The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism by Prager and Telushkin, and in reading it I found the answer to one of my questions: “How do I get started practicing Judaism?”
The answer was “Try the ‘not yet’ method. Are you keeping kashrut? Not yet, but I am saying the brachot and the grace after meals. Are you donating 10% of your income to charity? Not yet, but I am donating more than I have in the past.” And so forth. This looks like the “mitzvot something to work towards” approach.
But in that same discussion, I might have also found an answer to why this Orthodox poster demanded absolute adherence to all the mitzvot: he worships the letter of the rules over their spirit. One of the things the authors said was that when we allow the mitzvot to become more important than the people, the mitzvot become idolatrous.
This is not a new idea. Many people who are not fundamentalist have pointed out that fundamentalists tend to worship the Bible even more than they worship G-d. The authors of Nine Questions also point out that some of the mitzvot are person-to-person, while others are person-to-G-d. An example of a person-to-person mitzvah would be “do not place a stumbling block in front of a blind man,” while a person-to-G-d mitzvah might be about kashrut, or the prayers you say and when to say them. And it seems that people who get bent out of shape about others not performing mitzvot tend to get bent out of shape about the person-to-G-d type a lot more than the person-to-person type.
Why is that? I have a few ideas, but I’d also like to hear from others on this one. What do you think?