The Fragility of Fidelity

This is the second of my “break” weeks, when I did not give my regular shiur at the Riverdale Jewish Center. I did, however, have the opportunity to speak about my recent book, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Jewish Community and How to Fix It, at the Denver Academy of  Torah (DAT) minyan.  While preparing those talks, I was reminded of an uncomfortable reality I think bears review and reconsideration.

We’re Missing the Point seeks ways to maximize our service of God, by pointing out that some or all of the Orthodox Jewish community currently neglects truly fundamental, core, and indispensable aspects of a relationship with God.  I tried to show how much we would benefit from recalibrating, and hope I have found constructive ideas for how we can improve as individuals and as communities.

But there is a flip side to my ideas that many of us insist on ignoring—and resent and reject when others bring it up.  It is the reality that some, perhaps many, of our religious lacks can be so serious as to call the fundamental health of our relationship with God into question.

The Line Between Ordinarily and Fatally Flawed

As Rambam puts it—in several places, including the third chapter of the Laws of Repentance—there is a difference between the ordinary Jew, with religious successes and failures, and a Jew whose failures are so serious as to remove that Jew from the ability to consider him or herself part of the religion, in the absence of repentance.

There is much dispute about Rambam’s Principles, some of which I discuss in the book, but I need not get into any of that here to note the clear truth of his basic idea, that there is a line between the ordinarily sinning Jew and the one who has written him/herself out of the religion.

This is easily demonstrated by considering a Christian, Moslem, and/or atheist who decided to declare him/herself an Orthodox Jew.  This person would attend an Orthodox shul, follow halachah, but believe in (and practice) that competing system, Christianity, Islam, or atheism.  I think almost all of us would agree that that person has crossed a line.  The question becomes only where that line is, not whether the line exists.

Many Paths to Abandoning the System

What I want to point out here is that halachah shows us there are many such lines, many acts we can commit that destroy, at least temporarily, our right to consider ourselves part of the Jewish community.  I will try to give examples from halachah, because philosophy and hashkafah can seem too fluffy, too inexact, to some, and my point might get lost in the shuffle.

The Rov, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, pointed out in one of his teshuvah discussions that the Gemara draws a line between mitsvot hamurot, stringent laws, and mitsvot kalot, more lenient laws; according to Rambam, that distinction produces at least one important halachic consequence in the times of the Temple. The High Priest’s service on Yom Kippur provides atonement for the entire Jewish people, even without their having repented, but only for mitsvot kalot.   For the more stringent sins, which Rambam defines as those that incur capital or karet liability, repentance would be necessary for the Temple service to atone (with repentance, it does so even for those serious transgressions).

The Rov zt”l explained Rambam’s reasoning as being that a karet or capital crime, before repentance, removes a person from the community.  That makes technical sense, since these were sins for which the Torah said the community should kill the person, or that God would cut that soul off from the nation. Still Jewish, this person’s sins do attenuate his or her right to be part of the community.

There are some disputes about how to count such mitsvot, but there are probably over sixty of them (and that ignores the fact that some of those, such as Shabbat observance, have many ways of failing to live up to the demands of the mitzvah).  The ramifications of that fact—that there are more than sixty different ways a Jew can sin so seriously as to lose his/her connection to the Jewish people—bear discussion.

Lots More Is Fundamental Than We Care to Admit

Let’s stay away from murky issues like what constitutes idol worship and/or proper belief about the nature of God.  Let’s think about Shabbat violations.  A Jew who willfully and knowingly violates Shabbat on a Torah level is, in some sense, liable for the death penalty (even if, in practice, it was unlikely that s/he would actually be killed).  That means not only that his/her life would be forfeit, but any of the qualifying acts of Shabbat violation are enough, willfully transgressed, to say that that person has lost his or her connection to what it means to be Jewish. And that is true for all the others as well—over sixty of them!

This is an uncomfortable idea in a time when many Jews regularly violate Shabbat, eat hametz on Pesach, fail to fast on Yom Kippur, violate the sexual mores of the religion, and so on. Obviously, few of them do so willfully, and there is much room to argue that all those people, today, are tinnokot she-nishbu, are raised in a time and place where we can never define violations of the Torah as fully willful. In addition, there is room in many of these cases to argue that they are omer mutar, they believe their actions are permissible, a category of sinners that is treated by halachah (in most cases) as a type of error, not willful transgression. So that I am not looking to point out that these people are or are not facing significant punishment from God; I can leave that question to God.

What I do find worth stressing is that the system shows just how much is fundamental and indispensable to being a true part of the project of Judaism.  Just as an atheist who also saw himself as Orthodox—even if he didn’t realize that his atheism violated a fundamental proposition of Judaism—is missing a crucial element of being Jewish, all of these sins raise the possibility that their transgressors have lost their way to a similarly problematic extent, whether or not we see them as deliberate or purposeful in that failure.

Geometry and God

Let me say it another way: when Euclid built geometry as a logical progression, he started with statements he did not prove, but that were fundamental to his system. To deny one of Euclid’s postulates or common notions—as did those who came up with non-Euclidean geometries—was to step outside of his system.  The new system might or might not have value, but it was most decidedly not Euclidean geometry. 

So, too, I am suggesting, the system God gave us is less flexible than some of us allow ourselves to believe. Because we are pluralistic about many halachic debates, although not all, and because we are clear about the astounding power of repentance to heal our spiritual ills, we can come to think that all sin, all failures to live up to what God wants, are the same.

Rambam didn’t think so, which was why he wrote his Principles. While many of us today notice those who argued that he made Principles of ideas that weren’t absolutely necessary, I note that Abarbanel, not generally thought of as a religious conservative, disliked the Principles for the opposite reason—he thought the entirety of Torah was equally sensitive to a Jew’s rejection.

I suggest something in the middle, that we have to be aware of how serious some transgressions are, not only in and of themselves, but in that God has defined them as rendering life and/or membership in the community forfeit.

A Very Narrow Bridge

This idea, by the way, suggests something daunting about the Noahide laws. Since the Torah prescribes the death penalty for any of those laws, it would seem to be saying that a non-Jew’s life is forfeit for any of them (and there, ignorance or mistaken belief are not a defense—Judaism assumes non-Jews are required to have learned of their obligations, so that coming to believe that some forms of murder or wrongful sexuality are acceptable are in no way a defense, as halachah construes a non-Jew’s relationship with God).

Non-Jews, then, have approximately seven fundamental truths, postulates of life that are indispensable —and the violation of any one of them makes that life forfeit, even if there is much good in the rest of that life. For Jews, that list is more expansive, even if the actual death penalty might be less likely. But it drives home the point that, from God’s perspective, a good life rests on many foundations, and that losing sight of any of those foundations of both faith and practice is a more serious issue than whatever punishment we may or may not receive.

 When I was growing up, the words of R. Nachman of Bratslav (whom I’m not sure I’ve ever quoted in print before) were sung to a haunting tune: “all the world is a very narrow bridge.” I don’t know that I ever thought about what he meant by those words—like in Kol Nidrei, the tune easily overcame the words (as is unfortunately true, le-havdil, of much of popular music). 

This week, however, it strikes me that this is one area where that is remarkably true: Some of us have trouble swallowing even 13 principles of faith, but I think halachah shows us many more fundamental propositions.  Making sure we follow even just those, but fully, with a full understanding of what they say about the life we are meant to lead, narrows the world greatly, as compared to how other humans live their lives.

But the main thing, as R. Nachman continued, is not to fear at all.  It can be fear-inducing to realize how many pieces make up a basic Jewish life, and fear can lead us to act badly, such as by denying simple truths. But the main thing is to move forward confidently, to face the truth as it is and live within it to the best of our abilities, knowing that we serve a compassionate God, a God Who recognizes and tolerates our human failings, but Who also expects us to strive to live in the world He created, a world that depends on many pieces, losing sight of any one of which is a serious blow to inducting that world into the true Kingship of God.

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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