Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Yom Kippur and fat men in red suits

In my search for profundity this eve of Yom Kippur, I came across the perfect lyric for my sentiment about this day. “He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake, He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.”
Yes, there is an implication that Santa will only shmutz up his red suit in your chimney if you behave yourself, but the words are quite explicit, “be good for goodness sake.” The worldview of this song is not B.F.Skinner’s world of behaviorism. Good is not rewarded and evil is not punished. Be good for the sake of goodness; not God, not a judge, not to get good seats in heaven.
This idea is explored in Judaism. It seems rational to favor good for goodness sake than brownie points with the big guy, and the Jewish tradition knows that it needs to address this, but Jewish tradition is not monolithic. It is a trajectory with many branches. Metaphorically, it is a tree of life, just like Torah. The problem and beauty of this is that we can point to any branch we choose and call it Judaism. I would like to point to two of these branches. One is from our sages, the other from a modern sage.
“He [Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say: One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds is like a tree whose branches are many but whose roots are few [and weak]. The wind comes and uproots it and overturns it upon its top. But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom is like a tree whose roots are many [and deep] but whose branches are few. Even if all the winds of the world come and blow upon it, they cannot even move it from its place. ” (Avot, chapter 3, mishnah 22).
This is Mishnaic Judaism supporting goodness for goodness sake. It doesn’t address the problem of determining the source of goodness or “deeds” which is a reference to the mitzvot (the 613 positive and negative commandments identified in Torah), but it also doesn’t say to do them in order to get rewarded.
Yizhar Smilansky, an early Zionist writer and professor of education, added to the Jewish canon a different approach to motivation for doing good, or just being, when he wrote, in The Courage to be Secular,
One may be non religious out of ignorance, laziness or for no reason at all, but to be secular, one must make a conscious choice…To be secular it is not enough to be non-religious. The distinction lies between finding something and losing something…What makes someone secular? First and foremost, a sense of responsibility; a sense of responsibility with no external source…The secular have chosen to face the world on their own terms. To be secular means to claim sovereignty over one's own life.
This Yom Kippur, as I deprive myself of food and blame myself for the collective sins of my people, I will be hoping and praying that more of us opt for this branch of Jewish thought that takes responsibility seriously and chooses good for its own sake. Gmar Chatima Tova, whatever that means to you.