Shoftim 5782 – Revisiting My Own Theology

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Our friends, Dick and his wife are classical secular Jews. They do not attend synagogue regularly and do not follow the traditional rituals that so many of us do. As an example, his wife told Nancy about a particular restaurant with delicious pork chops. Well, Dick told me over dinner last week that he tries to do good deeds so that he will be rewarded after he dies. Maybe, if he’s extra good, he’ll even get to see his long-deceased parents again. “How about you, Joel,” he asked? “You go to synagogue a lot. Don’t you hope to see your parents or George again after you die?”

He was surprised when I told him that I had no expectation of being rewarded in any way for whatever good I might do while I am alive. To do good deeds in the hopes of being rewarded, in fact, isn’t being good in the Jewish sense, I told him. In that situation, it’s purely transactional; that is, If I’m good, I’ll be rewarded. There’s nothing either good or Jewish about that inducement. “Well,” he persisted, “Rewards are what the Torah says, right?” Indeed, he is right. In a number of places, the Torah teaches that obeying  the commandments leads to all sorts of good things.

(I am always a bit uneasy during conversations like this, and I envied Nancy at that point, who was happily exchanging photos of our respective grandchildren with Dick’s wife. A much easier conversation.)

Well, should we revere Gd and keep Gd’s commandments, so that good things would be our reward? My interpretation of the Torah is that just as we implore toddlers to do certain things for tangible rewards, that’s the context in which the Torah promises rewards to the Israelites for observing the commandments. Given that the Israelites were at that point as a people – in their “toddlerhood” as it were – maybe that’s how they had to be taught.

But surely we have moved beyond that. I asked Dick, “Do really believe that?” Were all the observant Jews killed through the ages just for being Jewish – were they all intractable sinners? Was the early death of my father and my son explainable in religious terms? Punishment? An ultimate reward to come? Please.  Well, if I don’t believe in Divine punishment or reward – why, indeed, am I here in shul today? What separates me from a simple secular humanist? There would certainly be nothing wrong with that.

To my way of thinking, Gemilut Hasadim, acts of loving kindness that go beyond simple ritual, and that help repair the world are, almost by my definition, acts that are not done for tangible reward. For these, we know from our own personal experiences that goodness must be its own reward. Indeed, we are taught that the reward for doing a mitzvah is the opportunity to do another mitzvah. But what about the rituals – acts – that dont help others in an immediate way?

Well, Dick challenged me pretty good. He pointed out that the very next day, I would be in shul, with a tallit and a kippah, and would be reciting prayers. Why? Well, good grief – why, indeed?

And beyond this tallit and kippah, there is a photo that Nancy snapped of me earlier this summer in Israel, on a bus in the early morning. Because our synagogue group left so early that day, morning Shakharit would be recited while we were in transit. The photo shows me seated on the bus, praying, while wearing my grandfather’s tefillin. You may remember the story of the tefillin. It was given to my grandfather in the 1890s! Why was I wearing it? And given that I don’t believe in petitional prayer – hoping to receive a positive answer from Gd for specific requests, why was I praying at all? Dick’s question brought new doubt to my mind (actually, renewed doubt. I go through this every now and then).

Rabbi Neil Gillman wrote about ritual in his classic book, Sacred Fragments. He discusses how rituals remind us of the ideals of our peoplehood and bind us together. They bind us also from one generation to the next, providing a context through which other acts follow. Think about the rituals of lighting the Shabbat candles and blessing our children, the tradition this represents, and our tranquil and happy mindset afterwards.

Consider how we might become a bit emotional when we remember the rituals performed by family members of generations past. I know that when I wear those tefillin and feel them pressing on my chest, I feel a sense of connection. This was what my grandfather felt more than a century ago. That sense of connection is unique and could not come about in any other way.

It could take an entire talk by itself, but in social psychology, it is well understood that what you habitually do, you will ultimately feel and become. So ritual observance can create feelings. We therefore must allow our system of mitzvot and ritual create in us caring, grateful, rooted people who help the world become a better place. Will there be a specific tangible Divine reward for doing good deeds? Who knows? I certainly don’t.

The three cornerstones of my beliefs are: belief in a creator, the miracle – the true miracle – of Jewish survival, and the fundamental truths and teachings of Judaism that have endured and have been incorporated by other peoples throughout history. All three of these foundational pieces mandate – mandate –  that I – we – have a purpose, and that purpose begins with helping make the world better by making ourselves better in how we interact with people and how we respond to Gd’s commandments.

We have clung to our individual and collective roles with persistence for centuries. There’s more to Judaism than secular humanism. Our vision has been an example – a template – used by others.

And in fact, when we live our lives with a sense of purpose, direction, and the  proper treatment of others, more often than not, we will find that we are rewarded – not, perhaps in the ways that the Torah explicitly promises – we’re not toddlers any longer – and maybe not in the sense that my friend Dick hopes, but rather in a very profound sense: with feelings of satisfaction, inner peace, and pleasant relationships with others. The rituals, then, connect me – horizontally to others, and vertically, through time.

I identify with what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote about in his book, “A Letter in the Scroll.” I am just a single letter in the words that are our community. Our community is just a sentence in the chapter about today’s Jewish people. And this chapter is part of the book of the history of the Jewish people.

But just as in the writing of our most sacred book, the Torah, if even a single letter of the book is missing or misshapen, it must be corrected, or the Torah is considered treif. My letter as part of the book of the Jewish people must not be missing. And it must not be misshapen.

I conclude with a paragraph from Rabbi Sacks’s book, which I read on Passover, at our sedars. “I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I, and my people, have a past, and this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.

I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know a more powerful one.”

Shabbat Shalom!