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Making Judaism Work

Making Judaism Work

Why doesn't Torah observance create a better person automatically?

by

One of the questions that Jews who are observant of Torah law and ritual constantly face is: "If Torah is all that it is supposed to be, then why are there many Jews who are observant but are otherwise immoral, bad people?"

I always flippantly answer that one should never confuse Judaism with Jews. Torah is pure, pristine, divine and moral beyond description. Jews are human beings, frail of body and will, buffeted by a hostile world and an inimical society. Therefore, there are failures in living up to high ideals. It becomes difficult to control one's passions and desires and the terrible temptations that life offers are omnipresent.

But in my heart I am aware that this is an insufficient, irrelevant answer. It is really only a non sequitur, an avoidance of the basic issue. For why does Torah observance not create a better person automatically? What is the missing ingredient that prevents Torah observance from taking hold of the entire person and elevating him or her? How is the believing, observant Jew to deal with the gap between the promised ideal and the harsh reality that we see around us?

In the midst of the anguish of my recent bereavement mourning the loss of my beloved wife, who was the type of person the Torah had in mind and lived up to the Torah's ideal in her everyday life, I had an insight into this issue, which I am about to share with you.

The Talmud itself states that "Torah, for those who merit it, becomes an elixir of life. Torah, for those who lack such merit, becomes a potion of poison and death."

The Talmud does not specify nor define the merit involved. It is obvious that the Talmud did not treat this merit as a random gift, a chance happening. Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, following the lead of this idea of the Talmud, states that a person can be Torah observant, operating within the technical rules and rituals of the Torah, and nevertheless be an awful, obscene, despicable person. He therefore challenges Jews to go a step beyond the letter of the law and attempt to infuse true discipline, care for others and holiness into our lives.

His formula is that even those acts of life which are completely permissible to us must carry holiness and dedication with them. But exalted as these ideas are, they still leave us with the gnawing question of why Torah observance does not automatically raise a person to holy heights.

Morals, probity, honesty, modesty, care and tolerance for others, self-worth and self-discipline, all must precede Torah study.

The Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, provides us with a glimmer of light in understanding this vexing issue. Moshe, in his final words to the Jewish people, described Torah as the blessing of rain and dew. The Gaon stated that rain and dew fall indiscriminately on the earth. Rain makes flowers and bountiful food crops grow. It also makes weeds, thorns and thistles grow. Whatever seed is in the ground, good or otherwise, is nurtured by rain. He therefore says that for people who train themselves and are trained by their parents and home environment from their earliest youth to be good people -- before they are even old enough to study and observe Torah -- the Torah will then be an elixir of life. The rain will create good crops.

However, for those who do not have that meritorious training as a basis for their entire persona, the Torah will, like rain on fields of thorns and weeds, be a poisonous and negative force in their lives.

We treasure knowledge of Torah. Our schools teach subjects and ideas. But if the basic personality of goodness is not first created within the child, we will be witness continually to the dysfunction of many in the Torah world. The rabbis therefore wisely stated that "good traits and behavior patterns -- derech eretz -- must precede the study of Torah." Morals, probity, honesty, modesty, care and tolerance for others, self-worth and self-discipline, all must precede Torah study. Only then will the beneficial rain of Torah study and ritual observance create the desired Torah person and society. This should be the aim and curriculum of our homes and schools. Knowledge, by itself, can be a dangerous commodity. Planting the right seeds will ensure the beneficial effects of the Torah's rain upon us.

I wish to thank all of you who expressed your support and sympathy to me on the death of my wife. May all of Israel be comforted in our good memories and forthcoming good deeds.

Visit Rabbi Wein's website at www.rabbiwein.com

This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

 

Published: June 10, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 13

(13) Max Kayee, June 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Chutzpah will increase......


Firstly I would like to extend sincere condolences to Rabbi Berel Wein on the passing of his dear wife. May you Rabbi Wein be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion.

I believe in Pre World War 2 Europe, (before the Holocaust) there was a Yiddish saying that many Jewish people would often say.

"Gut Zo Mann Un Gut Ze G-d!"
Which loosely translates as "Good to Man and Good to G-d!"

This means one has to be a decent person a "metsch" when dealing with ones fellow men and a decent person when dealing with G-d.

This seem to be a common Yiddish proverb amongst pre War European Jewry.

In this affulent Post World War 2
world there seems to be an increasingly amount of chutzpa.(I think The Gemara also predicts this.. before Moshiach comes "Chutzpah will increase" "Chutzpa Yasgi!")

Everyone is challenged, all authorities, teachers, doctors, parents, judges, governments......

The challenge of our generation is how we deal with it and how we must stress 'derech aretz katma LeTorah"

(12) Alan, June 17, 2006 12:00 AM

Possibly we need to go one step further

This topic has been troubling me. Perhaps it's because as a community we evaluate who is an "observant" Jew solely by the rituals they follow/display. But it seems clearly contradictory that "many Jews who are observant but are otherwise immoral, bad people" or as the Ramban said "a person can be Torah observant, operating within the technical rules and rituals of the Torah, and nevertheless be an awful, obscene, despicable person". The Torah REQUIRES that we act in ways that would result in our not being immoral, bad, awful, obscene or despicable people by following the mitzvot that govern those qualities and actions. Maybe the question of how a person can be bad or despicable and still be considered "observant" because of the rituals followed is a BIG part of our problem. I can't see how someone can be allowed to be "recognized" as observant while displaying such bad characteristics. It seems an oxymoron that such a person is considered an "observant" Jew and leads to the conclusion - raised by the original question - that "observance" is irrelevant to making a good person. The article concludes (which I do find troubling) that a person already has to be a good person before studying Torah if he is going to be a good person after studying Torah - so Torah study theoretically would not have an effect on whether someone is a mentch. Instead, I think it has to be clear as a community that someone who ignores the moral, ethical and interpersonal requirements of Torah is in fact NOT considered "observant". If that were the case, I feel confident that someone who wants to be observant in the eyes of HaShem (and for what it's worth our community) would focus on all aspects of the Torah including those that govern our actions as they impact on other people.
Thank you for addressing this issue and I pray you will be comforted with the mourners of Zion and it sounds from your touching description of your wife that she truly was a Torah observant Jew in all of its meaning.

(11) Bertram Rothschild, June 16, 2006 12:00 AM

Torah and goodness

First, let me also offer my condolences top Rabbi Wein. Losing a wife, a lifetime companion, a loved one is cruel. I hope all goes well with him.

Does religious observance require people of good will, or does such observance produce such people. If the former, it puts the cart before the horse and undercuts the argument that religion is necessary for morality.

If the latter, that religion is necessary to produce good people, there are so many failures. Philandering rabbis, spousal abusing rabbis, Abramoff, the recent scandal about the Aaron meatpacking company. The list is long and is not confined to Jews.

(10) Joey, June 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Late planting

I think something that can be noted here is that the "good seeds" don't necessarily have to be planted in childhood; people later in life can adjust themselves to gain the good traits necessary for understanding God's wisdom. The Torah itself can help these traits come about; however, if you just get the rituals and rules without the actual good personality traits, you're missing the point. God bless!

(9) Andy, June 12, 2006 12:00 AM

disturbing article 'put a hold on Torah learning?

"However, for those who do not have that meritorious training as a basis for their entire persona, the Torah will, like rain on fields of thorns and weeds, be a poisonous and negative force in their lives."
If true and it appears to be so then this is most troubling as it seems that there are many who were raised in the Orthodox community and even more commonly in the non observant community without the proper foundation to utilize Torah positively. Better they keep far from Torah so they will not bring about a desecration of Gods name on earth is the logical conclusion however to state that a Jew should keep far from Torah learning [whatever his level of personal development]does not sit right as that is I'm taught our primary reason for being. If it is true that "The rabbis therefore wisely stated that "good traits and behavior patterns -- derech eretz -- must precede the study of Torah." Morals, probity, honesty, modesty, care and tolerance for others, self-worth and self-discipline, all must precede Torah study." then a sea change must occur within Jewish education. This needs to be stressed in primary schools and yeshivas for BT and FFB students before serious Torah learning begins and seriously reinforced throughout ones Torah education/lifetime. If not it seems that Torah learning will God forbid be be utilized for hilul HaShem. It is a source of shame that jokes such as the shortest book ever written "Jewish business ethics" or multimillion dollar Bar/Bat Mitzvahs that are examples of vulgarity and extreme material excess are not only delusions of antisemites.
I have enjoyed Rabbi Wein's tapes relating to Jewish/world history for years and extend my condolences on the loss of his wife. May he be comforted with the mourners of Zion.

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