Monday, June 26, 2006

Going Back (My Way)



For some reason, my family and I are driving from Louisville, KY to Edison, NJ and beyond over the next two days. So being a child of the Information Age, I use Google Maps to find my way across America. Just so happens that we have decided to stop in Bedford, PA for tomorrow night's lodging. Google Maps, in an apparent fit of concealed wisdom, has added a one hour detour to its route for us. MapQuest seems to have no problem sending me through what may be dangerous territory. So against better judgment, I will use MapQuest for part of my journey tomorrow.

But here is the thing - I pick and choose based on what I wish to believe. What strikes me about this is how this simply choice mirrors the way the American Jews pick and choose today. In Steve Cohen and Arnold Eisen's book "The Jew Within", they identify a trend in the way that moderately affiliated Jews behave, namely that the self is the Sovereign that guides them as they live their Jewish lives. The choose what they do today for personal reasons, and may choose tomorrow to do the same or to do differently, based on changing circumstances or moods.

Recently, I was visited by an acquaintance from another Midwestern city. He was debating on coming to Louisville for Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) for the all night learning session or coming the next day before Shabbat (which would make him fly on a Yom Tov, a day when observant Jews do not normally fly). In addition, this person who was into the all night learning that night, and keeps Shabbat, was picked up for a pre-wedding gathering on Shabbat afternoon. He admitted to us that he keeps Shabbat, but weddings are a time when he finds himself breaking Shabbat.

I mention this not to criticize but to illustrate the point that this individual, who is a serious and committed Jewish by many standards, still does as he pleases. I think that Cohen and Eisen's idea of the Sovereign Self goes beyond the moderately affiliated. In American, all Jews are in some sense Jews by choice. What we do, we do because we choose to do so, not because we are commanded. Perhaps, even those who feel commanded, choose to feel commanded.

The Rabbis debate which is better: to do when commanded or to do when not commanded. In American thinking, where individual freedom is valued very highly, people would probably say that it is better to do when not commanded. But the Rabbis see it another way: To do something when asked by someone else is a higher level of doing. In other words, doing the commandments for the Rabbis is all about being in relationship with God and acting out of loyalty to that relationship, which is called "commandedness." I wonder for how many Jews today their "doing of the commandments" stems from their relationship with God? Perhaps it does not matter. in the doing, for whatever reason, people catch a glimpse of the divine, a spark of holiness in their lives. Perhaps they will catch on fire (in a metaphorical sense) and their relationship to the Divine will grow, increasing their sense of commandedness as they seek out that feeling, that sense of the Holy once again.

That would be a real going back to the beginning, where everything began. Not the East Coast, but to the Root of All, the One.

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