As I write this, we are 10 days out from the most horrible terrorist attack to ever hit Israel. Despite being a shomer Shabbat Jew, my Simchat Torah, for all practical purposes, ended early, as we learned through word of mouth what had occurred in Israel.
Since that time, I’ve been observing the responses of many religious Jewish friends and acquaintances – whether their religious expressions fall into the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Orthodox, Hasidic or independent categories. The responses seem to fall into three general categories:
- Cause and Effect Belief – Dangerously close to magical thinking, I saw many fellow rabbis and other well-meaning individuals use the tragedy as an opportunity to engage in, and encourage others to join in specific actions / mitzvot as a means of bringing God to somehow intervene in the events taking place. There were and are well-intentioned recommendations that include all sorts of things: baking challah, putting on tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, wearing tzitzit (and sending them to unsuspecting Israeli soldiers), reciting Shema, reciting tehillim. For the record, I do a pretty good number of these things regularly. They are meaningful to me on their own, and serve to connect me to the Jewish people. But the way some people were using these mitzvot carried an implication that engaging in these particular behaviors now would directly change the balance of the universe and cause a miraculous change in the course of history.
- Personal Change and Inspiration – Many use prayer and mitzvot not to change the external world (or God’s mind), but symbolically, or to change and inspire themselves. I watched people pray and show up to synagogue because they wanted to connect with a higher cause at a time of extreme angst. Some people lit shabbat candles (or lit an extra candle) to connect with the idea of bringing light into a dark world. There were those people who chose to pick up a new mitzva as a way of showing unity with the Jewish people as well as with Jewish tradition.
- Activist Religion – Then there were those who stayed away from the symbolic actions and expressed their religiosity in concrete terms. For them, the mitzvah of tzedaka was to be observed, with funds to go specifically to those organizations doing work on the ground in Israel. The emphasis on prayer was that it be done in public gatherings that emphasized the well-being of Israel and Israeli captives.
While watching all this around me, I also observed myself. At one time in my life, my Judaism was of the Cause and Effect variety. It was my mother’s Judaism, one in which, if I misbehaved, I was told that “God will punish you”. It’s also implicit in the Jewish belief in s’char v’onesh, the idea of divine reward and punishment. And as any student of Talmud will tell you, that version of reward and punishment was already being challenged in the 2nd century to the point that the rabbis suggested that maybe the reward and punishment wasn’t going to happen in our lifetimes but in some afterlife.
At this point, I’m much more of a Personal Change and Inspiration Jew in my internal spiritual life, and an Activist Religion person and rabbi in my public life. Over the past 10 days, my religious expression has been raising funds for Israel, helping to organize and participate in vigils, supporting rabbis and educators in their work, and reaching out with ahavat Yisrael (love for my fellow Jew) to my Israeli and Jewish friends and family. I look back lovingly at the Rabbi Arnie who once believed and practiced in ways that no longer resonate for me. And I accept the symbolic and activist Rabbi Arnie that I now practice.
As you go through the deep emotions that most Jews and all Israelis are currently experiencing, I encourage you to watch your soul and to find the path that truly expresses who are and wish to be.
Wishing you strength and courage as you find your way through the crisis. May all our actions help lead Israel to a place of security, and may our beloved homeland and our entire world, one day be blessed with Shalom, with peace.