First I will describe what I have been told how an Orthodox Jews should understand piousness: about trust, prayer, fear of Heaven and eternal reward. Yet, I don’t like this enough. May I suggest some additional goals and will you like them?
I call in the title normal-in-our-days piousness “lesser” but don’t assume for a second that the ones who behave via them would be substandard, Heaven forbid. They’re often the best of the best, the most moral people, examples to all of us. If only I would be granted to be as pious as them! Only, I think that their method may be up for supplementation.
As the fourth until sixth word of our main prayer say, we need to follow our Judaism and that of our ancestors. And our own understanding comes first. Yet, that doesn’t come instead of the old but in tandem with it. (Which demands that the new does not run counter to the old.)
Trust in G^d
Many kosher books have appeared lately, to help Jews build trust in our Creat^r. Secularization and knowledge of Science and disasters in the world make that we need to make more effort to work on having trust.
These books seem to preach that we should believe in Goodness because there is a lot and there is proof of more coming our way, or if there isn’t, believe without proof in a leap of faith.
This is what Marx called: Religion as opium for the masses. If you’re calm enough that all is or will be OK, you won’t try to fight wrongs too much. We won’t fight that some starve while others waste because that’s G^d-given and natural, no? But we expect physicians to help heal every sick!
Ideally, prayer should be: talking to our heavenly Father. No doubt, the greatest among us manage to pray like that, at least sometimes.
But many of us seem to use prayer as hypnosis, repeating the mantras until we almost believe in them. Our prayers are amazing, so we could do worse than memorizing them. But is that what prayer should be?
Fear of Heaven
The few who try to apply fear of Heaven, seem more in the grip of fear of death than fear of Heaven, really. This can become so exaggerated that it may seem as obeying fears rather than G^d.
Tremendous fear paralyses our actions and diminishes our ability to think. That can never be a good thing. Besides, fear wears off. To keep ourselves in place we would need to re-scare ourselves all the time.
In case one still finds this valuable, let me point out that there is already a religion that perfected this, which is not Judaism. Islam teaches that Muslims should train themselves five times a day in submission to our Heavenly King, concentrating on the words “G^d is great.” That is all very sweet and valuable but that is what Jews should learn from Muslims?
The Sages teach us that we should not serve G^d like a servant works for his superior, in order to get paid. However, they also point out that we can at first obey Divine Commands for reward, because that greediness will disappear and leave us with a habit to walk in G^d’s ways. Yet, ask a devote religious person if he would make any changes to his life if he knew for sure that he had no afterlife. One person, locally universally regarded as saint, answered me: Then why would I do any of this?
Let me suggest different ways, especially for Jews.
Trust in G^d
Humans can function well in two ways: A. Doing their very best using their brains, opportunities and talents, and B. Going with the flow, relaxed, without a worry and optimistically.
Well, let me suggest that our trust should show in three ways: only A, then A+B and then B alone:
- We should not take it so easy to begin with. We should first make the greatest effort we can make. We should apply ourselves as if atheists.
- However, while we give it our most, we should stay optimistic and our efforts should not be tainted by desperation. We should work jointly with G^d.
- And after we did our most, we should let it go and trust that all is well that ends well, and that it will. We should be like relaxed babies.
So, holy trust is not just letting G^d do all the work. For that He doesn’t need us. Rather, trust is: believing that we can make a difference because otherwise G^d would not have put us here, working together with Him to improve ourselves and the world (that is the Heavenly invitation) and knowing that when we do our best, G^d will do the rest.
And Jewish trust should be based on investigation and thought, not on demand and submission. Investigation means: check out why (not: if) we have reason to trust the active operation of Goodness in the universe.
For instance: Notice and appreciate the miraculous ongoing survival of the Jewish People and its specialness and weighty responsibility.
Or: See how physical immortality would not have worked for humanity but now it can, and we’re getting there, and how amazing it is that the Talmudic Sages already predicted the slaying of the Angel of Death.
Our prayer texts are not to pacify and hypnotize us. They are rather meant to annoy us. (For this we need to be honest enough. Otherwise, words would seem to have no meaning and prayer wouldn’t work.)
Just imagine the following. Someone stole your food for the day and you go to the police and they don’t listen to you but instead they demand you say: “All is fine. Thank You for all I have. I’m sure You will provide.” Would you comply? And if you would, wouldn’t you be furious?
That is our prayer. Say the words of the Prayerbook to G^d, contrast them in your head with life as you know it and tell the B^ss what you think about the difference between the two, right now and here.
Patriarch Abraham showed us the way by arguing with G^d Himself, even defending wicked people. Israel means: fought with G^d. Only know that He won’t fight us. He’ll listen supportively, trusting us that we can make sense of life despite all the contradictions, and improve.
Sometimes He will only provide if we plead enough so that we could become instrumental in bringing down the Good, and not be just passive recipients as if “obviously” the world would be entitled (G^d as ATM) or as if blind luck or nature would suffice (G^d is unreliable, Heaven forbid). And sometimes we might not see results of our passionate requests but at least we then may have the good feeling that we prayed all we could.
Fear of Heaven
Fear of Heaven is just a safety belt, to prevent us from committing rash unwise actions or uttering quick stupid words that we would regret soon after, or from only considering short-term results of our actions or passivity.
This light fear is maintained by thoughts like: Remember that you are mortal; that a bad wish on others might hit you first; that certain as you now are of being right, tomorrow you might find that you were wrong; that in the end, we’ll pay heavily for our anger and lack of love and care; that we should hope for the best but also prepare for the worst.
Regret’s good but prevention’s better. Our seat belts must save us in (or from) emergencies but shouldn’t impede our breathing ’round the clock.
Let’s ask ourselves: Do I have the integrity to serve G^d to the highest degree even if I knew for sure that no eternal reward would be coming my way for any of it? Just like John Lennon sang: Imagine there’s no Heaven. Would we still pay charity if we knew that G^d doesn’t take bribes? Would we still be honest and committed if no one saw us? Shouldn’t we? Do we really need Hell to shape up or could our self-respect make us do the right thing from love of G^d, not fear or greed?
Well, we should. We should work for that kind of righteousness.
Do you implement some of this already? Would you try any of this?
No, I’m not joking. But may you have a good and happy month of Adar and Shabbat!