Joel Smith
A Jew who thinks for himself

Maybe it’s just a question of emphasis

I acknowledge the centrality of Torah as the religion of the Jews. It’s our foundation, and culture shared by people now living all over the world. But in this matter, I am a progressive. I wish to discuss what I think is essential to Judaism. And while what I seek may be implicit in traditional Jewish education, I say let’s make it explicit. I say it shouldn’t be that we are devoted to learning (and authoritarian ethics); it shouldn’t be about knowledge; it should be about acting well, just doing what is required of us as Jewish people. And let’s emphasize what’s required of us: simply to be just,  to love mercy, and walk humbly with your Gd – all the rest is commentary.

I believe that if our religion, the religion of the Jews, is to remain meaningful to Jewish people who are not attuned to that old time religion, it must be made clear and unambiguous in language that’s understood.

Never mind  the pilpul and exegesis, emphasize that you are to be kind, honest and just, and love mercy, too.. be clear headed most of the time, try to be understanding when dealing with others… that’s what Gd wants – Realize that other people are burdened by more than you can imagine, do your work well, treat others as you would have them treat you, smile (and singing a little wouldn’t hurt, either); on occasion, if your intention is good and honorable you may camouflage the truth. You know what’s right; be good to animals, and those less fortunate than you, etc.  etc. etc..

The usual response to all this is…it’s all there – in Torah – have you read it carefully? and thought about it? To which I say, “I don’t wish to argue with you about this – nor do I wish to discourage those who pursue Talmud Torah. But there are a lot of Jews who are not really connected with the religion that connects many of us to our ancestors – they are, I believe, or they feel they are,  isolated, without any spiritual support. In many, probably most cases, the spirit in them has atrophied from disuse, from lack of being called on. I believe the current religion of the Jews should emphasize thinking and feeling, rather than obedience to authority. I say we don’t need guidance from our forefathers, their talking points and so on – it can be a distraction – I ask what about trying to connect somehow with hashem yourself…? We Jews need merely to emphasize, and reemphasize, and internalize the simple concepts everyone knows or ought to know about. It’s not complex. I may not be saying anything out of the ordinary. Maybe this is Reform Judaism I am advocating.

We Jews are supposed to be “a light unto the nations” – and that means morally as well as technologically. I think we ought to pay less attention to what is kosher than what is right right now…

If we emphasize what’s kashrut, and who among the Kings of Israel were bad, and who observed the law, rather than thinking about your internal thoughts, like…”I know she’s sexy, and I know you want to flirt with her but you are a married man…you must not flirt  with this woman.” Emphasize this among our young people. Or, for instance, you walk away from the register with more change than you were entitled to – that’s wrong. Jewish youth should be educated along these lines more so than what is taught, I believe, in modern Hebrew schools (and if I am wrong…good!) Moral values. Have the young person ask him or her self how can this be right..?  Internalize right from wrong. I would encourage young people (and old) to read Ecclesiastics and Proverbs. And I certainly would have them read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s books, but above all…think and feel and feel some more…you are a creature created by The Creator Himself. You can be more or less noble.

The bottom line here is simply that our religion today needn’t represent only a minority of us, it can with sufficient attention to everyday life become more a part of our ordinary everyday lives. This blog today is about emphasis. I say let’s accentuate our ethical concerns, and, yes,  de-emphasize the study of  halacha. I know the orthodox won’t approve. But I say let’s get people thinking for themselves (and yes, I know: this is supposed to the aim of pilpul in a yeshiva); let individual Jews consider their actions in the light of simple principals and mores. Let them get involved by thinking – as well as observe what the rabbis teach about our religion. I guess behind all this… be genuinely involved with hashem Himself. Let individual Jews be involved in their own religion; but let them take it seriously; let them take responsibility. Have them realize that they are contributing to our mission: to be, or not to be, ” a light unto the nations”.

About the Author
Born and raised in Chicago, 1938. Both my parents Jewish. Bar mitzvahed, and supposedly Conservative. U. of Ill. B.A. then 2 years in the army, then to the U of Montana, M.A., M.F.A. Taught, drove a cab in Chicago, spent some years in CA. Was mentored by Noah ben Shea in a Religious Studies program at International College. Traveled internationally. Spent 1975 and 6 in Israel. Painted (I'm an artist). Held 15 jobs (including teaching English in several countries). Managed to buy 3 acres of country in north Florida where I live today doing things that please me.
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