David Walk
David Walk

Piety Metric

Most of Western society perceives itself as going through a ‘crisis of religion’. This crisis is defined by precipitous drops in membership and attendance at houses of worship. In 2010, 61% of Americans belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, today that number is 47%, first time in history that this stat has fallen below 50%. On the flip side, the number of Americans who profess no religion has risen from 8% to 21% over the same decade. Therefore, we can clearly state that America is becoming less pious, right? Wrong! Today, 78% of Americans believe in God, and 55% claim to pray every day. The ‘crisis’ isn’t one of religious faith; it’s a crisis of religious institutions. That’s a horse of a totally different color, i.e., purple. 

When Avraham Avinu explained to Avimelech concerning his fear over sojourning in Eretz Plishtim, he didn’t quote statistics on religious event attendance. Instead, he claimed, ‘The one thing missing here is the fear of God (Breishit 20:11).’ This ‘fear of God’ isn’t a statistic. It’s an evaluation of an atmosphere, which is very hard to measure. 

This finally brings us to this week’s Torah reading. In this Shabbat’s second parsha, we have a list of blessings and curses. How is it determined who deserves rewards, and who deserves punishments? The criteria are simply stated, but not easily quantified. 

The good guys, ‘follow My statutes, and are careful to keep My mitzvot (Vayikra 26:4).’ While those worthy of punishment are those who, ’Don’t pay attention to Me, or perform My mitzvot; they denigrate My decrees and my judgments disgust them (verses 14-15).’ So, even though attending houses of worship is a positive thing, reward and punishment are clearly based upon actual behavior in the real world. 

I find it fascinating that the rewards are for actually observing the Torah’s rules. You just have to ‘walk the walk’. On the other hand, all the numerous curses listed in our parsha are reserved for more than just non-compliance. We’re informed that the ‘bad guys’ also loathe and detest the Divine legal system.  

Attitude is a major factor in the criteria for punishment. This idea is further reinforced in verse 21, when the verse adds, ‘if you encounter Me B’KERI.’ The JPS translation for B’KERI is ‘with hostility’, but I prefer Rav Kaplan’s ‘with indifference’. This echoes Elie Wiesel’s famous quote that the opposite of love isn’t hatred, but indifference. 

I think that three different categories are being described. One group is positive and worthy of great reward, and they simply heed God’s instructions and act accordingly. There are, however, two negative classifications. The first is adamantly negative towards the Divine legal system. They hate receiving instruction from on High. The second negative set incudes those who are totally indifferent to God, Divine law, and, I assume, spirituality. It’s not that they hate it; it’s that they ignore its very existence. 

The Ohr HaChayim points out that this third designation only appears after a number of the punishments have already been visited upon the Jewish people. In spite of this suffering, their reaction denies God’s involvement in our world and in our lives. This is not only horrendous, but evokes the worst possible reaction (MIDA K’NEGED MIDA) from God: I, too, will behave indifferently towards you (verse 24). 

Does anyone seriously believe that the Jewish nation would have survived all these millennia without direct intervention (HASGACHA PRATIT) on our behalf by God?  The greatest proof of God’s existence is the improbable continuity of the Jewish nation. In the version of these curses recorded in Sefer Devarim this phenomenon of Divine indifference is called HESTER PANIM (hiding the Divine Countenance). There is no greater catastrophe for Jewish survival. 

Our parsha clearly presents the criteria for a successful religious, spiritual existence: just follow the instructions laid out quite clearly in the instruction manual called the Torah. Do the good deeds; avoid the harmful ones. It’s so easy to state but often hard to implement, and, perhaps, even harder to quantify. 

I don’t blame these surveys for trying to assess how religious a society is based upon concrete numbers, like membership and attendance, even though I don’t necessarily trust the religious organizations to report accurately. We know that the true success of a spiritual life can’t be quantified so easily.  We also know that it’s based on how one ‘walks’ through the time spent on earth, not where one sits a few times a week. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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