Prophetic ideas and ideals…. What is religion?

In the first academic semester of 1969-1970, I was teaching a university class in the literature of the Hebrew prophets. Emphasis was on the prophetic ideas and ideals in particular of Amos and his contemporary, Hosea.

I stressed that in our understanding of the prophet’s message to his people, we are, at the same time, in search of areas of common and universal concern to us, then and now, today in our affluent societies.

That our search might be more meaningful, it became apparent that we needed to examine our own terminologies and definitions. We discussed together in the classroom ideas of “religion vs. morality” and the terms “religion vs. observance”.

Several of my students argued in fine Talmudic “pilpulistic” tradition, each in turn accepting or rejecting one another’s definitions. Nevertheless, we had not been completely satisfied.

“This is good”, I told them. “I hope that we shall never be completely satisfied, for then what shall we have to search for and how can we “argue” or “reason” together?”

The consensus of the class was that for prophetic Judaism OBSERVANCE means relationship between man and God while MORALITY means relationship between man and his fellow man.

From there began the semester-long question: What is religion?”

When we began the study of the Book of Hosea we attempted to understand similarities and differences between that prophet and his contemporary, Amos, whose book we had earlier read. We examined the prophetic concepts of gloom, doom, despair and destruction.

When we considered the message of Hosea, what was meant by an “optimism of grace?” What were the major differences between chapters 1-3 and chapter 11? Why is there a sudden change from the husband-wife relationship to the father-son relationship?”

I asked my students “what is the very relevant essence of Hosea’s teaching for us? What does he say to YOU?”

In the class, the students were concerned with the meaning and nature of love. We agreed that Hosea was a prophet of love. One bright student suggested that we refer to Eric Fromm’s SANE SOCIETY for a more in-depth study of the love relationship.  How do we understand covenantal marriage? How can prostitution and marital infidelity destroy the fiber of individual vs. the collective personality?

The major task which we set before us was to examine semantically and etymologically the distinctions between LOVE (“ahava”) and between STEADFAST LOVE (“chesed”).

“For STEADFAST LOVE I desire and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings”, (Hosea 6:6)

We related the Hebrew ideas of “ahava” and “chesed” with the Greek concepts of “agape”, “eros” and “filia”. The students seemed able to accept the Hellenistic distinctions clearly. It was with the Hebrew ideals that we wrestled. It reminded us of the Chanukah story of the battles between the Pharisaic Jews and the Hellenistic Jews.

I gave my class an assignment to define STEADFAST LOVE and LOVE from their own perspective.  I have kept over the years some of the definitions which they proposed.

“Steadfast love is an unconditional love which need not be mutual”

“Steadfast love implies a willingness to close one’s eyes to someone’s faults”

“Steadfast love means to continue to love even though there may be no good transformation in the behavior of the one who is loved”

“Love is an emotion; steadfast love is a commitment”

“Love is passing but steadfast love is permanent”

“For Hosea, ethics flowed from religion and he was concerned to make the source pure”

“Man needs to know suffering in order to find purity. We can “sympathize” with a sufferer but because we ourselves do not suffer we cannot “empathize” with him.”

By the end of the semester we were still unable to find an acceptable-to-all definition of religion.

I ended the debate by relating a tale from the Chassidic literature.

A soap maker and a rabbi were walking along a street side by side. The soap maker turned to the rabbi and asked, “Rabbi, what good is religion? The world is full of tragedy, suffering and misery. After thousands of years of religious teaching, preaching sermons, praying for love and peace, none of it has been achieved. So tell me, Rabbi, what is the good of religion?”

The rabbi remained silent for a few moments. Then he noticed a young child playing in the mud, covered with dirt from head to toe. He turned to the soap maker and asked him, “Do you see that child covered in filth? You are a soap maker. What good does your soap do?”  The soap maker replied, “Soap cannot do anything unless it is used”.

“Exactly”, replied the rabbi. So too is it with religion. It does no good unless it is used”.

And thus I concluded my remarks with a “Eureka! We have found the definition of religion”.

For religiously observant Jews or Christians, religion is based largely upon the written word, upon the advice and teachings found in both the Old and New Testaments. Most of them follow those words to the “letter” of the law. But for the ancient Hebrew prophets (and for me, personally) equally important (if not more so) is the “spirit” of the law.

A classical definition of Jewish teaching is found in Hillel’s response to a pagan who came to him seeking a way to convert to Judaism.  Hillel’s reply was simple and pure:

“That which is hateful to thyself do not do unto thy fellowman”. The New Testament parallels it with “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. Both have been called “The Golden Rule”.

But if one dislikes or despises his neighbor, where is “love”?

In our society in Israel today there is regrettably little love for those who are different from us. Forgetting for a moment the discord and sometimes even hate between Jews and non-Jews, what of the feelings of ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox Jews for one another?

Where is the love of traditional Jews for liberal or secular Jews, for Conservative or Reform Jews?  Neither the letter of the law nor the spirit of the law is evident.

If Israeli religious authorities were to follow the examples of love for one another as were demonstrated by our first Chief Rabbi, our beloved Rav Kook, there would be no conflict between us. All of us would tolerate one another. All of us would be able to discard the differences which are separating us because we would have discovered the pathway to love and to respect.

And that, for me, would be the fulfillment of the prophetic ideals of genuine love.

According to Israeli statistics, only 19% of the Jewish population are Orthodox. The remaining 81% of Israeli Jews are either secular and non-observant or make their own individual rules for Jewish observances. The Yiddish expression sums it up clearly…”jeder man macht shabbes far sich alein”… everyone makes up his own rules.

Yet inspite of everything, almost 100% of Israeli Jews observe Pesach in one way or another. There are those who will eat chametz outside but the seder plate at their table is covered with matzot. These are Jews who want to remember a tradition but who do not want to be bound to the laws of the tradition.

They demonstrate one of the characteristics of love in memory. Recalling how their parents and grandparents observed Pesach, they make an attempt, albeit a feeble one, to preserve the tradition.

What is needed most of all is an understanding of the words of the prophet Amos speaking in God’s Name, who declared:

“I hate and despise your festivals. Take away from me your burnt offerings. To the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice well up as the waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream”. (Chapter 5)

I summed up the discussion with my students by stressing justice and righteousness as the ideals of religion, more so than only following ancient laws and customs. Both are needed. Both are required.

“Lo midrash ha ikkar elah ha maaseh”…. It is not what one says that is important. More so, it is what one does.  It is a matter of deed over creed.

Celebrating the Pesach seder requires of us to read carefully the words written in the haggadah. “Avadim hayinu”… in the past we were slaves. But now we are “b’nai chorin”, free people.

A free people must commit to the wise words of our ancient Hebrew prophets. In order to show love, to demonstrate true love, first we must pursue justice and follow it with righteousness.

That, I told my students, is my personal definition of religion.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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