Joel Smith
A Jew who thinks for himself

the finger that points at the moon

I would say, using a phrase from Zen Buddhist literature, Torah is only “the finger that points to the moon”.

Our allegiance to our ancestors is…”a fine thing”. The religious, historical, and wisdom literature of the Jewish people is…it goes without saying is…”world class” ….

…. it’s foundation, its non sin qua  that without which there is nothing, is Torah. I am not about to quarrel with Torah (I’m not mad – and really respect Talmud Torah, I do) but I am pointing out that Torah is (in the words of a Zen saying) “the finger that points to the moon”….

I’m suggesting that we can revere the Torah, and yet be captivated by other entrances…and that that’s  it’s possible to have put your allegiance to the Jews even more than your relationship with hashem Himself. You can think your first loyalty is to your tribe and its culture, or you may think it’s Gd whoever or whatever It is… is before any religious group and its literature. I say Torah is only the finger that points at the moon.

Gd may well have provided a covenant with our distant ancestors. I don’t know, but I’ll accept that. The orthodox Jews claim that man need not “receive teaching” from any other source, because all we need to know is found in Torah (and explicated in Talmud). I have no quarrel with these people, the doteem, but hashem opened our eyes: we were meant to see, to look and gather information, and think.

….Here I see I digress. I ramble a little…consider it my interesting style…I’ll do it again.. ..

I think it is “legitimate” to ask that if Gd exists, is there any proof or evidence that He cares one way or the other how we behave (much less believe…)? (I realize, of course, that many, many readers feel they could answer this, but allow me to continue…)  Those not wishing to pursue this line of inquiry are entitled to accept unconditionally their own interpretation of what’s Torah – or that of their rabbi. I have the utmost respect for my fellow Jews who observe the mitzvot. But why not ask the question? Is there a fear that we might “insult God”,  provoke His ego?!.  Maybe. Do you think free thinking might undermine our faith in the faith of our fathers? Reader: I’m addressing you. Why not ask questions about Gd? Do you think free thinking might undermine our faith in the faith of our fathers?

I understand a reluctance to play with the faith of our grandparents. I don’t want to be seen as an enemy of traditional Judaism. I love being a Jew. But – and this is aimed at the religious establishment in Israel in particular – I say we Jews are individuals, and as such, one size doesn’t fit all. We are not cogs in a machine. I respect our Torah and tradition, but that said…I believe Gd wants all of us – us individuals – to see if we can tune into the Presence of Gd, and walk accordingly (presumably, that is what halacha is all about)(but I think there’s more to it than that). These are not the times that were the way it was once upon a time. High priests don’t offer up sacrifices of goats and sheep and bullocks (…well, maybe bullocks). They didn’t have cell phones back then.

It is my contention that we must allow the evolution of our religion, etc. and accept the challenge: we are to be “a light unto the nations”. I am all for that challenge – but the world resists (boy, does it ever!) Hashem wanted – and still wants us to show the others how to behave (but you’ve got to be careful of what you say…).

What we have is a collection of literature  (religious and historical in nature)  known as Torah – both specific, and general. That’s our foundation. Ten Commandments. Tanach and Talmud. It’s not my thing, what’s found in the scriptures – which is not so say that I don’t respect the findings of tens of thousands of smart Jews, back in the day,  and rabbinic Judaism in particular, I do – but I want to think as best I can, regardless of the way the rabbis have shaped the conversation. Furthermore,  I want myself, and other members of the tribe to take responsibility for our righteousness.

But how are we today…?  Anti-semitism aside…Is our spiritual energy low? If so, why? Of course, in this regard, you may count on it, the orthodox don’t feel like the more or less secular and the more or less assimilated Western Jew. Has Torah become like an anchor, not a sail? Maybe not – but if so, can anything be done? (because for those who live lives according to their faith, I am told that it is not like an anchor). Torah is a great book, and it is ours, but still, there are many American Jews walking around unaware of a dark spiritual chamber within them, like a forgotten room in a castle…. Talmud/Torah and its ways lead to Gd, but there are other paths that Jews may follow to encounter Gd. For many, a life lived with Talmud/Torah is a good thing for them,(and in fact, a lot of people). For others….they have to do the work themselves

I think it’s not so much our formal religion that is hurting us, I think it is our human nature responding to the weight of our civilization. Increasingly, the shape and content of the world is affecting our outlook, our sense of security or lack…we look to our government now for help when before, it was to Gd  or our coreligionists.  That old time religion doesn’t  mean much to a good number of  Jewish people nowadays. Good? bad? indifferent, whatever. But the yezer ha tov is out there..the impulse to do good…..

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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