Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Quest For Holiness

It isn't that hard to figure ou what the meaning of Judaism is.  God Himself tells us that we should become holy because He is holy.  Our Chazal have provided ample examples of God's holiness and how we can emulate it.  If that's the case, why are we, as a Torah-observant community, failing in so many ways to reach that goal?
I would venture to suggest that it's because the three main branches of the observant community -Modern Orthodoxy, Religious Zionist and Chareidi - have filtered the quest fo holiness right out of our daily lives.
Oh to be sure there are the routines we all go through.  We say "Modeh ani" and put on ou tefillin every morning, we mumble the requisite berachos before we eat, and so on but how many times a day do we stop and consciously make those acts part of a question towards a greater level of holiness?
This happens across the spectrum, from left to right.  Want some quick examples?  I was recent at a Pesach hotel where we, the guests, were fed for 8 days like Hansel and Gretel.  By dinner time on the 8th day of the holiday I had no further interest in food and I wasn't the only one.  But one hour or so after the end of the holiday, where were the occupants of the program?  Most of them were in line waiting for pizza and other chometz-enriched goodies.  From the eagerness of the people standing in line you'd almost think we'd been fasting for a week, not gorging.
How about Yom Kippur?  We spend much of the 25 hours it contains standing and praying for forgiveness from our Maker.  We fast, avoid leather shoes, and pour our hearts out in prayer.  Then, as the post-hoilday Maariv ends what do we do?  We make a run for the kitchen to eat something.
Just like on Pesach where we've spent 8 days elevated ourselves to a higher level through our avoidance of chometz only to throw it away the first chance we get, so too we end Yom Kippur by clambering down right back to the level we started at.
Why?  Because for many of us Pesach isn't about spiritual growth and distancing oneself from the gashmius in one's life.  It's about not eating bread, going psychotic in cleaning the house and trying to come up with the most impressive d'var Torah one can which means that the minute the holiday and its restrictions end we carry nothing away.  Same thing with Yom Kippur.  Are we really trying to emerge out the other end of the day closer to an angelic state, clean of sin and closer to the Creator, or are we just going through the motions because that's what "the book" says we have to do.
In the coming weeks leading up the Shavous perhaps we should think about this failing so many of us are susceptible to.  Instead of avoiding certain things during Sefirah because the Mishnah Berurah says we have to, might we contemplate avoiding them because of a sense of understanding of why those restrictions are there in the first place?
And why are they there?  Chazal tell us that 24 000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died during Sefirah because they didn't show respect for one another.  Sefirah restrictions aren't there because Chazal and the Poskim had nothing better to do than come up with new rules (on the other hand, don't get me started on quinoa and kitniyos).  They wanted us to spend this time focusing on how we can better treat our fellows as we quest spiritually from yetzias Mitzrayim to matan Torah.  I might venture that someone who holds by every restriction in the books during Sefirah but never contemplates this point hasn't really observed Sefirah but has simply gone through the motions.
Now I know this is a difficult thing to consider.  Constant self-awareness, constant reflection on one's actions including the habitual ones are incredibly hard.  The greatness of our Avos is due to their ability to surmount any difficulties and achieve that state.  We who are as nothing compared to them cannot hope to reach that level but on the other hand, Rachmana liba ba'ey.  God wants the heart and it is the effort that He rewards, not necessarily the results.  Perhaps we can try to inject some understanding into our actions so as to make them more meaningful and improve our lot as a nation.


Bob Miller said...

What kind of Pesach hotel program would you envision to generate a more spiritual chag and aftermath?

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

It's not the program. People are just as likely to be sitting at home saying "Did the Rabbi buy the chometz back? Did the Rabbi buy the chometz back? Did the Rabbi buy the chometz back?" and then rush to the local supermarket to get some bagels. It's the attitude that the only reason one avoided chometz for 8 days is because one had to, not because there was a higher purpose to it.

AztecQueen2000 said...

It's a noble sentiment. Unfortunately, human nature will always get in the way. I wish the Torah was a guaranteed refiner of human nature. It's what I was promised, and it's why I've put so many restrictions on myself in the name of holiness.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

But that's my point. Torah is supposed to be a refiner of human nature but only if you perform the mitzvos for a higher purpose, not just simply because you're going through the motions. We're supposed to overcome human nature and see deeper than that.

Shlomo1 said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful post much appreciated BTW I've heard that in sefirah we are also mourning for the wholesale destruction of Jewish communities during the Crusades

ahg said...

Just an idea:

People cannot see the forest for the trees because the rabbis erected too many trees.

If we just couldn't eat leavened grain products for 8 days, then it would be easier to appreciate the bigger picture. Add in Kitniyot, and you eliminate 80% of the foods we are accustomed to eating today (because they all have some form of corn oil/syrup/starch or soy or peanuts, etc,) and it becomes burdensome. Throw in the fact that the Jew brand Pesach food companies tend to accommodate the non-gebroks folks (an absurdity I wont get into now) and it makes what's left taste like dreck and what do you expect? Should we all go to bed after Pesach thinking- what's the rush? we can wait until Sunday to turn things back over. Let's enjoy this time a little longer...

You can extend this same theory to other areas too.

If davening in the morning consisted of putting on talis and tefillin and reciting shema and the amidah it would be easy for everyone to appreciate it and put their heart and soul into their prayers.
If shacharit consisted of shema, its preceding and following brachot and the amidah, that too would work well for most.
If shacharit consisted of shema and its brachot, the amidah and Pesukei D'zimra, and you recited the personally applicable Birchat HaShachar as needed at home that too would work for a lot of people.
But alas, we've added Karbanot, Tachnun, Uva L'tzion, Aleinu, on days with Torah reading we've added prayers for removing and returning the Torah's to the Ark, and in our day a couple passages of Tehillim....
So, of course that leave's most people today wanting to say as quick as they can and GET OUT OF THERE. There's too much added in, that all they can think about now is what they have to do when they get to work.

I don't have answers to propose to these problems. But, I think I might be on to something in identifying the source of the problem and why Torah observance doesn't have the big picture results we're all taught it should.

Anonymous said...

Good to have you back, Garnel.

ahg--I hear you.

Bob Miller said...

Our limited Pesach diet did not bother anyone in the family. Maybe it helps to have a simpler off-Pesach diet to begin with.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

ahg,those are all good points. I recall hearing a lecture by Rav Hershel Schechter, shlit"a, who said exactly that. Once upon a time davening was basically the Shema and Amidah. If you were particularly pious you said pseukei d'zimrah. Now it's more about rushing through to finish everything so you can get to work on time.
What we do and how we do it is something we really need to examine.

Adam Zur said...

The Blog of Garnel Ironheart---The Quest For Holiness-
sub title: The thing in itself and the connection between morality and holiness

some sorted thoughts

First I think holiness belongs to the realm of the thing in itself.
Things-in-themselves are the way that reality exists apart from our experience, our consciousness, our minds, and all the conditions that our minds might impose on phenomenal objects. The question occurs, then, whether concepts like substance and cause and effect apply to things-in-themselves the same way that they do to phenomena. --like the kabalah of the Isaac Luria

By way of contrast let us think about Taoism that expects that by not-doing, by not thinking about moral principles, things will take care of themselves.

Exterminate benevolence, discard rectitude [righteousness],
And the people will again be filial...
[Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau, Penguin Books, 1963, p. 23, XIX:43]

Or for example: is there anything in Zen and the Art of Archery that might provide some moral principle prejudicial to things like Naziism? Really, no. D.T. Suzuki himself, writing in the 1930's, said: "Zen has no special doctrine or philosophy... It is, therefore, extremely flexible in adapting itself to almost any philosophy and moral doctrine as long as its intuitive teaching is not interfered with. It may be found wedded to anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy, atheism or idealism, or any political or economic dogmatism."

As he was writing, "fascism" actually meant Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, and "communism" actually meant Josef Stalin. They were all of them, indeed, a "destructive force" -- they may have been responsible for the deaths of up on 70 million people.

So at least we see the connection between holiness and morality in the Torah seems to be a bit better than Zen

On the other hand: Many people have come to believe that the essence and the meaning of religion is really political activism, based on Marxist or socialist economic principles.

This all serves merely to bleed religion of anything specifically religious, or indeed to dismiss it as superfluous. When the humanist sees dogma and ritual as, at best, metaphors for rational truths that the masses are not yet ready to understand, then, presumably as education spreads, this symbolic shell for the rational truths can be expected to wither away, like Marx's notion of the withering away of the state. So nothing specifically religious seems likely to remain.

But I must say that many aspects of Torah religious commands like forcing women, or anyone, into certain ways of life, or like putting homosexuals to death.

On the other hand: Nothing could be more modern or trendy than kabalah or Breslov: a religion that is about, not confession and dogma, but self-realization, a religion where God is within and can be known without doctrine, and preaching. Gnosticism, indeed, was the earliest form of Christian mysticism.

So we need to search for holiness. i agree with this. and we need to do this in the way of the Torah. I also agree with this. For the Torah contains a sub-level of the numinous and provides a path of morality of how to get there. I think i experienced this in the Mir yeshiva and later in Israel. However this leaves us with the question of how to avoid numinous reality of the dark side that masquerades as coming from the side of holiness

SJ said...

>> to figure ou

I'm still trying to figure out if this is canadian-speak or just a typo. XD