February 2016, Parshat Tetzaveh

Dear friends,

When I was growing up, the primary commandment was obedience. Before you understand why you should put T’fillin on, go to the Mikvah, pray regularly and eat Kosher – you should just do it. ‘Action is the most important’ was the recurring slogan of my religious indoctrination. ‘Do! Don’t think! Who do you think you are? God’s intelligence is qualitatively superior to your own.’

This was taught in countless ways. From the most foundational story in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Chava disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit, it was already there that obedience was drummed in. I mean they got so severely punished for it; men would have to toil for food, women would have to labour for birth, and death itself was a consequence of disobedience!

Likewise, when the Jews received the Torah they responded to God, ‘We will do and we will hear’. In other words we trust You absolutely and we therefore submit to Your Will without qualification; our minds and hearts will catch up if and when they do.

The fundamental problem with this approach is that religion, no matter which one, is no longer focused on creating better, more sensitive, human beings and societies. Rather, its tunnel-vision is concerned with ensuring conformity to the supposed Will of God.

I believe this is key to understanding the disengagement of most of the Jewish community from their religious heritage. When religion is a dogma it simply doesn’t resonate.

If it is not important for us to appreciate the moral worth of religious law then obeying it, according to the Talmud, has the same value ‘as a body without a soul’.

One of my all-time favourite authors is John Stuart Mill. His words regarding a dogmatic truth are that even if you somehow know that it is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it is a dead truth.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Tetzaveh, God instructs Moshe to talk to the artisans who were creating the Mishkan and refers to them as ‘wise-hearted, filled with the spirit of wisdom’. What was the most important factor in determining their worthiness in collaborating with God? It was their wise hearts and minds.

The Americans were taught a terrible yet simple lesson in their war on Iraq and Afghanistan. You cannot win over hearts and minds by force. And this is just as true with religion. To win the battle against the tide of disengagement, we must, now more than ever, come from a place of wisdom, both emotional and intellectual, rather than through dogma.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shneur