Monday, August 02, 2010

An Anti-Fundie Drasha

A Guest Post By E. Fink

The second paragraph of Krias Shema begins with a promise. God assures us that if we heed His commandments we will merit wealth. The blessing depends on whether we love God with all our hearts (levavchem) and all our souls (nafshechem).

In the first paragraph of Krias Shema God says: you shall love God your Lord with all you heart (lev) all your soul (nefesh) and all your might (m’odecha). The rabbis interpret might as ones financial resources. In the first paragraph we are charged with serving God with our heart, our soul and our material wealth.

Many of the commentaries wonder why in the first paragraph of shema we are instructed to serve God with our hearts, souls and might and in the second paragraph of shema – the "check up", we are rewarded if we serve God with our hearts and souls, what about our might? Why aer we not judged based on our execution of serving God with all our material wealth?

R' Gedaliah Schorr cites a section from the Nefesh Hachaim (written by R' Chaim Volozhin) to answer this question. There is a famous disagreement in the Talmud between R’ Yishmael and R' Shimon bar Yochai. R’ Yishmael says that one should live Torah im Derech Eretz. Which means, one who wishes to observe the Torah should also make a living and integrate the Torah into his mundane life. R' Shimon bar Yochai retorts “is it possible for one to plow in plowing season and plant in planting season and tend to his crops as they grow and then harvest in harvesting season and still have time for Torah? Torah mah tehe aleha!?" What will happen to Torah?! Rather, says R' Shimon bar Yochai when Israel does as Hashem asks, their work is done for them and when Israel disobeys God they need to work for themselves – as it is written “and you shall reap your grain” and not only that – but Israel will end up doing the work of others!

The Talmud then quotes Abaye (several generations later) who comments on this disagreement that many have done like R’ Yishmael, meaning they worked for a living and were successful and many did like R' Shimon bar Yochai and they did not work and hoped God would provide and they were failures.

R' Chaim Volozhin infers from Abaye's words that he says that MANY did like R' Shimon bar Yochai and it did not work. It says MANY because it can't work for a large number of people. It is impossible for a majority to rely purely upon God and have only a small group working for a living. But for an individual for whom it is possible to live a life relying on God - it is still encumbent upon them to try to live the life that R' Shimon bar Yochai describes.

Using this insight, R' Chaim Volozhin explains the discrepancy between the first and second paragraphs of Shema. In the second paragraph of Shema the usage is in the plural. B'chol levavchem, with all your hearts and b’chol nafshechem with all your souls. But in the first paragraph it is a commandment to each of us as individuals. When we are talking about the group, the community, the general public, there is no way to mandate bchol m’odechem – with your entire material existence, for the group – it is unsustainable. However in the first chapter of shema it is the individual commandment – we are each commanded to live the R' Shimon bar Yochai style life of relying upon God if we are capable of it.

Therefore God does not make the blessings of the 2nd paragraph of Shema contingent on living like R' Shimon bar Yochai. The group is judged by the efforts shown in our hearts and our souls and not by whether we completely rely on God as R' Shimon bar Yochai prescribes since that is impossible.

The message is clear. While fundamentalism may be preferred in an idealistic sense, it fails in a realistic sense. It failed 2 millennia ago as Abaye reports to us in the Talmud, and it is bound to fail again. While the Torah lifestyle of Orthodox Judaism has fundamental elements to it, if the system becomes unsustainable, it is too much like R' Shimon bar Yochai and not enough like R' Yishmael. When idealism usurps common sense and common courtesy it has gone too far.

This is not a cute vort from a liberal, modern Rabbi. These are the words of the heroes of the fundies. Abaye, R'Chaim Volozhin and R' Schorr. I hope you all tell your fundie friends!

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