A short while ago I went into a Synagogue for the evening prayers. In middle of the service I noticed one congregant behaving rudely to another. I was about to say something, when a man standing next to me whispers: “These two guys have been fighting as long as I am here. Don’t get involved.”
“No big thing,” you may think. “People everywhere have their petty fights.” But I couldn’t just dismiss this away. A personal childhood experience would not allow me to. When I was around 6 years old, I vividly recall – in a type of frozen image, the type that results only from a childhood experience forever etched in our memories – a fistfight that took place in my local shul. I never will forget my fright and horror watching these two big guys punching it out right in middle of the prayer services. When I asked my father what was going on, he simply waved it away and said “tzvai idioten” (two idiots)…
Years later, I have heard far too many people telling me how similar distasteful experiences have turned them off from religion and religious institutions: Having witnessed profound inconsistencies between people’s outward appearance (as devout individuals) and their actual behavior; having seen how a person can be obsessively committed to certain rituals and simultaneously be utterly unrefined and callous; how certain religious individuals are judgmental and condescending, playing “holier than thou,” and in their own personal lives, beneath the surface, they can stoop to pettiness, greed and even… fistfights; how divisiveness and just plain primitive acrimony has permeated so many communities of faith; how children in religious homes are being hurt by selfish adults, no different than their counterparts in secular homes. All these radical discrepancies and contradictions have contributed to much of today’s cynicism and rejection of religious life.
Obviously, this must be qualified by two important facts: The first is that this by no means is a blanket stereotype of religious individuals, many of whom are gentle, sensitive souls, people who continuously work on refining themselves precisely due to their beliefs. Some of the most noble, cultivated and spiritual humans on earth are people of faith. The second point is that a system should never be judged by any one or group of individuals. Religion establishes a particular standard for human virtue and justice. No person on this planet can live up to the highest standard; the committed life is one that always aspires to reach upward, while knowing our shortcomings and that there are always greater horizons to conquer. The fact that a few individuals may be hypocrites and behave in embarrassing ways does not reflect on the system as a whole, only on the reality that the system does not preclude foolish people making bad choices and behaving inappropriately or immaturely. No different than, say, a scientist falsifying data reflects on all scientists and all of science.
Yet, those few (or a bit more) individuals who glaringly behave contrary to the religious standard are sure able to give all of religion a black eye – and one that endures.
So at disturbing times like this, when corrupt religion and the ugliness of human nature rears its head, I for one like to take a trip – a journey that takes us back over three millennia to the birth of religion.
What would the man who gave us monotheism and embraced a life of virtue, justice and kindness say about religion in our times? Would he even recognize it? How would Abraham react if he entered a modern-day Synagogue? Would he readily join a board of trustees of one of our religious institutions, or become part of its faculty? And how would he respond to a Synagogue brawl between his great great grandchildren?
I would love to hear your thoughts on this. So please submit them and let us compare notes.
Here is my speculation as to Abraham’s attitude to religious life today:
Let’s begin with the brawl. If Abraham walked into a Synagogue and saw the fight that I witnessed, I have no doubt that he would cry. He would have the same reaction to all the other inconsistencies mentioned above.
But the bigger question is whether he would even walk into a 21st century Synagogue? Would he be comfortable there? And which exact Synagogue would he choose?
Abraham would be quite disturbed by any house of G-d that has been turned into a bureaucracy. I doubt that Abraham would be comfortable in any shul that did not welcome every individual equally, where every soul felt at home.
Perhaps that is why the Arizal and the Baal Shem Tov – as it was the custom of other sages and mystics – would recite certain (the Shabbat eve) prayers in the field… We read in this week’s Torah portion (Genesis 24:63), “Isaac went out to speak (pray) in the field.” Isaac must have learned that from someone before him – none other than his father, Abraham. [Commentaries reconcile this with the law stating that one should pray in a structure – see Tosafot Berochos 34b. Zohar Beshalach 60a. Mogen Avraham Orach Chaim 90:6]. Some prayer is perhaps most conducive in the field, amongst nature, with no distractions from man-made structures and institutions. Even the structures where prayers should generally be held require windows that allow us to see and reach beyond the structure, to heaven. Abraham would be looking for the windows…
The Baal Shem Tov once ran out of a relatively empty Synagogue, complaining that the place was too packed leaving him no room to pray. When his students wondered what he meant, the Baal Shem Tov explained: The Zohar says that love and awe are like the two wings of a bird that carry our soaring prayers to heaven. In this particular Synagogue the prayers were being recited without any feeling at all, leaving them all grounded, like trapped birds, unable to soar. The Synagogue was therefore so packed with these “dead” prayers, leaving no room for the Baal Shem Tov…
Abraham would be looking for the windows – for the soaring prayers and the airborne spirits.
Abraham was a pioneer of non-conformity. He defied his family and his entire society, rejecting their paganism and charting a new course that would change history forever (see The Greatest Journey Ever Taken). No doubt that Abraham, the father of individuality and non-conformity, would be quite shocked to see how the Divine path that he initiated – leaving behind all his comfort zones, and choosing for himself and his children a life of virtue and service – how religion has become so conformist today, often stifling the human spirit.
Abraham was a global thinker with a universal vision to lead people toward personal and collective redemption. He clearly would find it odd that some Jews today have become so parochial, and even divisive, focusing on their personal lives, and often forgetting that G-d gave us a universal blueprint to improve the larger world. And like musical notes in one grand composition, we need each other to realize our individual aspirations.
Abraham did not seclude himself in study, prayer and Divine devotion. He opened his home to all, he “created” (inspired) souls in Charan, he made it his life's work to not only teach his children the path of righteousness and justice, but to inspire everyone he came in contact with. How, Abraham would surely wonder, did his confident and proactive attitude – as a driving force in human progress – become so defensive and tentative?
Abraham was a passionate, revolutionary soul who changed the world around him, instead of letting the world change him. What happened, Abraham would ask, that today so many people of faith lack passion and soul? Why are there so many mechanical people, who perform even mitzvos by rote? And why is it that religious people today are so affected by contemporary society (whether they know it or not) and the pursuit of money, that instead of them shaping the world, the world is shaping them? And where oh where are the revolutionaries?
But above all, Abraham would not retreat. He would not choose the easier path of protecting his “own skin” and give up on our generation. If Abraham prayed for the infidels of Sodom, he surely would do all he possibly could to help us free ourselves of our own lethargy.
Abraham would certainly find profound merit in us, his grandchildren. That despite all the persecutions and genocides, despite centuries of oppression, we, Abraham’s progeny are still standing. Albeit, perhaps weak at times, perhaps inconsistent, perhaps devoid of passion – but still trying.
But Abraham would not suffice with finding merit in our lives. He would engage us, challenge us, rouse and empower us – he would fire us up to cease acting like victims and take control of our lives and our destinies. He would imbue us with profound confidence (or better yet: ignite the confidence that lies dormant in our souls) to go out and change the environment in which we live.
Yes indeed, just imagine how Abraham would turn over our world! The thought alone can make you shudder.
Interesting to envision how a man who lived over 3700 years ago would react to our world and what he would do to improve our condition.
Then again, perhaps there is an Abraham here with us today. Perhaps that Abraham is inside of you and me…