A Schlub Contemplating Intrinsic Greatness

A person is obligated to say:

“The world was created for me” (Talmud – Sanhedrin 37a), and
“When will my deeds reach the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”

The Torah attitude is that we are obligated to be aware of our greatness. Feel proud that you are created in the image of the Almighty. Pride in the elevation of your soul is not only proper, but is actually an obligation to recognize your virtues and to live with this awareness.

(Toras Avraham, p.49; Gateway to Happiness, p.119)

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Recognize Your Greatness”

I sometimes wonder when reading quotes from Orthodox Jewish sources if the author meant for a Gentile to take any of that advice. After all, I can only assume that the primary audience of are Jews. Did Rabbi Pliskin mean “greatness as a Jew” when he wrote “greatness as a human being?”

Then again, Rabbi Pliskin is a noted psychologist as well as a Rabbi, author, and lecturer, so perhaps he really does mean that all human beings have the capacity of being great because we were all created in the image of Hashem.

Along the same lines, Rabbi Pliskin also wrote:

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin used to say:

“The worst fault a person can have is to forget his intrinsic greatness as a human being.”

(Dor Daiah, vol. 1, p.172; Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.131)

AbrahamI’m used to thinking that certain people are great and the rest of us are “Okay”. Abraham was great. Moses was great as well as exceeding humble (Numbers 12:3). Given the Biblical record as well as the long chronicle of human history, it’s difficult to imagine that the majority of the people across time possess “intrinsic greatness”. Frankly, it’s easier to imagine that most people have a talent for being an “intrinsic pain-in-the-neck”, myself included.

But then again, some people are more optimistic than others:

Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

–William James

Believe you can and you’re halfway there.

–Theodore Roosevelt

Of course, William James, Theodore Roosevelt, or even Rabbi Pliskin aren’t quoting directly from scripture, so perhaps they aren’t seeing human beings the way God sees us.

Or maybe I’m being cynical. I can see, at least in theory, that God most likely wants us all to live up to our highest potential, to be the very best people we can be, the people He created us to be. It’s just that none of us seem to live up to our very highest potential, at least most of the time.

Someone wrote to the Aish Ask the Rabbi column asking about certain Orthodox Rabbis who are caught committing illegal and immoral acts, such as bribing public officials. The Aish Rabbi responded in part:

First things first: The Torah is the guidebook for ethical perfection. All the values that the Western world takes for granted – education, equal rights, sanctity of life – are from the Torah. That is an inarguable fact of history.

Being orthodox does not guarantee that a person has succeeded in internalizing what he has been taught.

I would say that all Jews – religious and not – do not follow the Torah 100%. Everyone does the best he can, some making more of an effort than others. But no one is perfect.

But I would also say that almost without exception, an individual will be more kind, charitable and moral because he learns Torah and follows it.

The question is not: Why do some religious Jews behave badly? The better question – and this is what I ask myself whenever I see an Orthodox person doing something wrong – is: Would the same individual behave worse, or behave better, if he was not religious?

Talmud StudyThis feels a little bit like a “dodge” to me. It sounds like the Rabbi is saying that as bad as some religious Jewish people may be in terms of how they behave immorally and unethically, if they didn’t have their training in Torah, they would be so much worse.

Would they? I don’t know.

I do agree that, although we Gentile believers are not called upon Biblically to replicate a Jew’s observance of the mitzvot, we do have our own Torah for the nations which assigns all humanity with valuing the underlying principles, the very foundation of Torah.

We are all called upon to do good and, as the Aish Rabbi says (I’ll extrapolate his sentence beyond its context and apply it to all humanity), no one obeys the Torah principles and mitzvot as they/we are called to obey with anywhere near 100% fidelity.

The Aish Rabbi says that because one Orthodox Rabbi committed immoral acts does not mean that the Torah failed, just that one human being has failed. Rather than throwing the Torah and a religious life out the window because people don’t and can’t live up to God’s standards perfectly, we should strive to be better tomorrow than we are today. Obedience is a journey, not a mountain top where you sit sagely because you are always right.

On the other hand, the journey of obedience isn’t a pit or a cave where you are trapped forever because you are always wrong and can never succeed either.

Or so intimates the Aish Rabbi.

The Rabbi finishes his answer by saying:

I would also argue that if you are looking for a role model of righteousness, you are far more likely to find it in a great religious person than in the secular world. The act of purifying oneself through prayer, study, mitzvah performance, and devotion to helping others to reach the heights of Godliness.

True, the observant community does not exist in a hermetically-sealed bubble protected from all negative influences. But given a choice of one or the other, I think the choice is clear.

I suppose if we could receive an unfiltered and unedited view of the life of any person we might think of as a “role model of righteousness,” we’d be disappointed in them, at least in some sense. If no one is perfect, then all people have failed; they’ve failed other people, and they’ve failed God.

I once was at an event where a highly esteemed gentleman had just finished speaking to an audience, and many members of that audience heaped praises upon him. I was a little surprised at what I perceived as his lack of humility. I got the opportunity to speak to him about it, and he responded, “People need heroes.”

Chris Pratt as Andy Dwyer on the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” The guy’s a definite schlub.

I think I understand what he was saying, but it still bothers me a little. I know Moses had this one down pat, but how can you connect to your “intrinsic greatness” while also knowing what a schlub you are inside?

I don’t mean “you” or any other specific human being. I don’t have an unfiltered, unedited view into anyone else’s life except my own. That’s why this whole concept of “greatness” is difficult for me to understand.

I almost said that if I could talk to Moses for five minutes (assuming we had a common language), he could explain it to me, but our lives are absolutely incomparable. After all, who can live up to a man like Moses, who talked with God “face-to-face” as it were? Not me.

Even Moses had his faults, some of them as large as the life of greatness he led. But that being said, where does that leave the rest of us?

18 thoughts on “A Schlub Contemplating Intrinsic Greatness”

  1. I agree with aspects of what rabbi Pliskin says, after all, if we think we suck all the time, we will live up to that. I also agree with you that it isn’t comprehensive enough.

    Of course, I bring a Christian worldview with me, and perhaps the disconnect is that Judaism and Christianity honed their identity by making the other, “other.” Christianity *can* be too harsh in its treatment of our worth, i.e., all our deeds are “filthy rags”, and yet we also know that Jesus died for us, so there is a balancing out, I suppose. (Yes, I know the Is 64:5 [6] verse is about Israel).

    “The question is not: Why do some religious Jews behave badly? The better question – and this is what I ask myself whenever I see an Orthodox person doing something wrong – is: Would the same individual behave worse, or behave better, if he was not religious?”

    His answer works for issues like when an Orthodox Jew orders a cheese burger, or flips the switch on Shabbat, a little white lie, etc.. But what about one who leaves his wife at home and instead brings his girlfriend to a Passover Seder? Or the widespread child molestation by rabbis in certain ultra “orthodox” enclaves? A friend, born and raised Orthodox in Brooklyn, told me of his married, religiously Orthodox boss who had no problem sleeping with Gentile women (I’ll spare you the rational).

    The problem with any religion is that it is a system, and can be gamed; One can do everything right outwardly, and inwardly be a devil. We also fall prey to the notion that if everyone thinks I’m holy and treats me as such, I may eventually fall for that notion myself. (In Evangelical environments, it’s the one who speaks only in Bible verses who many will think is “most holy”).

    I’ve always loved C.S. Lewis’ thought provoking thoughts about our own, and the “other’s”, worth (from The Weight of Glory)

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

  2. I do not see why spiritual or personal greatness should be tied to religious observation of any kind.

    Observation of ritual and the keeping of law is not in itself any more than a practiced dance of movement and words, rehearsed for centuries, and mouthed as much by fools as by saints and heroes. I am not attacking religion here…just describing it. To be a Mighty One, a Hero to others requires more than the daily observation of religion, though indeed religion will often increase the odds of finding such a good and worthy person as to be called a Mighty One, or a Hero. One cannot help but be generally good if one is following the rules and rituals of your religion, at least to those in your community that value that religion, just as we will have the normal percentage of people walking in hypocrisy, and mouthing words of praise to G-d without thinking of anyone at all except themselves, and what is on their agenda.

    Greatness, however, I think is more hardly won, and never do we see the doubts and personal shame of a Mighty One or Hero, except perhaps in their humility…for they know just how measly a human they really are or have been in the scheme of things, no matter what they have accomplished with G-d to aid them. This is why Moshe was and is so valued as a great leader, prophet, statesman…he refused to believe what occurred though him as being of his own doing. And Yeshua…well, there was never anything measly about him, though he might not have seen it that way, and he as well was far less interested in himself or his personal interest than the interest and desire of YHVH, and again, the marker of humility made his greatness shine all the more.

    All of us know so much ugliness about ourselves that it should keep us from pride, but oddly, does not, at least not without a great deal of practicing the remembrance that we do nothing well without the help of G-d. We always think we know what is best, or better, or at least good, and only after years of practice and rehearsal of deliberately not thinking that way do we even reach the edges of humility that the Great Ones have as the witness of their greatness…and then we lose it in a moment of irritation, and lack of patience, when our pride returns, and we believe again that somehow whatever just happened should have happened in a better way because of who we are…which is the essence of pride.

    When looking at those we value the most of past or present times, it is really their accomplishment accompanied by their humility that is what we value…that they have done so much good, and seem not to be aware of it as a personal accomplishment. They count their successes to the Glory of G-d and by His grace and assistance, not to their own efforts or abilities, though these are often extraordinary. This is the intrinsic greatness…that they use their abilities, ask the assistance of G-d, and then lay the positive results of their lives at the foot of the Throne of Glory.

    1. Not observance all by itself, Questor. A person can outwardly perform the mitzvoth but inwardly can still be a scoundrel. It’s when a person internalizes the underlying principles of justice, mercy, and charity ensconced in the Torah that he or she achieves greatness. That’s, I think, what the Rabbis are talking about. From a Christian perspective, everything starts with belief and an internal mental and emotional state of faith. For a Jew, if I may be so presumptuous, it all starts with behavior, performing the mitzvoth, studying the Torah, which then leads (ideally) to internalizing higher moral and ethical values and to faith in Hashem.

    2. I believe, “Q”, that James’ last reply describes well how greatness may be derived from Torah observance, which must be internal as well as external in order to be valid. As for your question about why spiritual greatness should be tied to religious observance — I suspect the answer requires a depth of understanding about the nature of meaningful and valid Torah observance. The assertion that they *are* unquestionably connected, however, comes from Rav Yeshua himself in Mt.5:19, though we may discern an additional qualifying criterion in v.20.

  3. I did not say religion was not included…I said it was not the reason for a person’s greatness, but was supported by it. Please re-read my comment. I am not slashing at Religion as being pointless or useless, just not the primary quality of greatness.

    Humility, dedication, talent, G-d given gifts, and assistance from G-d is what makes greatness.

  4. As I re-read some of the above, it occurred to me that it may be helpful to the discussion to clarify what sort of “greatness” is under discussion. After all, the greatness in the kingdom of heaven that results from diligent pursuit of Torah is not necessarily connected at all with greatness as the world perceives it. In fact, it may be quite rare for the world at large to recognize heavenly greatness, since that is often at odds with worldly greatness. Further, considering that Torah greatness is essentially a Jewish kind of greatness, and we have a long history to demonstrate how *that* has been treated in this world, we might have to recognize that G-d-given gifts and talents and assistance, even coupled with a human response of humility and dedication, are not all that likely to be accorded greatness. Even the Jewish preponderance among Nobel prize winners tends to be acknowledged rather grudgingly.

    On the other hand, perhaps there is something to be said for Questor’s summary, of G-d-given gifts and talents and assistance, along with a human response of humility and dedication, as defining a form of greatness as non-Jews would need to define it apart from specific Torah observance.

  5. Torah observance is not in itself religion, but worship within a covenant with G-d, carried out step by step though one’s life in honor of G-d and that covenant.

    Religion, to my mind, is man made halacha that attempts to regulate how worship is carried out, and thus should be very little considered when defining greatness. Making one’s phylacteries wide, and one’s tsit tsit long are religion…a mere outward show of keeping halacha in a certain way, and being obvious about it to obtain standing in man’s eyes.

    I thought that the greatness we might attribute to a Mighty One or Hero was more than just appearing to be compliant to community standards.

    1. @Questor — Religion is a word derived from a Latin term that means a vow. As such, it represents one’s dedication to perform what is specified by that vow. Torah and halakhah are two sides of a metaphorical conversation between the king HaShem and His subject people the Jews. Torah is the expression of “community standards” which stipulates a variety of behaviors both physical and psychological;. Halakhah is the response to those stipulations. It is the expression of the vow made by, and on behalf of all generations yet unborn of, an entire people at Sinai, that we will hear and obey the Torah expressed by HaShem through Moshe. Halakhah is nothing more nor less than Torah observance as defined by administrative representatives of the Jewish people who have been trained in the arts of interpreting Torah for application in the circumstances of each Jewish generation. Halakhah may be pursued properly or improperly, and the mistaken attitudes that produced the large tefilin and excessively long tzitzit which Rav Yeshua decried represented an improper manner of pursuing halakhah. Thus halakhah addresses every area of life just as does the Torah. There is no division or inconsistency between them; though human fulfillment of Torah stipulations may be often inconsistent in the quality of its performance. In the broad perspective of worship as prostrating one’s entire self in dedicated obeisance and subservience to the heavenly King, then conformity with halakhah is, by definition, the procedure of worship — not merely in community assemblies, but in all of life’s behaviors day-by-day from the moment we rise from slumber to the moment we lie down again thereto. Between them, halakhah is the way we “walk”, to proceed forward. It prescribes outward behaviors and also the attitudes that color and flavor them. Of *course* halakhah is made by “men” — it is the human response portion of the conversation with HaShem. There is nothing wrong with man-made halakhah unless it fails to respond properly to the demands of Torah. There is no point to decrying “man-made religion” per se. It is only when it is badly constructed that criticism or complaint is warranted. And it is only when it is badly performed or non-compliant that greatness is denied.

      Now, the above paragraph is addressed to the Torah-Halakhah conversation between Jews and HaShem. The similar conversation between non-Jews and HaShem must be recognized to produce an alternative halakhah reflecting the subset of Torah that applies to all of humanity, as outlined briefly in Acts 15. This, of course, has been a primary theme of discussion in the present blog; and such discussion will, no doubt, continue.

  6. Thank you, PL, for explaining the difference in definition of halachah so clearly. In the Western Christianized world, Religion is the specific set of Community rules and the requirement of general beliefs necessary for belonging to a specific faith group, that pertain to an agreed upon form of worship, and are indeed not the completion of a vow taken as part of a covenant that creates a complete way of life in a civil and spiritual sense, as Torah does. Thus, the outward show of religion I referenced is very much so in the Christian Churches, as I am sure you have experienced when in the first of the Messianic movement began, rather than the Jewish Synagogues.

    When I think of man-made religion, ritual, and so forth, I have in mind the Catholic, Greek/Russian Orthodox, and Anglican/Protestant Churches, with all their denominational offshoots, and the falsity that goes hand in hand with a pretense of obedience to the ‘faith’. One can see this in the Catholic or Protestant Christian Churches in varying ways depending on the denomination…head covering/no head covering; ‘Jesus’ pin on the collar or shoulder; WWJD bracelets; tee-shirts with various mottos; clothes/makeup according to local custom; drinking/not drinking; confession/absolution, along with rules of moral halachah as set forth by the church elders for the congregation rather than what is said in scripture. Naturally, not all Christians are religionists, and many observe a great deal of Torah without even being aware of it, merely by attempting to follow all that is explained in the Brit Chadeshah. I offer my apologies in using the word halachah for the making of man-made rules for the community in reference to non-Judaic communities, since they are not referencing the level and style of obedience to Torah, though they are binding rules upon the various congregations if one chooses to join them.

    So far as I know, there is very little ritual that I am aware of in Judaism except that which was connected to the Temple, which is on hiatus currently, and although evidently termed a religion by some, Judaism has only been termed a religion in distinguishing the Jewish Beliefs from Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Druidic, or Greco-Roman beliefs. In a Synagogue, on High Holy Days, particularly Yom Kippur, there is indeed more ceremony in regard to the moed as the prayers are different, and the cantor more in use at some times than others, but that is not what is meant by religion to me, or to most of the religious world in the West.

    How one keeps Torah, even if taught with varying depth of orthodoxy, still is the keeping of a holy covenant with God, and so to me is worship, and done differently from home to home, and person to person, though I am aware of the more or less uniform rules of Orthodoxy in Judaism. So far as I know, there is only one way of laying Tefillin, and though there seem to be several streams of thought on the making of knots in Tzit Tzit, these seem to be variances from one community within Judaism to the other, based on what various sages have taught in the Talmud.

    Consequently, I have never been aware of what is said in regard to Judaism as a “Religion” except as a general distinction from pagan religions, including most forms of Christianity. To me Torah is a constitution for the Israelites and a form of worship for those that are attempting to please YHVH. The halachah related there are a matter of what has been adjudged as necessary for the general spiritual welfare of the local Judaic community, the establishment of the family within the local community, and so forth…not at all the same thing that exist in Christian Circles, which are primarily forms of Nicolaitan hierarchies mixed with pagan faiths and ideas. Differences in halachah between Jewish Sects are not generally differences of doctrine as differences in halachah are between different denominations of Christianity, but are differing levels of observance of Torah based on how Torah is seen to apply to each Jew, in his own community, and his own preferences, family traditions, and sense of obligation to the Covenant.

    Naturally, one’s spiritual character is worked upon by the observance of Torah, but seemingly in a different manner than would be attained by a non-Jew performing his/her religious rituals in a pagan church. Religion thus becomes an entirely different spiritual asset. Certainly a Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox Catholic, Russian Orthodox Catholic, or Anglican Church is not, when in their ritual observances of masses, feasts and fasts, though planned, choreographed, and costumed, responding to any Covenant of any kind with G-d that I can tell, and since in general are directly contravening the first of the four commandments given by G-d, would not be considered by me as aids to spiritual attainment, even if called religion.

    In future I will attempt to be more specific in distinguishing between the man-made traditions of Jews which relate to how one observes Torah, and the man-made traditions of pagans, which relate to how one makes a good impression on the local community congregation, and thus becomes acceptable within that congregation.

    1. I’m a little surprised, “Q”, that you should think of Judaism as comprising very little religious ritual because of the Temple rituals that currently are in abeyance. What would you call the practice of standard prayers three times per day at set times (not to neglect the prayers spoken upon waking up and before going to sleep)? What would you call the wearing of special clothing with fringes such as tallit and arba kanfot? The existence of two or three variations on tying the knots of those fringes doesn’t lessen their ritual construction nor does it lessen the ritual nature of their use. The existence of two methods of placing leather straps on one of the tefilin and a few variations on how their straps are tied likewise can hardly be thought to detract from their ritual nature. What should we say about the procedures for taking Torah scrolls from a dedicated cabinet, marching around a meeting room with them, and placing them on a special table to read them in a particular manner? What of the Passover seder; and what of shabbat candle-lighting and the ceremonial candle, spices, wine and prayers of havdalah? What of the blessings recited before eating or drinking anything, as well as those recited after an actual meal? What of the standards that limit even what sorts of foods may be eaten? What about waving a bunch of vegetation during Sukkot? How many examples of daily rituals and holiday ones do you need (because I could go on citing many more)? Minor variations in custom regarding exactly how these rituals are performed do not make them any less religious or ceremonial or ritualistic.

      But I suppose you do make a good point to distinguish between the reasons for conforming with any particular set of “religious” customs, whether merely for acceptance within a particular subcultural environment or to honor an ancient covenantal vow toward HaShem.

  7. Although Rabbi Pliskin was writing for a Jewish audience, I believe the Orthodox world is realizing that many non-Jews are accessng their resources. I suppose there is a balance in realizing our origin and purpose, with the humility of gratefullness for everything that is from God and awareness of our weaknesses.

    It appears Rabbi Pliskin lives within an Orthodox bubble, and I don’t mean this as a criticism, just an acknowledgement. He hasn’t interacted much with the world outside Orthodox Judaism, so the default is to see it as offering little that is good, and much that is evil. It is one thing to make truth claims that are not falsifiable, such as those concerning the nature of God or the afterlife. It is quite another to make statements regarding history and science that are easily disproven. For example, torah was not the original source of ideas such as education, equality and sanctity of life, and women were not sometimes treated with equality until recently, and religious communities were far behind, rather than ahead in this regard. In isolated religious groups, it is easy to get away with making false claims, as there is no one to challenge them. As an aside, I read an article by R’ Pliskin, in which he offered a quote by George Bernard Shaw and labeled it, “anonymous.” Now, it would have only been a simple google search to find this information, and perhaps the rabbi is among those who only use the internet in a limited manner. I emailed him with this info, and he thanked me. I am aware of certain kiruv groups who use the internet to attract baal teshuva who then, once ensconced, are forbidden its use.

    He goes on to make other pronouncements, of which he fails to provide evidence, such as the idea that one is more likely to find a greater man within Orthodox Judaism than in the secular world, and he doesn’t mention, but would probably imply, that non-Orthdox Jews fall into this secular category. I also agree that he appears to be offering an aplogetic, not that torah is a source of evil or can be blamed for those who don’t follow it, but that the religious world, not just OJ, provides cover for wicked people, such as child molesters, which is far more heinious than those recent instances of financial misdeeds or peeping tomism. Religious environments, due to their sheltered and repressive nature, could very well encourage this sort of behavior, knowing that the victims are likely to keep silent or be silenced.

    Pliskin has some wonderful insight within his own area of knowledge and giftedness, which seems to be a focus on our positive traits and inherent potential, which seems at variance with some Christian viewpoints of man as worthless, wholly evil, ineffectual worm. I think we should keep in mind that we should stick to our own areas of calling and expertise.

  8. I don’t know if some of you are aware that the Hebrew word, “dat,” meaning, “religion,” was not used in ancient times; there was no concept of religion.

    Research studies have demonstrated, that while a person may believe that their actions follow their beliefs, there is far more evidence that their beliefs follow their actions, and much of this is based upon our need to maintain a positive self concept.

    1. @Chaya — The notion of studying comparative religion, particularly in order to choose between them, was also not an ancient Jewish pursuit — at least in the literatures that are currently in scholarly possession — so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Hebrew term for religion doesn’t appear in earlier literature. Indeed, the history of a notion that one could choose one’s religious behavior would seem to require the freedom to do so — also in short supply in the ancient world where one conformed with the society in which one was born or in which one found oneself permitted to live due to some other cataclysmic circumstance. Choosing religions also implies polytheism, because the gods of ancient peoples are inseparable from what we would term “values” in our modern perspective, and being selective about one’s beliefs would mean choosing among them or selecting a collection of them from a pantheon. The notion of One single G-d comprising multiple values was already an odd concept, and is one of the reasons why “Elohim” is a plural noun. Taken together, these considerations provide a fairly comprehensive explanation for the lack of the word “dat” in earlier Hebrew literature.

      On the question about whether belief follows action or vice versa, I would have to side with the writer of Prov.23:7, who perceived that “As a man thinks, in his heart, so he is …”, and with Rav Yeshua as reported by Luke in Lk.6:45, saying: “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart. These would assert that all human action is predicated on one’s internal beliefs, that is, one’s actual beliefs as distinguishable from one’s externally purported ones.

      Now it is certainly understandable that anyone would be hesitant or unwilling to embrace beliefs that challenge actions that they have already taken or that they would like to take. No one likes to have their self-interest challenged, hence they tend to accept beliefs that do not challenge their actions or desires (i.e., they accept external statements of belief that conform with their internal motivational beliefs). Courage is required, along with a hope that a higher degree of self-interest may be served, to embrace and hold beliefs that contradict previously-held ones, or to base one’s actions upon such beliefs. Presumably, writing HaShem’s Torah on a human heart, in place of prior self-interested beliefs, can provide sufficient motivation for such action. Thus the real issue is about how one selects and internalizes the set of beliefs that will drive their actions. Self-interest, which is derived from survival instinct, is most common and understandably “natural” (hence the preponderance of research evidence to which you referred). An alternative interest based on the higher revelation expressed in Torah, is more difficult but is justifiable by the hope of better results that include more than personal well-being and yet do not exclude it.

      1. PL, I’m not sure those verses you quoted indicate cause and effect, though I am not saying it is not possible. I read a story about Benjamin Franklin, in which he knew a certain man disliked him. BF asked to borrow a book from the man, which the man agreed to do. BF believed that by getting this person to do a favor for him, although this seems counterintuitive, it would cause the man to like him better, and this proved to be the case. Modern research has borne this out. To do a favor for someone makes one believe that this person must be worthy of that favor. Conversely, a book for new hires teaches that if your boss is upset a you, at all costs you must move this blowup to a private environment, because once your boss blows up at you publicly, you are toast. See, if a person loses his temper privately, they may rethink it later, and realize it might not have been your fault. But once they have done this openly, they have to think poorly of the employee, with the alternative that they feel poorly about themselves for the behavior.

        That might explain why doing the mitzvot leads to believing in their value. Interesting comment by Dr. Rachel Elior, professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew Univ., that we are told, “shema Yisrael,” not, “re-eh Yisrael,” because to hear is to interpret, while vision does not involve interpretation.

      2. @Chaya — I’m afraid I must disagree with Dr. Elior, because magicians have long exploited the interpretation inherent in human vision by inducing misinterpretation. And how many romantic comedies employ a plot device involving a man or woman misinterpreting some situation that they see but fail to investigate? We must ourselves investigate a little more deeply to find explanations for HaShem’s use of the command “Shm’a Yisrael” rather than one invoking some other sense like seeing, smelling, tasting, or touching (but I’ll not try to do it in this reply).

        Adopting beliefs that justify one’s behavior, whether of agreeing to lend a book to someone who must then be deemed worthy of borrowing it, or of excoriating an employee who must thereafter be deemed unworthy, would fall into the category of self-interest. But, then, it is undeniable that the original behavior was also driven by a set of beliefs about the subject of the behavior or what that subject was perceived to have done or failed to do.

  9. Sorry I haven’t been active in this conversation, but it’s been a busy week (last and this). I’m currently in Portland attending a writer’s conference (imagine that).

    PL, I found your detailed description of halachah to be very informative and your brought up an interesting point about the non-Jewish “conversation” with Hashem. Is the Christian Church as it exists today the result of an ongoing dialog between non-Jewish believers and God just as Judaism, as it exists today, is a result of the Jewish conversation with Hashem? It hardly seems likely given the Church’s antisemitic and replacement theology history.

    But does that mean when the believing goyim separated from their “Jewish roots,” so to speak, nearly 2,000 years ago, they disconnected themselves from that conversation? I don’t believe that either, for historically, there has always been a remnant of faithful Gentiles who have sought to do God’s will.

    So where do Gentile believers seek their conversation with God and develop corresponding halachah?

    1. With respect to non-Jewish participants in a conversation that might be viewed as having occurred, James, we may need to distinguish between a very diverse aggregate and individual sub-groupings. If we can recognize that Jews have not been monolithic in character, then certainly we must recognize a much wider diversity among non-Jews. Some who disconnected themselves entirely and antagonistically from Torah and Jewish interpretations thereof might be viewed as not listening nor actually participating in a conversation that they really didn’t believe in. Others may have listened in some cursory manner and attempted to respond in some general or superficial manner. Some, for lack of understanding or mistaken priorities, may have responded erroneously, not unlike those Jews among Sadducean or Pharisaic subgroups who misunderstood how to pursue halakhah. And some, in the past and in the present, may have been trying to listen and respond properly to HaShem’s instructions in Torah for all humanity. I believe that should answer your question about “where”, or on what grounds, to seek that conversation. Regrettably, such folks have not been in positions of power and have in all likelihood suffered persecutions similar to those suffered by Jews throughout history. Moreover, I don’t see any harm if those in the present wish to “eavesdrop” on the Jewish conversation in order to get some ideas for their own. Perhaps that sort of behavior in the ancient world is what produced the Didache.

  10. My parents were in town for the last few days. At one point, as we passed a particular church/organizational hub, I mentioned how their network (of supposed prophets and so on) had put a young convert (of startlingly bad background) very much forward in a “revival” setting (and how horrible he was) [this among other terrible leadership behavior]. And I pointed out that although this place claims to be all about the Bible, the Bible says not to put a new convert in a leadership position too quickly… and yet there seems to be an exception.

    Of course, gentiles, thinking everything is about them, think this means there are exceptions. So this egotistical bunch decided they could tell their young asset was a chosen prophet. Get him out front to draw attention. Well, he was a mess. Here’s the thing. Timothy is the example of an “exception” that we have. And Timothy was told not to be intimidated about being young. But Timothy wasn’t exactly a convert. He had been trained from birth. We need to remember what else is an “exception” about Timothy. The same person who wrote to some people that they shouldn’t be circumcised is the person who decided to circumcise Timothy. So actually, he isn’t an exception.

    [Of course, he is an exception to something else that I don’t think is quite relevant to the particular subject I’m addressing. He wasn’t circumcised on the eighth day.]

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