Thursday 10 July 2014

026) Are Religious People Nicer?

I have spent some time over the last few days with my mechanic. We were trying to fix a recalcitrant engine. He taught me how to open up an engine and calculate and penny-shim for valve clearances. I have never done that before and found it fascinating. We underestimate the wisdom in an engine and the amount of wisdom and understanding it takes to fix one.

Many mechanics are quite rough looking people. Mine is no exception. He has long hair, tattoos and rides a motorbike painted with the American flag. He is not Jewish nor is he religious. Yet he knows more about his discipline than I’ll ever know about mine.

Also, this mechanic didn't curse, he doesn’t drink, and in all the time that I spent with him, he never spoke loshon hora. He has a gentle nature and wouldn't even let me dispose of dirty old black engine oil down the drain. Strange isn’t it, how I can spend time with people who do not have tattoos, who are Jewish and look religious, who do curse, drink and speak loshen hora (and know nothing about how to fix an engine)!

I’m not suggesting that you grow long hair and get tattoos. But I question the success rate of the popular Torah system to penetrate deeper than the surface and effect meaningful change in the soul or psyche of the adherent. Sometimes it does. Too often it doesn’t.

I have always been told that given time, Torah will change you for the better. Although I have not yet interviewed every Torah practicing person in the world, empirical observation seems to make me want to question that hypothesis.

I do, however believe that there is often a latent potential for a person to change a little. The Kotzker Rebbe says;
A person can change for the better – but only a little. To affect a real major turnabout in a person’s character is out of his hands, and rests solely in the domain of the Divine.
(Kochav HaShachar p113, par 2)

The notion that the sudden embrace of Torah will be dramatically beneficial on any level is commonplace but erroneous.

In his typically forthright and no-nonsense style, the Kotzker re-interprets an oft quoted teaching:
“Turn it [the Torah] over, turn it over, because everything is contained in it. Look deeply into it, grow old and grey over it. Do not stir from it. For there is no greater measure [midah tovah] than it."  (Pirkei Avot, 5, 21) - A person can spend his entire life involved in all the intricacies of Torah, he can study and practice it from every angle….and still not be able to extract even a single good feature (midah tovah)  from it.
(Kochav HaShachar p119, par 2)

A great rabbi I once knew and loved, who taught me how to think for myself, always used to say that the notion of nations is an illusion. There are only two nations in the world: good people and bad people. No more no less. 

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