Friday 4 July 2014

024) Who is More Religious?

The question of ‘Who is a Jew?’ always sparks a great debate. Another great debate could be held over the question of ‘Who is a religious Jew?’ (The assumption being made that the reader is aware of the difference between religious and observant. Observance is easy to ascertain, while religious is subject to debate and definition.)

There are many varied and valid positions one could take, and the Kotzker Rebbe as usual, has some strong views on the issue: He says;
The silent and suppressed cry of someone needing to shout out but who doesn’t, is the loudest cry of them all.
(Kochav HaShachar p 62, par2)
I have always understood this teaching in the context of a non-observant person who has a need to express himself spiritually but either cannot or does not. His peers may consider him as being far from spiritual, but in essence his suppressed cry is acutely audible to those seeking more than the superficial. I believe this type of teaching was fundamental to the followers of the early schools of Chassidism. Everyone has a ‘spark’ of holiness, and often those with the greatest souls stem from the most unlikely (even unholy) of sources.

This idea is profoundly encapsulated in a saying of the Kotzker’s teacher, R Simcha Bunim of Peshischa; 
I cannot talk to those I pray with, and I cannot pray with those I talk to.
In other words there exists the dichotomy between those one ‘prays with’ (the observant sector within society) and those one ‘talks to’ (the non-observant sector). The Peshischa Rebbe was known to have had strong connections with the secular, non-religious and even anti-religious worlds. He was quite comfortable talking to these people, but because they did not pray in the formal sense, he obviously couldn't pray with them. However he associated with them because he sensed they too had something special to contribute.

Sometimes suppressed spirituality is deeper than expressed observance.

Over the years I have been amazed again and again by the suppressed spirituality I detected in people who professed not to be religious. I have come across deep commitment to deep ideals by people who openly espoused not to have them. I have learned not to underestimate the potential for innate goodness found in ordinary people. I have become frugal with my labeling of people into religious and non-religious camps.

Just when I thought I maturely arrived at a sane and balanced acceptance of the value of both observant and secular people, I discovered a rather dramatic interpretation, by the Kotzker, of a well known biblical passage;
“[The Torah] is not in Heaven (Devarim 30,12) - The Torah cannot be found among those Jews who think they have reached the heights of heaven.
(Kochav HaShachar p 140, par1)

Here Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk is clearly referring to those observant Jews who think they have exclusively discovered what he calls ‘Shemei-Shamayim’ or Heaven’s Heaven. Whatever lofty thing they believe they have found is, in his opinion, simply not Torah.

What a great irony! Our observant friends may not be as religious as they think they are. And our non-observant friends may be more religious than they want to be. 

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