SO ONE DAY MY DAUGHTER walks up to me and tells me that she thinks Judaism is a lot of baloney. And then she goes on to tell me how in fact the Rambam (Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, 1135-1204) was a complete epikoros (heretic). This analysis was based on her understanding of Rambam’s classic treatise on Jewish Law – the Mishne Torah.
How one child manages to depress and give nachas (joy) at the same time is a rare gift but it is also a test of boundaries (and natural for any 16-year-old). And so my manic depression: On one level, it is unnerving for me to hear my child say that Judaism is a sham (and that she is an atheist) and yet it is completely encouraging when I see that she can read and understand the Mishne Torah in fluent Hebrew.
After six years I am still figuring out the boundaries of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. Raising children in Jerusalem and trying to help them navigate between dangerous religious fundamentalism, vacuous pop culture and a small but growing Progressive Judaism, one knows that boundaries aren’t always clear.
Even more ironically, this Torah portion, V’et’hanan, reminds us time and again that Judaism is based on the obsessive pursuit of boundaries, and yet here in the Jewish state we still have no consensus on where our own religious boundaries lie and where our geo-political boundaries should be established.
In the portion, we find a critical statement in Chapter 4, verse 2, when we read, “You shall not add a word which I command you, neither shall you subtract from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God.” As we know this is easier said than done. In his Mishne Torah, Rambam has a chapter entitled De’ot (the Laws of Ethics and Ideals) and for him the right path is in fact the middle ground. We should always try to achieve the balanced life, or what he calls the “golden mean.”
Well, this may have been fine for the Rambam, but for many of us, and especially for those of us who are not bound by halakha, the religious law, trying to find the balance between Jewish law and what we feel will work in our modern lives is not easy. Maybe there are people out there who have a far better sense of how to achieve this balance.
Truth be told, many times the inconsistency of my own religious life confuses even me. I often ask myself – as a liberal Jew – how many times a day do I pray? Should I say birkat hamazon (the blessings after eating) only after Friday night meals – but what about all other meals? Dare I daven (pray) in a minyan that is not egalitarian? These are the type of questions with which I successfully make myself crazy from Havdala on Saturday night until the next Shabbat. A perpetual wrestling match of indecision, conflict – and, yes, a good deal of whining to go along with all of this.
To ignore the influence of living in a public culture that is Jewish (read: Israel) would simply be intellectually dishonest. Living in Israel has had a huge influence on my religious life whether I admit it or not. Here everything is so infused with being Jewish that suddenly there is no longer the necessity for my Jewish boundaries to only be religious boundaries.
I revel in the celebration of being Jewish outside of the religious commandments, whether it is going to watch my beloved Jerusalem basketball team Hapoel play against the Greek national basketball team on Hanukka (and eat jelly doughnuts at the snack bar) or just listening to the Hebrew language as a Jewish narrative. These mundane parts of Israeli life are for me a constant exercise in Heschelian awe. No matter where I go in this country, I am knocked out by nonstop Jewish references.
However, there is something else in this culture that concerns me less about subtracting from the commandments and more about adding to them. Finding the balance between subtracting and adding is not easy, and finding the religious balance in Israel today is even harder. When did every Orthodox man (especially in Jerusalem) begin walking around on Shabbat wearing his tallit on his back so he looks like Superman? As we know, in this country we are obsessed with character armor. And everything that we wear says what team we are playing for and what we believe.
But lately it feels like “the center cannot hold.” When I drive my children to a Scouts meeting on Shabbat, I can feel the disapproving looks from my neighbors, who think I should not drive. Yet this does not make me feel like I should be more observant, but rather I am seized with the desire to run to the local movie theater open on Shabbat and there find “secular people” having a meal and enjoying themselves.
Must religious life in Israel be everything or nothing? How do we determine what is too much in terms of observance and how do we determine what is too little? And who determines this? The dangers of falling into a vituperative volley between the broad arrays of observance is a challenge.
Perhaps the hardest part in finding the “golden mean” through the “subtracting” and “adding” has less to do with the commandments bein adam ve makom (between people and God) and more with those that are bein adam ve havero (between people and people). Since the Jewish people have come back home and have assumed responsibility for themselves in the form of a sovereign state, few parts of our national drama have been as complicated as the place of religion and state. All of us long to find the right formula: this uncertainty is too much for our collective identity.
Yes, everyone loves certainty; but the problem in this country is that we love certainty way too much. To quote my teacher Rabbi Leonard Kravitz (the Litvak, not the rock ‘n’roll star): “They may be wrong but at least they’re certain.”
And so somewhere between adding and subtracting from the commandments I wander in Jerusalem with the utmost uncertainty between the pool, the shul, and driving my kids to Scouts. And sometimes I catch a very good film at the local theater. And of course, it’s always good to know that the Rambam was an epikoros too.