Saturday, March 3, 2007

Bumper Sticker Judaism

In a comment to my essay entitled In Your Face Dr. E raised several interesting points which I believe merit a posting. Dr.E, in principle agreed that Chabad’s “in your face” Judaism, although undesirable, is in line with their agenda of being in the spotlight. Dr. E, on the other hand believes that Jews should be proud. I assume that he means in the same way that Americans are proud or African Americans as well as Gays. But, he asks astutely, where is the fine line between Jewish pride and Tzniut? At what point do you loose your tzniut in the pursuit of Jewish pride? In exercising one’s right to express pride how far ought one go before it becomes tasteless, undignified and in your face evoking the opposite of the desired effect.

In exercising our rights as proud Jews we often point to other segments of the minority communities which publicly display their religious and cultural identity and are also at times in your face, such as Muslim women in their head coverings and sometimes burkas. These rights are ostensibly protected by the law which essentially means that they are tolerated but not necessarily respected.

The practice of Judaism shouldn’t be predicated on what others are doing but the genuine and sincere application of the mitzvah and by so doing, achieve the desired spiritual benefit. Wearing one’s religion on his sleeve reveals an underlying attitude, like, “Look at me!” Absent is the real motive which ought to be performing the mitzvah L’shaim Shamayim. The performance of a mitzvah isn’t an end in itself, but merely a means to an end. The performance or practice of a mitzvah is to sensitize the practitioner, to enrich the soul. By so doing the practitioner is drawing closer to the Divinity, and allowing Him into your life. An example of this would be Shimirat Shabbat. The purpose of which is to recognize the suzerainty of Hashem, the Creator of All who rested on the Seventh day. We, in observing Shabbat, further sensitize or souls and open ourselves more so to Hashem, drawing closer to Him and letting Him enter our lives. If we practice Shemirat Shabbat without giving it any thought or reason then we aren’t really accomplishing the desired effect. Only by observing or practicing the mitzvoth l’shaym shamaim can we achieve the end result-holier Jews always drawing closer to Hashem.

Leshaym Shamaym means to do something because by doing so it will result in Kiddush Hashem. Understanding what G-d wants of us requires selective and critical reasoning- it ought not be tied into judging the political or social climate, but what is intrinsically the right behavior. Wearing a kippa at a ball park, doesn’t strike me as fulfilling any mitzvah that would fulfill this criteria. There certainly is no Kiddush Hashem in wearing a kippa to the ball park.

The purpose of wearing a yarmulke (Yire Malcut Hashem) or kippa was intended to be a constant reminder to the bearer of the kippa that there is a higher authority to which he has to ultimately answer and that his behavior should be reflected as such. The kippa isn’t the mitzvah, but rather the behavior. Many Jews today have no clue as to why they’re wearing the kippa and do so for social reasons, lest other in his community will think him of not being religious. The kippa as seen in ball parks or amusement parks is nothing more than a bumper sticker. Why is there the need to publicly display pride in one’s religious beliefs. America happens to be a country of sound bites and bumper stickers but ought I be trivializing Jewish practice just because America allows it. If I want to show my Jewish pride there are a multitude of ways to doing so without placing my religion in the market place.

How many times have I passed through airports early in the morning when I invariably spot a yid davening in talis and tiffilin at the gate of departure? He hasn’t sequestered himself to a quiet corner of the area but is at the busiest area, the gate. Often times I’ll ask myself what he thinks he is doing. Is he actually davening with kavanah in the midst of the tumult, or is he doing the American thing by demonstrating his freedom of religion and expression coupled with a sense of subtle indignation at the goyim surrounding him? Why wouldn’t he have gone to a quieter place to daven? Every airport has a chapel and if he finds that Halachically problematic then he can daven in area adjacent to the chapel which is always quiet because the chapel is the least frequented lace in any airport. But sequestering himself to an out of the way alcove would steal his thunder. So, is his davening lashaym shamayim or is it the best tradition of bumper sticker Judaism.

It would appear that what is missing from these attempts at being public about ones Jewish practice is the lack of dignity and I assume kavanah. If there is no kavanah then what did the practitioner hope to accomplish? Is there any difference between wearing a kippa at a ballgame or a beit marzeiach (pub)? At the heart of practicing ones religion there ought to be a sense of righteousness, purpose and the appropriate expression of Jewish value limited to time and place.

This is not to say that there is a denial of G-d’s presence in every place at all times. But as a Jew I selectively chose when and where Jewish religious presence ought to be found. To introduce Jewish practice at every opportunity because American culture allows it is to demean Jewish practice. If it becomes so common place, then why not support Kabbala Centers which teach enlightenment to the general public and say that it is Leshaym Shamayim?

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be proud Jews. But taking pride in being Jewish doesn’t have to be expressed through religious ritual which often times are in your face. Judaism has so many other components and to exercise any one of them would enhance our pride while at the same time, not be in your face. Isn’t this the sine qua non of leshaym shamayim?