Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is the Middle Road Moderation or Mediocrity? Parashat Re'eh

Many Conservative Jews, including myself, take pride in being members of the "centrist" movement. Maintaining the best of the modern and ancient worlds, we live a life of creative tension and challenging synthesis. However, there is a verse in this week's portion that challenges the value we place on the middle path: (Deut 11:26-28)

כו רְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם--הַיּוֹם: בְּרָכָה, וּקְלָלָה.26 Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse:
כז אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם.27 the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day;
כח וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם-לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְו‍ֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם: לָלֶכֶת, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים--אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדַעְתֶּם. {ס}28 and the curse, if you shall not hear the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known.

In this scenario, there are two choices: a blessing and a curse. There is no, "you take the good, you take the bad," rather, you have to choose one. The sixteenth century Italian commentator, Sforno, claims that the presentation of these extremes is very intentional:

ספורנו דברים פרק יא פסוק כו

ראה. הביטה וראה שלא יהיה ענינך על אופן בינוני כמו שהוא המנהג בשאר האומות. כי אמנם אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה והם שני הקצוות כי הברכה היא הצלחה יותר מן המספיק על צד היותר טוב. והקללה היא מארה מחסרת שלא יושג המספיק ושניהם לפניכם להשיג כפי מה שתבחרו:

"The Torah uses this language so that we will not see the world in an 'in between' or 'moderate' or 'mediocre' way like the other nations of the world. Rather, God has put before you today a blessing and a curse, and these two are extremes. For blessing is an abundance of success beyond subsistence, a excess of good. And the curse is less that what you need to live on. And both of them have been put before you, in your reach, according to your will."

According to Sforno's reading of the Torah, we do all possess choice, but not the ability to pick and choose among a plethora of options. Rather, you go all the way, or you don't go at all. This message is very un-American and flies in the face of much of Liberal Judaism.

While I do not agree with the "all or nothing" approach in all cases, sometimes there are moments and decisions which require complete commitment or complete abstinence. I often feel this way in regard to a child's Jewish education. Parents need to invest a significant portion of time to their child's Jewish learning in order to reap any meaningful dividends. Half measures usually don't lead to half success, but rather feel like missed opportunities for meaningful engagement. Being inconsistent with Shabbat observance, at least personally, doesn't provide me with 50% fulfillment, but rather leaves me feeling empty. I think that it is easy to confuse halfhearted measures with moderation, and it damages our spiritual lives and the integrity of Conservative Judaism.

There are times when we cannot or should not have an "all or nothing" attitude. For an individual in the process of conversion or becoming more observant, it is often damaging to take on all the mitzvot at once. In order for change to stick, we need to increase our observance in slow and steady stages. It took me 7 years to keep kosher completely, giving up different traif foods every year. At this point in my life, I could not imagine ever going back. Also, when increased observance leads to the breakdown of family ties, we often need to reconcile our idealized selves with the practices and needs of those we love.

To liberally paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there are times to go all out and times to go half way, which admittedly is a completely moderate approach. I think the lesson that we can learn from this portion as Conservative Jews is that splitting the difference is not always the right answer. Sometimes it lessens the best elements of Jewish distinctiveness, characterized by a radical commitment to The Good.

This week let us think critically about how far we can push ourselves for a complete and fulfilling Jewish life. Let us be honest with ourselves about whether our observance is defined by needless excuses or essential compromises -- and then let us work on bringing our Jewish lives, individually and communally, to the highest level possible.

Shabbat Shalom!