Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Liz Gilbert Explains Halacha and its Place in our Lives (sort of)

I love this life and the many voices that we can bring together in the course of a day, a week, a month … really any period of time – large or small, if we are just willing to hear and consider and learn from all of the voices. So, today was a snow day and I was reading my new favorite book on life, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. To be sure, there is a lot of wisdom in this book. I found two chapters about G-d and faith I really want to share with some of my classes and friends. This woman gets God, and I think she did before she even realized it! That is often the case with seekers.

As Ramchal (my favorite medieval philosopher and Jewish teacher) says in so many ways, “the beginning of coming to know and understand G-d is when we realize that we will not fully know and understand G-d”…. and this is fine. Then I read about this one experience of her guru’s guru’s community in trying to create a meaningful prayer experience and broke out laughing. For all of us who live our life in the lane of Halacha – Jewish law, prayer that is a pattern we repeat daily or any sense of ongoing order of activities or involvements, there is a poignant lesson here.

I quote from Gilbert’s book:

“The Indians around here tell a cautionary fable about a great saint who was always surrounded in his Ashram by loyal devotees. For hours a day, the saint and his followers would meditate on God. The only problem was that the saint had a young cat, an annoying creature, who used to walk through the temple meowing and purring and bothering everyone during meditation. So the saint, in all his practical wisdom, commanded that the cat be tied to a pole outside for a few hours a day, only during meditation, so as to not disturb anyone. This became a habit – tying the cat to the pole and then meditating on God – but as years passed, the habit hardened into religious ritual. Nobody could meditate unless the cat was tied to the pole first. Then one day the cat died. The saint’s followers were panic-stricken. It was a major religious crisis – how could they meditate now without a cat to tie to a pole? How would they reach God? In their minds, the cat had become the means.” (Quoted from Eat Pray Love, p. 205)

So, can you figure out why I broke out laughing?! Because this is true, I HAVE LIVED IT. We who wash before eating bread and say the appropriate blessing (Bracha) know the joke (or urban legend or did it really happen?) about the woman who is standing in line to do Netilat Yadayim (ritual hand washing) and notes that many of the people take their rings off and put them between their lips or on the counter next to them as they wash. When it is her turn, she asks the person standing behind her if she can borrow her rings in order to wash.

Sometimes, my children or students are perplexed when someone claims “You did that wrong.” Now, to be sure sometimes this might be the case, but then I would submit this approach is not the way to go in trying to suggest the correct way of completing some ritual. It is embarrassing and we have already ascertained on numerous occasions that we are not to embarrass someone because the core of every human being is G-d and by embarrassing another human being we are also causing pain to G-d. Gentle correction is definitely the way to go. BUT, this is not always the case and sometimes the “corrected way” pronounced is no different than tying the cat to the pole.

There are questions that have been asked about how we insure that our friends and family members do enact the ritual practices we have committed to ourselves the “correct way.” However, every Rabbi and teacher for whom I have respect teaches that we are not to embarrass another and that if this is the result of such correction, than we must seek another way. We must remember that our practices are to elevate our beings, our souls and our lives, not to denigrate another person. Our practices are to be meaningful and uplifting, not repetitive and “habit hardened into religious ritual” whether or not it is a “legitimate” practice. Especially if we insist on praying only when the cat is tied to the pole!

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