The Great Rabbi Debate

jubilee synagogue 3354958 1280 compressed
jubilee synagogue 3354958 1280 compressed

Why the Great Rabbi Debate? Because politics and philosophy are inseparable. Our political ideology is an extension of our personal philosophy. In order to understand each others’ politics, therefore, we must also be willing to discuss, debate, and civilly disagree about our philosophies. This week, as part of our Pen Pals Series, we are blessed to have two world-class educators as well as my personal mentors and friends, Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder and Rabbi Aaron Potek, discuss their views on religion’s relationship to the individual. They debate the question of whether religion is a means of self-transcendence (creating meaning beyond oneself) or self-actualization (creating meaning by becoming our fullest selves). Enjoy!

Aaron – I am looking forward to this conversation with you. I respect you and I like you lot. I think you have views on Jewish life that should be heard. You are creative, passionate, alert, and also funny, and you have really good hair. But on the point we are about to discuss, I deeply disagree with you. And if you think what I think you think, then I find your views to be somewhat dangerous and to run counter to the basic values and intentions of Jewish life.

At the very core of Jewish orientation to the world is a sense of service–what is called in Hebrew AVoDah. It can describe the state of affairs–“to be in service”–or it can describe the act itself–“work.” This orientation is defined by the Torah as the proper root-orientation for all humankind, as the very core of the directive given to Adam and Eve: “The LORD God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, l’AVDa u’l’shamra–to work it and to protect it.” At the outset, the attention and focus are toward what is outside of one’s self.

A text that I use to refine my thinking about this topic is found in the writings of one Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He wrote that when someone is contemplating some action or other, they should only consider whether or not the act will give honor to God or not. If it will, do it. If it won’t, don’t. What strikes me here is the suggestion that what determines the propriety of an act has nothing to do with oneself. It’s not about me. It’s not about whether I enjoy it nor whether I think it will make me a better person. My attention is firmly fixed outside of myself.

Whether or not such an orientation is mandated by the religion we both attempt to speak for, this strikes me as a healthy way to live. People strive to help, to love, to be present for, and to add goodness to the lives of people around them are happier and live longer. And people tend to like them more. I’m sure you’ve read the studies. I have no doubt this is the secret to your own youthfulness and ability to run several miles on a regular basis without falling apart.

So the mandate is to serve. And, along the way, incidentally, you perfect yourself. By focusing away from yourself and toward the ways you can help, you become a better person. The greatest exemplars of Jewish generosity and selflessness achieved a high level of self-refinement. Not because they sought refinement as a goal, but because they understood that self-actualization is what happens when you commit to service. But refinement is not why they do it. They do it because there is work to be done and they feel they must respond to the call.

When I wake up and say “we must repair the world,” this will help me refine myself in order to better participate in that repair. Both goals will be closer to realization. But if I wake up and say “I will refine myself,” this will not necessarily lead to “we must repair the world.”

Aaron, I assume you’ll be arguing that religion should be seen primarily as a method of self-actualization. I believe that religion should be seen primarily as the framework in which we understand and do God’s will and as a method self-actualization secondarily. That said, we have a saying: out of doing things for the wrong purposes, we will ultimately do them for the right purposes. If Rabbi Aaron Potek is an example of what happens when people are focused on the wrongs, then we’re in luck. And how much more of a positive impact will he have on the world when he vigorously turns his attention beyond himself and toward the need of the day and teaches that orientation to others.

Rabbi G – You are an amazingly thoughtful and thought-provoking teacher and leader. I’m excited to argue with you about such a fundamental question, namely: is the Jewish religious orientation fundamentally directed towards humans or towards God? You have chosen the God side–I like your instincts; when in doubt, take the God side. It’s also an intuitive choice. Most people’s immediate association with the word “religion” is probably God. (I have not tested this theory out and I suggest you and everyone reading this go up to a stranger and yell “Religion!” to see what they say.)

So, who on earth would decide to argue with this point of view? I’ll give you a hint–he’s got two thumbs. Oh, does that not narrow it down enough? Fine I’ll just tell you–it’s me.

I think one obvious point of disagreement for us is around the idea of “self-actualization” or “self-refinement”. In your piece, it seems you have equated this with selfishness, whereas I certainly would not. Helping others is a sine qua non of religion. But self-refinement also inherently leads to improving the world; this is not to be confused with self-indulgence.

This relates to another big disagreement between us about how to be a good person. You seem to argue: think less about yourself and you’ll be a better person. That might be true, but I think when you ignore yourself, then you fail to know yourself. And when you don’t know yourself, you’re more likely to cause harm to others. Hence the Greek aphorism: “Know thyself.”

Even if we don’t agree on the best path, we still seem to agree that the point of religion is to become a better person. This means that Judaism is focused, primary, on humans. As it says: “The commandments were given only in order to refine humanity.” (Genesis Rabbah 44:1).

This directly goes against some famous philosophers’ views of religion. Soren Kierkegaard argued that we sometimes must act immoral to serve God. Yeshayahu Leibovitz argued that if you’re doing a commandment for personal benefit, and not for God, then you’re doing it wrong. (Leibovitz would find equally problematic your argument that helping others is actually in our own best interest.)

Which brings us to our biggest difference: serving God and being a good person are not the same thing. One can lead to the other, but one does not guarantee the other. You can be a good person and not believe in God, and you can believe in God and not be a good person. Yet you conflate focusing on God and focusing on others throughout your piece. I’ll go a step further. I think focusing on God can sometimes make someone a bad person. Sometimes, a focus on God can distract us from this world and the needs of other. It can be a form of escapism, and ironically, it can be extremely selfish–seeking a transcendent, otherworldly experience instead of helping people in the here and now.

I’m also worried about selflessness taken too far. Yes, we should be working to direct our focus on others. But as Rabbi Isaac ben Moses Arama (Akeidat Yitzchak 23:3) says on the famous verse “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18): “all love is measured against the yardstick of self love.” Meaning, we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. We can only see worth in others if we see worth in ourselves. I’m worried that a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a cause, which you laud in your piece, can quickly lead to a willingness to sacrifice others for a cause as well. A lot of bad things have been done in human history for the sake of a supposedly “just” cause.

Being your best self isn’t an incidental byproduct of religion. It is, I’m claiming, the very purpose of religion. And to do that, we must keep the focus on humans, not God. So if religion is about making us into our best selves, then why need God at all? I think a good theology can help us to see the world from a broader perspective, get outside our own selves, feel the interconnectedness of all things, etc. In short, I think a good theology can help make someone a good person. But would I rather a person be a good person and not believe in God than believe in God but not be a good person? 100%.

I think Hillel the Elder would agree. When asked, effectively, to put the whole Torah into a tweet, he says: “That which is hateful, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah – the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.” You know who’s conspicuously missing from this “tweet”? God. Hillel understood the primary focus of religion–humans.

I’ll end with how Rabbi Donniel Hartman ends his book Putting God Second: “by putting God second, we put God’s will first.” God wants us to be our best selves. We must live with this divine imperative constantly. But that doesn’t mean we must, or even should, focus on God. In fact, it means the opposite.

Aaron – Nice to hear from you. Please find enclosed a pair of glasses. I am afraid yours don’t work and you weren’t able to read what I wrote.

My concern comes out of your obsession with my obsession with God. “You have chosen the God side.” I mentioned God twice. My focus, instead, is on service, about one’s attention being firmly fixed outside of one’s self, and on repairing the world.

But I should be willing and able to talk about God more. We both know–and I think you exemplify in your response–the easy road of conflating religion with some pleasant and appealing combination of spirituality and self-help. How tempting and rewarding it is to take these vast, sometimes awkward, demanding, unruly, culturally specific bodies called “religions” and trim them down, make them universal and universally appealing, and then sell them as the real deal. There are many organizations that will hire you; many forums that will publish your work. If you keep going up the ladder, you could land on Oprah.

But I–and you, too–should also feel comfortable celebrating the specifics of our “religion” and should be comfortable reflecting on and talking about the Deity to which it refers. And when we do so, we must be extremely careful not to trim the uncomfortable parts away. Thank God God actually wants us to be self-actualized, self-refined, spiritual, etc. But, as I tried to convey, these things are just not the point. They are means to an end. The end? Service of the God.

At the risk of getting dragged down into the weeds, I’d like to address some of your misconceptions about what I wrote, because there are important. Pertaining to your question as to whether “the religious orientation is fundamentally directed toward humans or toward God,” I would suggest that any religion worth its salt must include both. A famous Jewish source speaks of the three pillars that hold up the world: Torah (learning), God Service (which would include prayer or sacrifices), and acts of kindness. Clearly the Jewish sages sought to balance these three, and clearly God is a big part of the picture.

When you try to force us into a binary decision, you inevitably relegate us to either religious extremism with its sole focus on God–which usually requires the donning of loin cloths–or soft pseudo-religious humanism and its negation of God. Neither of those are productive choices. Your aversion to God because “focusing on God can sometimes make someone a bad person” is silly. And your statement that “serving God and being a good person are not the same thing” also sounds as if I have to choose one or the other.

In a similarly extreme statement, you portray me as saying that you should “think less about yourself and you’ll be a better person.” You continue with “I think when you ignore yourself, then you fail to know yourself.’” What I said is that “by focusing away from yourself and toward the ways you can help, you become a better person.” I’d like to know myself. I’d like to observe what arises when I try to help, and then see if I can adjust so I can help, more and better, next time. I’m observing myself “in action” rather than in isolation.

I don’t see where I encourage anyone to “sacrifice oneself for a cause.” “Focus toward” and “sacrifice oneself for” are so different from each other. Your conflation of the two, I believe, indicates your own fear of being subsumed by a religion. I think many people have that anxiety. I take that concern seriously–I actually wrote a book about the importance of differentiation in relationship to God. But I get that if you think God and Religion are going to swallow you up that you would insist on focusing on yourself.
It is clear that we have different views on God (#obvs). You imply that God is not Real and Living but rather an element of a theology. You write that “a good theology can help us to see the world from a broader perspective, get outside our own selves, feel the interconnectedness of all things, etc.” I believe in, and try to serve and interact with, God Who is not something I have created or conceived for my own ethical growth, but rather Who created me.

That’s what I’ve got. Please do let me know if I should clarify anything I’ve said here. I’m hoping you’ve seen the light by now, and that you’ll soon join my cult of God-service.

Rabbi G – We’re not so different, you and I. We both have beards, we both strive to live a life of service, and we have both devoted our careers to encouraging others to live lives of service. Yet we disagree about the primary beneficiary of that service and thus the primary point of religion.

You said unequivocally that the end point of religion is “Service of the God.” In my opinion, that is not the end but the means. The end point, I believe, is to build a just world. “Service of the God” can be an important means to that end, but only if it’s done right. And part of doing it right is keeping it in its proper place–as a means and not an end. When service of God becomes an end, it can actually make the world less just.

You belittle my claim that “focusing on God can sometimes make someone a bad person” as “silly.” Part of being a good person is recognizing immoral behavior, especially when it is being done by those closest to you. To deny that terrible pain has been caused by people claiming to act on what they think God wants is what is, in fact, silly.

Of course, one can both serve God and be a good person; one doesn’t have to choose one or the other. My point is that they are two distinct goals and that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. Since they are two distinct goals, there will be times when one must choose between the two. You say we need both. Ideally, yes. If only life were so easy as to be full of non-choices. But alas, Jewish law is rooted in the recognition that often there are limited resources or competing values and we are forced to make a choice. Two people in the desert but only enough water for one–who gets it? Do I continue my personal prayer or interrupt it to acknowledge the person who just walked in the room? Do I use my one candle as a shabbat candle or a channukah candle? We have so many books of Jewish law because there are endless examples.

So, what if we must only choose one? Lucky for us, we already find this exact tension in the Torah itself. According to one interpretation, Abraham is talking to God when he sees some potential guests walking by his tent in the desert. Boldly, he tells God “to wait for him while he runs to greet the visitors.” (Rashi on Genesis 18:3). When it comes to serving God or serving others–we, like Abraham, must serve others first.
My concern with serving God as the end goal of religion is not a selfish concern about losing myself, as you claim, but about losing my God-given moral intuition. What happens when your moral intuition and “God’s will” are not aligned? Many religious Jews believe our moral intuition must always be subsumed by “God’s will.” This is clearly dangerous, and it’s also a distortion of Judaism itself. Judaism is an interpretive religion–one that evolves to match our evolving moral sensibilities. Our moral sensibilities play a critical role in the continuing development of Jewish law. What you disparage as “pleasant and appealing” I call a healthy check on religion. To make sure religion is living up to this standard, we must be in touch with our own inner sense of what is “pleasant and appealing.”

Making God the end point of religion leads to other distortions of Judaism as well. You seem to dismiss the universal aspects of Judaism as the work of people who are looking for easy solutions or popularity. First of all, just because something is universal doesn’t mean it isn’t demanding. The goal of being an ethical person is certainly universal, yet few people seem to achieve it.

But more important, the universal aspects are right there. “Love your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:18) may have been interpreted to mean “Love your Jewish neighbor,” but the Torah also says to “love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). “Justice, Justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) may have been interpreted to mean “in your own court system,” but God chose Abraham to create a nation by which “all nations on earth will blessed” though doing “what is right and just” (Genesis 18:18-19). And “to save one life is equivalent to saving the whole world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5) may have been amended to apply only to the life of a Jew, but the idea that every human is created b’tzelem Elohim (Genesis 1:27)–in the image of God–goes back to the very beginning. If anything, the “easy road” is limiting the applicability of these universal demands to our particular people.

I’m not trying to “trim the uncomfortable parts away,” as you claim. I’m just trying to make clear what is ikar (essential) and what is tefel (secondary). It seems you’re drawn to the “unique, unruly, culturally specific, pervasively non-universal” aspects of our religion while downplaying its universal aspects. Of course, it’s not a binary choice. Our religion has both because both are important. But what are we going to focus on? Which side is more dangerous to ignore? The answer seems clear to me: the particular aspects of a religion might make us feel unique and special, but they are not the ikar. Judaism is a particular means to a universal end. I fear a confusion around the point of religion leads to further confusions around the relative importance of different aspects of that religion.

Perhaps our whole disagreement comes down to our conception of and relationship to God. God doesn’t talk directly to me and I don’t see miracles happening around me. After many, many years of trying to have a relationship with that version of God, I realized that maybe the issue isn’t with me but with my understanding of God. God is now more abstract for me. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t “Living.” I think God wants us to be the best people we can be. I hope God is gently guiding us in that direction. And I believe God continues to speak to us not just through our ancient texts but through our hearts and minds. Divinity rests within each of us and I think we can best access God through our relationships with others, and ourselves.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.

Joseph Schuman
Editor-in-Chief at Divided We Fall

Joe Schuman is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Divided We Fall. He works to set the vision of the organization and to build the team to meet that mission. Joe works as a civilian for the Department of Defense promoting innovation and emerging technology. Joe is also an Officer in the Air National Guard and a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his spare time he can be found reading non-fiction, playing piano, and running triathlons.


mmcdonald72014 November 3, 2019 at 9:53 am

We say: The law is two: Love God and love your neighbor, summing the whole. It is in the mystery of the wedding, but the law is also one: There is a trinity and the Bride in the image. Hence, “She” is feminine in the Proverbs 3:18, and in the city grows the tree of life. She is the mystical body of the begotten intelligences, the spiritual Israel or mystical church, including angels, the servants of the Lord. To care for man is to serve the Lord. Can you think of anything else ‘e might need from us? Happy Sunday!

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