The Self-Centered Religious Life

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Why do Jews observe the Torah’s commandments? Answers differ from person to person but generally include some or all of the following reasons: 1) God commanded us to, 2) we will reap reward and/or punishment in the next world, 3) doing so is good for us spiritually, 4) it is good for us materially, 5) that is what Jews do. A recent trend in Orthodox Jewish outreach — the proselytism of Orthodoxy to non-Orthodox brethren — focuses particularly on the third reason and presents Judaism as a salve for contemporary spiritual ills. Emphasizing this aspect by positioning Judaism as a “New Age” religion that solves the inauthenticity of urban professional life runs current with American trends over the past 20 years or so.

R. David Aaron’s The God-Powered Life: Awakening to Your Divine Purpose is an example of this Oprah-ization of Judaism at its best. R. Aaron sensitively identifies the concerns and desires of the American professional and attempts to show how Orthodox Judaism fulfills them. What keeps such people awake at night? What creates a pit in their stomachs and haunts their waking hours? R. Aaron focuses on the feelings of inauthenticity inherent in contemporary professional life, the lack of purpose and the distance from spiritual satisfaction. If you want true fulfillment, he tells us, real happiness and a meaningful life, then you need Orthodox Judaism.

Along the way, he redefines terms to fit his purpose. Fully acknowledging that a religious life is not consistently happy, and sometimes even tragic, R. Aaron defines happiness as serving God. You may not be eternally blissful or even upbeat but you are “happy” when you serve God as appropriate for the moment. By this, he does not mean necessarily performing ritual commandments. “When you are breaking up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you can serve God by expressing understanding, compassion and truth. When you are losing your job, you can serve God by showing love and accepting justice” (p. 101). Within R. Aaron’s definition, this is true happiness.

To R. Aaron, integrity and self-actualization are about balancing two competing aspects of our lives. R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his The Lonely Man of Faith, distinguishes between Adam I, the creative and worldly side of man’s personality represented in Genesis 1, and Adam II, the philosophical and spiritual element within man found later in the Creation narrative. Self-actualization, R. Aaron tells the reader, comes from developing both the creative and sacred aspects of your personality. Only then are you complete. While his professional audience is presumably expert at creativity — i.e. business success — they usually lack sacred completion. R. Aaron suggests that such a failure explains loneliness and low self-esteem. You can only achieve intimate companionship with God and other people if you actualize your Adam II side, if you surrender to another. Someone dominated by his creative side is incapable of developing loving relationships. In other words, Judaism in its ageless profundity will help a 20- or 30-something serial dater commit to a relationship and finally tie the knot.

Readers will not find the term Orthodox in the book. The word Kabbalah is the author’s preferred term, only occasionally using the words Torah and Judaism. His motivation is obvious, wishing readers to judge his Orthodox ideas on their merit and without preconceived notions about Yiddish-speaking diamond merchants. However, the Kabbalah he cites is so distant from its original meaning that it is nearly unrecognizable. In R. Aaron’s hands, the ten Sefiros are not metaphysical mechanisms of divine immanence nor theological attributes. They are ten steps for self-improvement. The Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah has become a method for achieving self-esteem and finding a life partner. All of Judaism and Kabbalah are instructions or metaphors for personal healing and achievement.

R. Aaron is honest and enthusiastic. In his earnest conversionary zeal, he expertly appeals to readers’ anxieties and inner desires, insisting that only Judaism can allow them to lead complete, satisfied lives. I have serious misgivings about this approach. On the one hand, to reach his intended audience he needs to focus on their concerns. Since personal development is one of many legitimate reasons for embracing Judaism, why not pitch to what interests consumers? On the other, while he portrays Judaism honestly, his emphasis on personal growth makes the religion seem pedestrian. God and Torah become tools, subservient to a person’s desire for self-actualization and self-improvement. This trendy religion focused on personal achievement is one I barely recognize. But if it works, at least for some people, I find it difficult to object because, while it is pandering, it is honest pandering that brings Jews closer to their tradition.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

32 comments

  1. Unless you posit that God is indifferent or against us, wouldn’t you have to conclude that doing mitzvoth is somehow “good for us”? (Hodu Lashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.)

    I would expect that if a person has a pit in their stomach and is haunted during their waking hours, God’s instruction book would somehow address remedying these maladies. (Aren’t we warned that if we forsake Torah that in the day we’ll wish it was night, and at night we’ll wish it were day, and that we’ll flee when no one is chasing us?)

    Rav Hirsch translates (or rather his translator translates) ‘ashrei’ – ashrei are those who dwell in Your House – not as ‘praiseworthy’ or ‘happy’, but as ‘forward striding’ Does not striding forward imbue a person with a sense of meaning when following God’s plan for mankind?

    I’m not a rabbi or a rabbi’s son – just some thoughts.

  2. “doing so is good for us spiritually”

    Well, God /did/ say to Avraham, “Lech Lecha” and not “Lech Li.”

  3. This approach is also dangerous as it can lead people to think that if they find spritual fulfillment elsewhere, Judaism is unnecessary.

  4. I’m not saying it isn’t true. I’m saying that emphasizing only this aspect of Judaism appeals to a person’s selfishness.

  5. Mitoch she’lo lishma, ba lishma? Many people start their journey back to Judaism as a result of looking to pull themselves out of a rut. Selfish? Yes. But psychology emphasizes the need to act out of your own self. This may be an interesting first step in someone’s life. Not what I would do, but I could see it working.

  6. I guess this will appeal to many. Others will undoubtedly find it to be “fake.”

  7. I’ve sometimes wondered about the paradox of on one hand believing that Judaism is a worthwhile way of life, and on the other hand having committed myself to it even if hypothetically it were not to be worthwhile. Particularly because I feel that it could not be worthwhile if the commitment to it were not unconditional.

  8. An extremely interesting, balanced, and honest review. Well done.

    The problem with this book is the same problem with too many of today’s kiruv organizations: they are preaching orthodoxy, rather than preaching Judaism. The two are NOT the same. We may be very comfortable in our orthodox way of life, and we may indeed find in it spiritual fulfillment. We may also believe the orthodox approach in, for most people, “better” than the reform or conservative approach. But that does not mean that by default, the orthodox way of life is correct.

    We have to be honest. Any educated orthdox man must admit the many flaws, the inherent contradictions, and the outright impossibility of the orthodox premise that torah sheball peh (ie, the entirety of the babylonian talmud) was given at Sinai. It is plain to all that much of orthodoxy is/are relics from previous centuries or millenia that have no place in modern life, but are retained either out of a general sense of conservatism, or because of a fear that the slipperly slope wiill lead to worse problems. The idea that current halachic practice was given by God, rather than developed by men, has been entirely discredited for centuries. It is hence impossible for an educated man to genuinely preach contemporary orthodoxy, as it just as much a modern invention as reform.

    Rabbi Berel Wein never preached or preaches orthodoxy. He didnt care if a Jew decided he would put on a yarmulke or wig. What was important to him was simply that the Jew become educated, and learn about his people. Whether the “target” actually became orthodox was irrelvant. From reading your review, it seems like that’s the flaw with this new book.

  9. I think this is a balanced review, although I think there is a danger of the rank and file orthodox viewing approaches such as those in this book as somehow “inauthenticating” Judaism, precisely because it presents a feel-good message. Sometimes I think such attitudes are a reflection of cynicism, rather than a passionate desire to uphold the fundamental truism that Judaism revolves around God, not man.

    We can see that in earlier generations, injecting feel-good sensibilities into Judaism (or arguably revealing Judaism’s latent potential for such) was employed with great success. Much of the Chassidic movement was inspired by a desire to give chizzuk to the non-elite members of the Jewish community, to impress upon them the fact that they “matter,” in addition to helping them achieve a more impassioned relationship with the Creator. Granted, such approaches always put God first–i.e. emphasizing that one should achieve “devekus” with Hashem, develop feelings of love and fear for Hashem, etc. but make no mistake about it, many of the techniques employed were and are means of achieving “spiritual fulfillment.” This is probably part of the reason why Chassidism took off to the extent that it did.

  10. Not my cup of tea, but I was curious and looked up his book using the Amazon link provided. It turns out that he has a string of books in this style:

    Inviting God In: Celebrating the Soul-Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days (2007)
    Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Jewish Practice (2007)
    The Secret of God: Discovering the Divine within You (2005)
    Love is My Religion (2002)
    Seeing God: Ten Life-Changing Lessons of the Kabbalah (2001)
    Endless Light: The Ancient Path of Kabbalah (1998)

    Interestingly, the publisher seems to be a “BU-JU” enterprise which, I guess, is the target market segment for these books…

  11. RYBS once commented that we invoke the Avos, Moshe Rabbeinu and the Neviim at the end of Slichos to remind ourselves that there are numerous pathways to Teshuvah. If someone is attracted to become committed to Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim via this or any other legitimate portal of entry,including Chabad, despite its messianistic hashkafa, I would not dismiss the same merely because it does not appeal to me.

  12. “We have to be honest. Any educated orthdox man must admit the many flaws, the inherent contradictions, and the outright impossibility of the orthodox premise that torah sheball peh (ie, the entirety of the babylonian talmud) was given at Sinai.”

    R’ DF, I am certain you are a tzaddik gammur. May I respectfully direct your attention to RMF, who asserts in IM OC 4:49 as well as CM 2:68 that the entire Torah Shebe’al Peh was given to Mosheh Rabbeinu at Har Sinai.

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=920&st=&pgnum=83
    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=921&st=&pgnum=290

    And, unlike the question of how to interpret Shu”t Chatam Sofer YD 338, where I believe all the evidence points to a dispute between RMF vs. RSZA (as discussed in the brain death forum), this is not an issue where RSZA challenged RMF. I think, then, Orthodox Jews can be comfortable with the dogma of Orthodox Judaism.

  13. “It is hence impossible for an educated man to genuinely preach contemporary orthodoxy, as it just as much a modern invention as reform.”

    R’ DF, I am sure you are a tzaddik gammur. At the same time, the quotation above essentially recapitulates what Korach claimed. Korach was miraculously swallowed by the ground in order to attest to the truth of Orthodox Judaism. [Happily, the Arizal teaches that Korach is sofei teivot for Tzaddik Katammar Yifrach. In the time of mashi’ach, Korach will become a tzaddik.] Thus, I think Orthodox Jews can be comfortable with the dogma of Orthodox Judaism.

  14. R’ DF,
    I just want to note that based on your other comments on Torah Musings, it is obvious that you are a Talmid Chakham committed to Orthodox Judaism (-who, like the Chazon Ish, initially chose to remain anonymous in his publications), and that your comment in this forum to which I responded earlier (at 3:49 p.m. and 4:13 p.m.) was brilliantly formulated “lechadudei”: to test the audience if it was listening (an effective pedagogical technique occasionally employed by the Sages, as per the gemara in Berakhot 33b). Thus, please consider my earlier comments as simply fulfilling your lechadudei effort, which was a success. Ye’yasher kochakha, and thank you for giving me the opportunity.

  15. R’ Shalom, I barely ever read or comment on hirhurim. Used to, stopped pretty much when haloscan stopped. I only have one other comment posted concurrently with this one, on the news and links. Other than that, I dont think I’ve posted here for a couple of years, at least so far as I can recall.

    It happens to be I am committed to orthodx judaism. But that doesnt mean i agree with all of its premises as OJ is presented today. Specifically, as i said, it is impossible to believe the idea that all torah sheball peh was given at sinai. Practically every other page of shas, in which diffrent men argue over how to darshen a particular verse, proves it [along with countless other proofs.] I know RSZA and RMF, and many other older great rabbis, state otherwise. With all due respect to them, I disagree.

    GS and ZG.
    DF

  16. DF: there are a number of posts over the years arguing that the *entire* TSBP was not given at Sinai, following the Rambam, Maharatz Chajes and others.

  17. I was a bit surprised that you did not touch on the more chasidic Ideas of mitzvot being a way to help Gd in being partners of creation and fixing the world.

    Also, one thing I found a bit odd in the review, (though I can’t place my finger on why) is that I felt like you were criticizing an attempt to remove the common mistakes associated with Kabalah which lead to self worship and / or avodah zarah.

    These books really need to be seen in the larger context of Aryeh Kaplan’s books and Burg’s Kabbalah Cult.

  18. DF,

    “they are preaching orthodoxy, rather than preaching Judaism. ” Actually, it’s quite the opposite!

    These books preach kabbalah within the context of Judaism, instead of Judaism or Orthodoxy. (as apposed to some other books which preach Kabbalah as its own independent religion)

  19. Reading the review over again, I wonder Gil if you are aware of the long tradition that this sort of book fits into. (long in terms of America, not in terms of Judaism)

  20. 1)”lo nitnu hamizvot ela letzaref bahen et habriot” Breishes Medrash Raba 44:1
    2)self-actualization does not mean selfishness
    3)the goal of the unconscious mind “where id (drives) is ego shall be.”
    The highest levels of ego development is altruism ,affiliation and sublimation.All consistent with Orthodox Judaism.
    In other words The Halachic life gives meaning to life itself.
    This is not New Age.

  21. Israel Fathers Rights Advocacy Council

    One of the first lessons many of our members learn upon divorce is that their entire lives had been built until now, particularly in 21st c America, as a celebratory ethos of good fortune and ahavat hashem. Now they must relearn the religion of almost all prior generations — yirat shamayim, and a true fear of a God who does not act by any human definition of good and evil. This lesson is lived far more easily in Israel than America, where OJ still seems focused on marginalizing and exiting all who stumble along the way.

  22. I read this post real fast, but I’m pretty positive I understood the author’s position. I find the author a victim of his times – hopelessly out of sync with the basic jewish consciousness of our glorious heritage. There is a famous gemara of the peddlar who was hawkink ‘the medicine of life’ – which was a passuk in tehilim. The Torah, being absolutely true contains everything – including the cure for every malady.
    It seems also that this post never understood the difference between self love and selfishness. Self love is good – and necessary for all. We all benefit from the individuals’ self love – he is a petter person, father , neighbor, and citizen. Hashem loves us – Our Father In Heaven, and ultimately it is for OUR benefit – certainly not his! The Torah says over and over again – ltov lanu…. ubecharta bchaim.
    How sad it is for one to be religious, while missing the joy and inner meaning of our ‘service’

  23. Gil, thanks for the links. I think I even remember reading them. [I was a regular reader up until a few years ago.] They are well written, partciaulry the first, noting you would not be Torah observant today were it not for the “heresy” you were taught in 10th grade. Truly, it is impossible for any thinking man to beleive that torah sheball peh (all of it, that is, the extent of the talmud Bavli) came from sinai. Even to say that thought is ludicrous – that a collection of discussions from Iranian sages c. 300-600 CE were actually given at Sinai, like a hand-out at a speech. It’s absurd. The human quality of it is so plain and self-evident, that I cant be bothered to argue with anyone who thinks otherwise.

    As to all the rabbis who maintain otherwise, how can they maintain such a patently absurd belief? Simple. They’re not thinking when they say that, they are believing. They have been led to believe that belif that the oral torah came from sinai is an article of faith, and once one accepts that, all the usual doubting, analyzing, and weighing of evidence that go into “thought” are excused from duty.

  24. R’ DF,
    Thank you for your kind response on Aug. 5, at 5:49 p.m. You acknowledge that there are intelligent human beings (like RMF) who did believe that the TSBP is from Mount Sinai. Of course, one might reject RMF by saying RMF did not have a university education, and so RMF does not inform us enlightened people. But then there is the Korach precedent, which I should also have noted (to give credit where credit is due) is taken from RYBS’s 1973 address to the RCA convention. Thus, we even have an intelligent human being with a university education (viz. RYBS) who also believed (like RMF) that the TSBP is from Mount Sinai. That is my argument then: Orthodox Jews are not foolish idiots. They have intelligent people on whom to rely (e.g. RMF, RYBS, etc.) in espousing their dogma. I am proud to share that dogma myself.

  25. R’ Shalom: I respectfully submit that R. Moshe Feinstein’s words do not have the broad implications you are reading into them.

  26. R’ DF,
    You write on Aug. 8 at 10:26 a.m.,

    “Truly, it is impossible for any thinking man to beleive that torah sheball peh (all of it, that is, the extent of the talmud Bavli) came from sinai. Even to say that thought is ludicrous – that a collection of discussions from Iranian sages c. 300-600 CE were actually given at Sinai, like a hand-out at a speech.”

    Thank you for this important point you are rendering. I assume you are refering to the episode of Moshe Rabbeinu attending Rabbi Akiva’s lecture as described by the gemara in Menachot 29b. The fact that Moshe Rabbeinu did not initially understand Rabbi Akiva’s lecture suggests that Rabbi Akiva was reforming Judaism. I recommend seeing the Artscroll gemara to that passage, which attempts to reconcile that sugya with Orthodox Jewish belief. I agree with the Artscroll.

  27. I did not realize this article was posted on jewish ideas daily. I thought this was strictly a hirhurim post (which I suspect has, for the most part, an exclusively orthodox readership) and hence more of a “between us” conversation. Had I known it was more public I would have either shaddap, or else would have emphasized the points made earlier, viz, 1) that for most people the orthodox approach is “better”, in the sense that it gives one the best Jewish education; and 2)my point only regards the contention that the entirety of torah shbeall peh, ie, talmud bavli, was given at Sinai. That is absurd. It is not absurd, and in fact eminently reasonable, to suppose that there is some aspect of an oral tradition surrounding the written Torah.

  28. DF: Many machlokot in Chazal clearly result from an inherent ambiguity in the original verse or circumstances. The possible interpretations, one could say, existed in potential from the beginning and were waiting for someone to articulate them. In that sense they do come from Sinai. I’m not proclaiming a dogma here, rather I’m suggesting something that seems correct to me from my study of tanach as well as gemara.

    P.S. Bavel is Iraq not Iran

  29. R’ DF and our Rosh Yeshiva R. Student,
    Thank you for your excellent counterreponses to me. I think we are all on the same wavelength. R’ DF, your comments were (and are) most valuable and appreciated; just as R’ Shlomo spoke of machlokot in Chazal verbalizing the potential that already existed in the revelation to Mosheh Rabbeinu, so too I think my comments merely verbalized the potential that already existed in your comments. [I am hurrying to write this before halakhic midday, so as to avoid Talmud Torah after midday on Erev Tish’ah Be’Av. Kol tuv.]

  30. I think we might benefit from some social history here. When Jewish communities were socially more collective, the idea of prayer mitzvot benefiting the individual was not emphasized. For example, the Amidah demonstrates this. The individual was subsumed into the “Jewish People” or “Children of Israel.” The same was true for most European culture, including, analogously, the Catholic Church.
    The Haskalah movement coincided roughly with the rise of Protestant thought, both focused on individuals and their personal development or salvation. The 17th Century “Age of Enlightenment” carried this further.

    Once people began emigrating to countries, including the Americas, social identity with the ancestors and the social group became attenuated. Co-incidentally Chasidism planted the seeds of an approach that begins with the individual and moves outward to the community and the world. I think this was a necessary and beneficial change of focus under these historical circumstances.

    Jews who live in a culture that exalts self-identification as an Individual, rather than a Member of a group are bound to be affected. Only total separation from the culture (practiced in some self-isolated religious communities) could prevent a desire, even a need for an orientation that promises that remaining true to Orthodox practice (whether or not coupled with Orthodox belief) will benefit the individual and not just permit him/her to remain a member of the family or community. It’s far to easy to leave and find community elsewhere. Books like this one might be viewed as Hashem’s way of transmitting a solution for a problem. rather than pandering to an undesirable mindset. We can’t wish away the emergence of individualism. Better to “speak to men and women in a language they can understand.”

  31. MiMedinat HaYam

    this concept of re-oprah-ization is found in many “jewish” books today, esp by charedi writers. it is what i call “self help” books, of a sort (besides the ones that are literally self help books.

    in reality, they are takeoffs on http://www.rickwarren.com/books/thepurposedrivenlife/

    perhaps this is outside the purview of this blog, but a comparison of that book, with jewish beliefs and / or jewish books of this type, might be interesting. (discussion of non jewish theology not relevantg to the comparison.)

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