Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Praise from Experience, Nothing More

For my write-up today on Joseph Telushkin's A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy, I'll talk about something that Telushkin says on pages 399-400.

In Babylonian Talmud Yoma 60b, some rabbis wrestle with a question. In Deuteronomy 10:17, Moses calls the LORD "the great, the mighty, and the awesome God." Jeremiah, however, omits the word "awesome" and refers to the "great and mighty God" (Jeremiah 32:18). And Daniel omits the word "mighty", calling God "great and awesome" (Daniel 9:4). How could Jeremiah and Daniel have the audacity to omit a word from Moses' expression?

According to rabbis, the answer is that Jeremiah and Daniel were praising God in reference to their experience, nothing more. Jeremiah did not feel that God did "awesome" deeds because foreigners were destroying God's Temple. Daniel did not feel that God was all that "mighty" because foreigners were enslaving God's children, the Jews. Rabbi Elazar says that "Since they knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to Him". Telushkin explains: "Therefore, when we speak to God, we should not use words that are not a truthful expression of our own experiences."

Telushkin then refers to Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits' suggestion that Jews say nothing in synagogues when they observe Yom Ha-Shoa, the day on which they remember the Holocaust. Many Jews want to say Kaddish on behalf of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, but the Kaddish is a prayer of praise, and Berkovits thinks that it's better to refrain from praise to protest God's failure to act on the Jews' behalf during the Holocaust.

I like how B.T. Yoma 60b promotes authenticity and honesty, especially when so much of religion seems to encourage the opposite. I think that there is a time for me to praise God even when I don't feel like doing so, since my outlook may need to be elevated. But there are also times when I cannot be a fake, when I cannot pretend to believe things that do not accord with my own experience.

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