Glimpsing how people in other cultures live is one benefit of travel. Before we left New York, Will and I took a tour of Hasidic Brooklyn—actually of the Lubavitcher enclave in Crown Heights.
Our guide, Rabbi Yoni Katz, is an American Jew, like us. But we wore casual clothes that would blend in anywhere in the country, while he wore a 1940-style black hat, an untrimmed beard, and a black suit with white fringes (tzitzit) hanging out from under the bottom of his jacket. We have only one child; he has seven children so far. We enjoy the gender equality of our era; he is comfortable in a community that believes women have different natures, a community where most (though not all) women stay home to raise their many children. We grope to define the mystery called “God”; he speaks as if God were his beloved grandfather, still living in the neighborhood.
It seems natural for him and some other Lubavitcher Hasids we met to take injunctions in the Torah as literal expressions of what God needs from the humans “He” created. For example, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar tells us to wear tzitzit (knotted fringes) on four corners of a garment to remind us of the rules, so Hasidic men wear tzitzit every day for God’s sake. The Torah lists rules for kosher eating and the Talmud expands on them, so the men and women carefully keep kosher for God’s sake.
As for myself, I never accept a religious rule because a human being with authority wrote it down and claimed it came from God. Humans may be inspired by God, but our own brains translate inspiration into words, and a lot can get lost or altered in translation. Therefore if I cannot think of a good reason for a Jewish rule, I ignore it. I do not obey chukim (directives with no rationale).
Nevertheless, Yoni’s introduction to the Lubavitcher philosophy of life spoke to my heart. In short, he said that acting out of egotism will never make life meaningful. What matters is meeting the needs of others—both other humans who need us and God, who created us because “He” needs us.
Every week during our journey toward Jerusalem, I am sending a link to one of the posts on the weekly Torah portion that I have written during the last nine years. This week, after listening to Yoni, I chose Nitzavim: Still Standing
What does it mean to be standing before God? Can anyone do it? What does it mean to stop acting just for your own benefit, as if you were a god? Click on the link above and see what I wrote in 2012.
Today, as I post this, we are sitting in the airport in Rome. Next week I will be posting from Prague. Our journey continues.
(Note: If any of my comments about Lubavitchers is wrong, please let me know.)