Wednesday, July 17, 2013

First a Mensch: The Kuzari on True Religiosity

The following is the text of the derasha I gave this past Shabbat Chazon.
On February, 4th 1961 my father, fifteen years old, landed in Florida as a refugee from Castro’s Cuba.  His only sister, her husband and son had made it out a few months before.  His mother was still in Cuba and it would be another six months until he would be reunited with them all in Brooklyn.  The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) made the arrangements for his escape and placed him with a foster family somewhere in the Everglades.  He spoke no English.  
He had some friends who had also made it out of Cuba and one day he boarded a bus to meet some of them in Miami which was about 25 miles away.  About six miles into the trip an elderly woman, who was black, got on the bus.  As she walked down the aisle my father noticed, promptly stood up and motioned for the woman to take his seat.  Perhaps the bus-driver thought my father was a lone freedom rider—whatever the case may be, he stopped the bus and kicked my father off yelling some expletives that my father was not able to understand.
My father explained to me that in Cuba he was not taught to distinguish between black and white but he was taught how to be courteous and respectful. 
Americans had forgotten something that even a fifteen year old boy knew: how to treat another human being…human dignity.  This theme of human dignity is a (perhaps the) central motif which must occupy our thoughts before Tisha B’Av.
As my father walked back the six miles through the Everglades aside from feeling tired and hot he probably felt confused: how could he be punished for doing something nice?  His consternation was probably similar to the utter dismay experienced by the Neviim: how can the heirs of Avraham and Sarah forget the most basic tenets of civil society?
At this time of year the haftorot do not, as is the usual custom, emphasize a theme in the weekly Torah portion.  For the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av (this being the third) we read haftorot of puranut, punishment, each emphasizing how our evil deeds led to the destruction of Israel and our Temple. This week we read the first chapter of Isaiah.  Its first words give us the name of this Shabbat: Shabbat Chazon—the Vision.     It is an unsettling vision; it is an indictment; it leaves no room for equivocation.  God’s chastisement was to no avail and Israel had to suffer the consequences.  In outward appearance the Jews of that time were very religious. Israel gave plenty of sacrifices and offered many prayers—but they were called worthless—they were accused of having blood on their hands; they had become like Sodom and Gemorah.  Israel was lacking the basics: how to treat their fellow human being.
God implores Israel:
Our Rishonim categorized the mitzvoth of the Torah into two groups: mitzvoth sikhliot, mitzvoth that one could (or should) know from one’s own mind and mitzvoth shimiot, literally, mitzvoth that are heard—mitzvot that are known through Revelation. 
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, in his Kuzari, uses this distinction to help us understand the nature of true religiousity.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi was born in Spain at the end of the 11th century.  We know very little about his life but he has left us with a veritable treasure trove of Hebrew poetry—the most famous expressing his deeply felt yearning to return to Zion.  In fact, perhaps one of the most famous of all the kinot was his composition: the moving ציון הלא תשאלי
However, he is probably even better known for his masterpiece: the Kuzari—a dialogue between a Chakham representing Judaism and the king of the Khazars who ultimately converts to Judaism.
At one point the dialogue turns to what I would characterize, in modern terms, as the nature of religiosity. 
The King of the Khazars, impressed with the great spiritual accomplishments of the Jewish people asks the Chakham:
I should expect to see more hermits and ascetics among you than among other people. (II, 45)
The Chakham responds:
I regret that you have forgotten those fundamental principles to which you already agreed. Did we not agree that man cannot approach God except by means of deeds commanded by him? Do you think that this can be gained by meekness, humility, etc., alone? (II, 46)
“Certainly, and rightly so.” the king responds,
I think I read in your books as follows: 'What does the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God' (Deut. x. 12) and 'O man, what is good, and what does HaShem require of thee: only to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d. (Mic. vi. 8), and many similar passages?
The King is under the impression that one needs to take extraordinary measures in order to reach the highest levels of enlightenment. He imagines that this path must necessitate separation from society and involve some kind of self-abnegation and affliction.  It’s as if he read the last phrase of the verse “walk humbly” and missed the first two: “do justice and love mercy!”  The Chakham’s interpretion of these verses cannot be more different from the Kings.  He responds:
These are the rational laws, being the basis and preamble of the divine law, preceding it in character and time, and being indispensable in the administration of every human society. Even a gang of robbers must have a kind of justice among them if their confederacy is to last.
Shockingly, what the King interprets as a call to asceticism the Chakham interprets as the rational laws that even a gang of robbers must keep (at least to some degree)! The Chakham is teaching the King an important lesson. The way to enlightenment, religiosity, does not demand one to close oneself up in a cave and reject society.  It is, in fact, the very foundation of society.  The Chakham continues:
When Israel's disloyalty had come to such a pass that they disregarded rational and social principles (which are as absolutely necessary for a society as are the natural functions of eating, drinking, exercise, rest, sleeping, and waking for the individual), but held fast to the sacrificial worship and other divine laws, He let them know that He would, in fact, be satisfied with even less. Telling them: “If only you would observe those laws which even the smallest and lowliest community accepts: maintaining justice, helping one’s fellow, and acknowledging God for His kindness.”
For the divine law cannot become complete until the social and rational laws are perfected. The rational law demands justice and recognition of God's bounty. What has he, who fails in this respect, to do with offerings, Sabbath, circumcision, etc., which reason neither demands, nor rejects?
These are mitzvoth through which Israel gained its uniqueness as an addition to [the more basic] rational laws.

In short, as we say in Yiddish, if you’re not a mensch your frumkeit is worthless.  If you’re a mensch then and only then the commandments that we know through revelation can lead one to the highest heights.