Why I envy Orthodox Jews

(RNS) — Several years ago, I was discussing religion with someone who described himself as being a secular Jew. Nevertheless, he told me the essence of Judaism was the Ten Commandments — which he, as a matter of fact, observed.

I was delighted. “Wow!” I said. “How great to meet someone who actually remembers Shabbat!”

He hesitated. “Well, actually, no …”

“Well,” I said. “It’s good to meet someone who believes in God.”

Again, he hesitated. “Actually, I don’t really believe in God.”

I continued: “And not coveting! How great that you don’t covet!”

To which he said: “Oh, c’mon Rabbi, you’re making this very hard for me …”

To which I said: “OK, three down. Seven to go.”

The truth is: I had named the divine utterance (for that is the true translation of the Hebrew term for the Ten Commandments — “Aseret Ha-dibrot”) that is the most difficult.

The 10th: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox or ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

It isn’t easy.

Because, think about it: How possible is it, really, to keep that commandment?

It’s a thought commandment.

It’s like telling someone: don’t think of a red squirrel — which only results in that person thinking of a red squirrel.

More than this, our society revolves around coveting and wanting and being jealous of what people have. It’s called advertising. It is the culture of coveting.

But not all coveting, not all jealousy, not all wanting what someone else has, is necessarily bad.

For example, according to the Talmud, sages, scholars and teachers are supposed to envy each other, and they are supposed to compete with each other. In the words of the Talmud, “When sages envy each other, it increases wisdom.”

Let me give you an example. Ever since the late Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote his international best seller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” in 1981, every rabbi who has written a book has wanted to write a book that would be as inspirational and as influential as that book.

Every rabbi coveted Rabbi Kushner’s success.

So, who won?

Anyone who wanted inspiration.

The wisdom that I covet belongs to Barbara Brown Taylor. She is an author and an Episcopal minister, and she is probably the best preacher in America.

Years ago, she wrote of teaching religion at a small college in north Georgia:

When the Jewish Sabbath came up in class, I wanted it. Why did Christians ever let it go? When we watched a film of the God-intoxicated Sufis spinning, I wanted that too. The best my tradition could offer me during worship was kneeling to pray and standing to sing. My spiritual covetousness extended to the inclusiveness of Hinduism, the nonviolence of Buddhism, the prayer life of Islam, and the sacred debate of Judaism.

Reverend Taylor calls this holy envy — an idea that originated with the late Christian theologian, Bishop Krister Stendahl.

Sometimes you see something in another religious tradition — and you want that something for yourself.

Many of you know I am a Reform rabbi — proud of my education and background. 

And yet, I will tell you something that might surprise you.

I have holy envy for certain aspects of Orthodox Judaism.

I envy their commitment to Torah learning. They know Jewish texts can create a new world, a world of passion and of power.

I admire the commitment to Jewish education that they have instilled in their children. They take it as a given. It is very common — even expected — that Orthodox young people will take a gap year after high school and that they will study in Israel.

I envy their commitment to living in Jewish time. For Orthodox Jews, Shabbat is Shabbat. Sukkot is Sukkot. Pesach is Pesach. It is what they do for God and for the Jewish people and for their families. I have seen entire families walking to and from synagogue together — sometimes three generations on one sidewalk — I envy that.

I envy their commitment to Jewish discipline — to staying with Jewish tasks. The novelist Anne Roiphe once lamented, “A Judaism that does not involve new commitments, and that does not work for others, will melt away in the heat of the barbecue on the patio, the light of the TV, the warmth of the variety of comforts now available.”

Our Orthodox friends and relatives live lives of Jewish commitment. I envy that.

To tell you the truth, there is no reason for me to have to envy our Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Everything they have — their commitment to Torah, their commitment to Jewish learning, their commitment to Jewish time, their commitment to Jewish discipline — is available to non-Orthodox Jews, as well. Those things that I described are not specifically Orthodox. They are Jewish. They are for all Jews, to fulfill in their own way.

There is that great quote from our sacred literature — which is less of a quote than it is a hope.

“Kol Yisrael chaverim.” All Jews are — what? Friends?

“Chaver” is the same word as the Hebrew word for notebook, “machberet.”

It is not a loose-leaf notebook. You cannot simply take out a page at will. It is like one of those black-and-white marble notebooks that you used in school. You tear one page out of the notebook; the whole thing falls apart. 

We are pages in the black-and-white marble notebook of Jewish community and continuity. If we allow ourselves to rip out pages from that notebook, then the entire book falls apart.

Some Jews might say that just as we sing “Sh’ma Yisrael” on earth — just as we proclaim that God is one — what does God sing? God sings “Sh’ma Adonai” — listen, Adonai — “Yisrael echad.” The Jewish people is one.

God sings that to the divine self itself.

Now, more than ever.

Want to celebrate Jewish pluralism, especially after Oct. 7? Become part of a new, international Jewish conversation about how that day changed Judaism.

Our first conversation will be Wednesday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m.-9:00 p.m., on Zoom. Professor Jonathan Sarna on “Israel and American Jewry on the Day After: How Has October 7th Changed Us?”

On a monthly basis, “hang out” on Zoom with such thought leaders as Shlomo Brody, Sharon Brous, Marc Gellman, Yitz Greenberg, Elana Stein Hain, Shai Held, Donniel Hartman, Ammi Hirsch, Rachel Korazim, Noa Kushner, Amichai Lau-Lavie, Lance Sussman and Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. Check out Wisdom Without Walls: an online salon for Jewish ideas. 

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