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Humanism and the fear of G-d

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SAY the word G-d and one tends to think of the beyond.

To the Rabbi Israel Salanter and his Musar disciples, say the word G-d and one should think of people.

Of humanity.

Musar teaches that religion — coming close to G-d — is also about coming close to people.

This reorientation, in a nutshell, was the innovation of the Musar movement that Rabbi Israel began.

G-d-consciousness does not exclude humanism, and humanism need not exclude G-d.

And so, if we ask, is G-d inside us or outside us, the answer has to be both.

The oddest place to look for this answer, or at least I would think, is in a Biblical passage about tithing.

Yet, under the lens of a legendary Musar disciple of Rabbi Israel, there it is: the idea of G-d residing inside of us prompted by a passage in this week’s Torah portion about tithing.

There are two types of tithing in the Torah.

One is to set aside a portion of one’s income for charity. We are not talking about that here.

The other type of tithing is to set aside a tenth of one’s income for oneself. But if it’s for me, what is the difference between it and the rest of my income?

The difference is this: Jerusalem. Tithe your crop, Deuteronomy says, then take it to G-d’s chosen place, Jerusalem.

Consume it there.

This type of tithing brings you to a holy place, and makes me realize that through my physicality (what could be more physical than eating?) I can touch G-d. I can become holy.

The way the Torah puts it is that one should eat the tithe of one’s crop “in order to learn to fear the L-rd your G-d” (Deut. 14:22-23). Something as internal as eating in a holy place leads a person to fear G-d.

We usually think of G-d as outside us, above us, beyond us, whatever one’s metaphor for the “place” of G-d.

G-d, of course, is everywhere.

Yet, there seems to be an additional message here in the linkage of eating to fear of G-d. In some sense, the place of G-d is inside of us.

The thought on this point by a legendary disciple of Rabbi Israel, “the Elder of Slobodka” (Rabbi Nathan Z. Finkel, 1849-1927), is formulated by Rabbi Yisroel Roll, in Bringing out the Best (2009), which I quote.

“THE ultimate level of fear [of G-d],” writes Roll, “is yiras ha-romemus [fear of the Divine majesty]. This means, says the Elder of Slobodka, an awe, amazement, veneration and humility before the greatness of the Creator.

“Everyone is born with this natural sense of amazement over G-d’s wonders. We get in touch with that wonder by contemplating the power and strength of our own inner personality.

“We we stop to think of how amazing it is to be alive — to see color, to hear, smell, taste and touch the astonishing wonders of this world; to experience both the bitter and the sweet, the contrasting emotions of sadness and happiness, lethargy and enthusiasm; to be able to transform our mood from despair to rhapsody merely by changing our attitude and way of thinking — this is truly awe-inspiring.

“To be able to think negative and hurtful thoughts one second and then to take control of the mind and to think thoughts of compassion is to transform oneself with the power of one’s own will.

“To perform a hurtful act and then to be able to rectify it with a word of remorse and an act of kindness is to recreate oneself — with one’s own inner strength.

“This power of teshuvah — self-transformation — that is achieved by harnessing one’s inner strengths is the awesome gift that G-d placed within our soul to allow us to create our own destiny.

“This is what the Elder of Slobodka calls yiras ha-romemus — awe of the elevated stature of G-d, attained by recognizing the heights that man himself can reach with the power of his free will.

“Man can achieve a greatly elevated state — one with which we were born naturally, if only we appreciate the strengths of our character and personality. It is through appreciating our own romemus, spiritual heights, that we can then appreciate G-d’s romemus — His great- ness. . . .

“Through appreciating our own value and worth we can achieve a sense of personal elevation and inner strength, which can then lead to seeing the greatness of G-d.”

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

 

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