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Checkbook Judaism - Are We Paying Too High a Price? by Rabbi Stewart M. Weiss
Checkbook Judaism - Are We Paying Too High a Price? by Rabbi Stewart M. Weiss
Volume 5 , Issue 1

Checkbook Judaism: Are we paying too high a price?

By Rabbi Stewart M. Weiss

They call us Jews the people of the Book. For years, I thought that meant the Holy Book, the Torah, the Book of Law and Mitzvot. Now, it seems, the Good Book is being replaced by another, less scared text: the Almighty Checkbook.

What really started my engine on this was an incident that took place a few months ago, right before Pesach. As I have done each year for a quarter century, I called my brother to wish him a Happy Passover. I reminded him that Mom and Dad had decided that he, and not I, would be the B'chor, the first-born of the family. As such, I tell him, - as if he didn't know already - he has two choices on Erev Pesach. He will either have to get up early to attend a minyan and participate in a festive siyum to conclude a tractate of the Talmud so that he can eat, or he will have to fast with the other first-born in recognition of being saved from the 10th Plague, the killing of the first-born in Egypt.

"Not this year!" he tells me excitedly. "I have discovered I have a third, more convenient, option!"

No Fast, Just $$$

And then, to my amazement, he tells me that he has received a bulletin from his local synagogue advising him that, ?according to our Law,? he can either fast, or he can ?redeem? himself from this obligation by - you guessed it - making a donation to the synagogue. Just send a check, and eat to your heart's delight.

As I contemplated the issue further, my amazement at the absurdity of all this gave way to a realization that it was only a more extreme manifestation of a phenomenon becoming more and more prevalent in Jewish practice today. Examples, alas, abound.

Consider the mitzvah of shalach manot, the giving of gifts on Purim day. Once, we took the time to lovingly prepare baskets of ready-to-eat goodies, then delivered them to our friends and neighbors. Now, we are besieged by dozens of companies who do the preparing. packaging and delivering for us, and we never have to leave our homes or bake a single hamantash. All we do is write the check.

Or the yeshivot which inform me that ?surrogate studiers? are waiting to study anything from Torah to Talmud in my name and on my behalf, aware as they are that I, like most Jews, probably am too busy to set aside time each day for learning. For a small fee, they will gladly fulfill this obligation for me. Instant scholarship, checkbook-style.

Of course, the most obvious example of checkbook Judaism, long on the American scene, is the pay-for-prayer approach to kaddish. Virtually every synagogue and Jewish institution now ?arranges? for kaddish to be recited in memory of the deceased, allowing the mourner to continue his schedule uninterrupted and unhampered by the ?hassle? of having to be in a minyan morning and evening. For a price, we are told, our loved ones can rest easy in Heaven, and their survivors' obligation can be fulfilled as quickly as they can sign their own names.

Opting Out of Judaism

The problem with all these ?innovations? to Jewish practice, so tempting and seemingly apropos in a society as affluent as ours, is simple: They are not Judaism. They represent an attempt, based on wealth and wherewithal, to opt out of Judaism and assign our duties and obligations to others. They create a class system in Jewish society: those who do and those who get others to do for them.

But Judaism is not a spectator sport; it does not allow some to observe through action and others to simply observe them as they perform the rituals. Yes, it is true that in some other religions the cleric may issue ?dispensation? for a certain sin or obligation: in other sects, like the Druze, only a few of the elite, priestly class perform the rituals for the masses. But Jewish law is quite clear on this subject: When it comes to the performance of mitzvot, it is every man for himself. Light your own menorah on Chanukah, swallow your own matzah, hear the shofar with your own ears, nail up your own mezuzah. The list of commandments we can fulfill through an effortless ?Amen? or quick donation is shorter than Federation budgets with a surplus.

The real tragedy of the non-involvement approach to Judaism is that the ?giver? invariably becomes the loser. For it is only in the actual doing that we come to appreciate the beauty of Judaism. The mourner who attends services each day and recites kaddish avoids the tendency to withdraw after a loss and becomes re-integrated into society. The student who opens the book and studies, at his own pace, becomes the scholar and feels fulfilled. The woman who bakes her own challah, the boy who learns his own Musaf, the family that prepares its own seder at home are the ones who get the most ?bang for their buck.? They experience Judaism, and all its concomitant rewards, while the others merely relieve their guilt, but miss out on all the personal emotion and satisfaction that being Jewish has to offer. No amount of Israeli bond purchases can equal one trip to Israel, and no check, regardless of its size, can match the reward gained from living and practicing Judaism.

There is an old Yiddish expression which says that, ?If the rich could pay the poor to die for them, the poor would all die rich.? I am afraid that if the trend towards checkbook Judaism continues unabated, we may find the Jewish people has paid far too high a price

@AUTHINFO = Stewart M. Weiss is the rabbi of Tiferet Israel Congregation in Dallas, Texas.

The real tragedy of the non-involvement approach to Judaism is that the ?giver? invariably becomes the loser. For it is only in the actual doing that wecome to appreciate the beauty of Judaism.



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