Supermarket Religion by Rabbi Harvey Gornish
Supermarket Religion by Rabbi Harvey Gornish

Volume 1 , Issue 3

Recently, a new theological term has found its way into American religious discourse. ?Supermarket Religion? refers to an individual's desire to pick and choose from amongst the doctrines of his faith and then follow only those which agree with his agenda or which grant him some meaning. Is this a new idea? Can it be applied to Judaism and is itpermissible within Judaism to adhere to those mitzvot (commandments) which make us happy while ignoring those which leave us cold?

According to Orthodox tradition there are 613 commandments, the so called Taryag Mitzvot, which it is incumbent upon every Jew to observe. Those who wish to pick and choose amongst these mitzvot often attempt to divide the 613 commandments in a systematic way. For example, one sometimes encounters individuals who seem to prefer observing the Torah's ?positive? commandments. This division is based on the tradition that of the 613 mitzvot, only 248 are stated in positive terms while 365 are negative prohibitions. Thus one finds Jews who take delight, for example, in the positive aspects of Shabbat and Yom Tov, such as Kiddush, the Friday night meal, the beautiful candle lighting ceremony, while eschewing what they feel to be the burdensome prohibitions against ?creative work? that forbid phone calls, television, and car trips on these occasions. Their intent is to ?celebrate? Shabbat without being limited by it. Yetthe very refusal to be limited by the Sabbath invariably detracts from their celebration, for it is precisely the prohibitions against everyday work and activity which make Shabbat into an ?island of time? and which frees the individual for spirituality and celebration. Without these prohibitions there is nothing to prevent the Sabbath from degenerating into a week day of work and phone calls, lines at the supermarket, car repairs, etc., etc.

Positive and Negative

Does this mean that those who celebrate the positive while ignoring the negative aspects of Shabbat have nothing to gain? Would it indeed be better for them to keep nothing at all? Of course not. Would that the millions of our disaffected, assimilated Jewish brethren were at the point where they sought at least to ?celebrate? Shabbat. Yet there is still an infinity of depth and feeling between mere ?celebration? and making Shabbat a living reality; the Shabbat that has kept our people intact through the millennia. As the saying goes, ?More than the Jew kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.?

One need not enter into a debate about Shabbat in order to see the problems with a selection of only the positive mitzvot. By choosing to ignore the negative commandments one is in danger of failing to condemn theft, murder and the ruining of another's reputation. The positive ?Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself', as beautiful as this precept is, does not carry the moral strength and clarity of ?Thou shalt not kill.? Keeping the ?dos? at the expense of the ?don'ts? only serves your own needs and can never pretend to be a true service of the Lord.

A second attempt to divide the mitzvot grows out of the recognition that while many of the commandments have an obvious ethical content, many others have only a ritualistic function. The ethical commands, so the argument goes are rational, truly meaningful and obligatory. The ritual mitzvot, while they may be attractive to certain individuals, are mere primitive ?folkways? which can either be abandoned altogether or seen as purely optional. Indeed, advocates of this point of view claim the support of the ancient prophets of Israel who assailed the empty practice of sacrifice and ritual when it cloaked an inner dishonesty and spiritual depravity. No one, they declared, can pretend to propitiate God, when he is still cheating in business and ignoring the poor.

Empty Practice Scorned

Still, it must be remembered that it was only the empty practice of ritual that the prophets scorned, not the sincere rituals of men reaching out to God in harmonious love with their fellow man. The very prophets who inveighed against the hypocrisy of insincere ritual sacrifices and fasting of their day, could not conceive of the abandonment of these acts when they sprang from a contrite heart. Indeed. Isaiah, perhaps the prophet most critical of empty acts, fasts and sacrifices, still affirms:

If you restrain your foot because of the Sabbath from performing your affairs on my holy day, and you call the Sabbath a delight .then you shall delight with the L-ord and I will cause you to ride on the high places of the land. (Isaiah 58:13)

For Isaiah, as for the entire Jewish tradition, Judaism is nothing if it does not bring a profound ethical message to the world, and promote the ethical perfection of its adherents. Yet Judaism is also nothing if it does not maintain a distinct form of life, a set of ritual practices which binds the Jewish people together, brings us close to God and provides us with the discipline and the audio-visual aids to develop the purity of soul which is our goal. Yes, the soul of the Jewish religion may be ethical but its body consists of tangible, physical rituals. Neither can be abandoned without disastrous consequences.

I have often been told that Reform and Conservative Jews place their emphasis on the ethical mitzvot (bain adam L'chavero, between man and his fellow man), whereas their Orthodox brethren are too occupied with the hairsplitting intricacies of ritual mitzvot (bain adam L'Makom, between man and God). If this is the case. then both camps are wrong. Indeed Nachmonides (The Ramban, Z?L) notes that the Ten Commandments themselves are split between 5 ethical and 5 God oriented mitzvot, as if to warn us against choosing either path alone. It is time to put the old and hurtful anti-orthodox calumny to rest: Are there some ?pious? Orthodox Jews who cheat in business? Perhaps, but not more than their Conservative or Reform brothers and we should hardly look at these hypocritical souls as fair representatives of what Orthodoxy can and should be. Fortunately, in a truly religious community one does find many wonderful individuals who, in the true tradition of Isaiah, thirst for every aspect of God's service. They dwell on kindness to others with the same meticulous observance that they place on the length of their tzitzit and the kashruth of their food, and it is precisely their attention to both the ethical and the ritual mitzvot which makes them truly elevated souls.

Apostle Paul: The First To Practice Selective Mitzvahs

If we look at the problem of ?supermarket religion?,from ahistorical perspective, we find thatthe early Jewish-Christians were perhaps the first to ?choose?amongst the mitzvot. At first they kept all the mitzvot except for theirerroneous belief that the Messiah had come. Then Paul began a weaning process that first excluded circumcision then eventually eliminated allof the ritual mitzvot until only the 10 Commandments remained. Ultimately the ten became one - to love thy neighbor and in the interim, Jesus had been elevated from a would be messiah to a part of the Holy Trinity, and the connection to Judaism was severed forever. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Reform and Conservative Jews began to choose from amongst the mitzvot. Reform Judaism soon entirely rejected the binding character of Jewish law but Conservative Judaism still paid at least lip service to the canons of halacha. ?We must compromise due to the exigencies of our time.? they said, and they were not wrong for in life itis necessary to compromise. But as the present Lubavitcher Rebbe Shli'ta has said, while all persons must compromise in life, we must never hallow or sanctify that compromise, and this, I believe, is the great failure of Conservative Judaism. For by hallowing, lending its wholehearted approval to compromise, the original goal is lost forever. Thus if the Conservative movement once had Shabbatas one of its goals, but felt that Jews living at a distance may need to compromise the Sabbath by driving to Synagogue, the movement's downfall was in building parking lots on temple grounds and keeping them open on the Sabbath. The official sanction of Sabbath driving has forever blurred the original conception of the Shabbat for future generations of Conservative Jews.

Leave Open Possibilities

I am certainly well aware that in the real world, especially amongst individuals who had been non-observant for much of their lives, there will still be a need to choose amongst the mitzvot. Some Mitzvot will be preferred because of clearer understanding, convenience and aesthetic appeal, and this is not wrong, if viewed from a healthy perspective. Honest searching is no sin and indeed will ultimately be rewarded as long as such a perspective leaves one open to the possibility of taking on the other mitzvot at some time in the future. In this vein, the great existential philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig,who became a baal teshuvah (returnee to Judaism) after nearly converting to Christianity, was once asked if he regularly put on tefillin. His reply was a simple ?not yet.

Though ?dead? mitzvot performed only by rote leave God as well as ourselves quite unimpressed, honest searching for meaning in a tiresome or unexciting mitzvah will most often be rewarded with a deep love and recognition of that mitzvah's potential for the individual. The sages teach us ?Mitoch Sheloh Lishma - Ba Lishma?, practice started by even false or ulterior motivation becomes purified and ultimately reaches the highest level of sincerity. How much more so for practice that derives from an honest searching.

Do practice those mitzvot which give you meaning and fulfillment, but honestly examine those ?indifferent? others by study and experience. Read the words of our sages as they explain the mitzvah's deeper meanings. Try the mitzvah on for size as you would a suit or dress. God designed the commandments to reach into your very soul. You will be amazed at how wonderful is the fit of this new spiritual garment - and how reluctant you will be to take it off.

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