The Practicalities of a Relationship with God

April 8th: Tazria and Hachodesh
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When people come to Judaism for gerut (conversion), they often remark how practical Judaism is, and how this practical approach to religion is very appealing. I have always felt that the practicality reflects our understanding that the Divine and humans are partners in the ongoing process of creation. Thus, in the midst of the great profundity and inspiration of our Tradition, we often find little adjustments and accommodations.

Here are some examples. In this week’s special reading to usher in the month of Nisan (Hachodesh: Exodus 12), God instructs Moses on the procedures for the very first Passover. “Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But, if the household is too small for a lamb, share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons; you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat.” The big message is about painting the doorposts with the blood of the lamb and eating the roasted meat with bitter herbs and unleavened bread, but, then again, someone has to deal with the practical details of planning dinner and not wasting food.

Another example is in the weekly Torah portion, Tazria (Leviticus 12), where we read the instructions for purification after the birth of a child. “On the completion of her period of purification, for either son or daughter, the woman shall bring to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, a lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering…If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”

 A similar kind of accommodation was included three weeks ago, in Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 5.15): “When a person commits a trespass, being unwittingly remiss about any of the Lord’s sacred things, he shall bring as his penalty to the Lord a ram without blemish from the flock, convertible into payment in silver by the sanctuary weight, as a guilt offering.” The procedure calls for a guilt offering, but, if the penitent does not have a ram or lives far away, the Torah provides a reasonable accommodation. The main purpose of the sacrifice is the relationship with God, and, in the interest of nurturing the relationship, practical considerations are included.

In Reform Judaism—and Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, we pride ourselves on working such accommodations into our religious practice. However, even the Orthodox are aware that the vicissitudes of life and the vagaries of human experience call for some adjustment to the strictures of Halachah. Here are a few examples.

In Traditional Halachah, divorce is a prerogative for the husband only. A wife can only be divorced; she cannot divorce her husband. What, then, happens if a woman is mistreated by her husband? The Halachah allows that she can approach the Bet Din (Rabbinical Court) and ask the court to intervene and persuade the husband to grant the divorce. How the court persuades him can get interesting. Medieval authorities suggest sending a few large fellows over to discuss the situation with him—hinting that the discussion may get physical. Some courts have even imprisoned the husband, keeping him incarcerated until he grants the divorce. The prerogative remains with the husband, but the Bet Din can bring a lot of pressure on him to do what they consider right.

Another example is in the discretion afforded to rabbis in interpreting situations and even physical evidence. If a housewife runs to the rabbi with an egg that might possibly have a blood spot in it, rabbis have been known to weigh the housewife’s wealth (i.e., ability to get another egg) in determining the nature of the discoloration.

A third example comes from the Hassidic Tradition and a story about how the Baal Shem Tov taught Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov the craft of being a rebbe. Reb Yechiel Michel once reported to the Baal Shem Tov about how he held his students to a strict sense of accountability. When one asked for a tikkun (spiritual remedy) for breaking the Sabbath, he had imposed a severe regimen of penitence on him. The Baal Shem Tov’s response was to send Reb Yechiel Michel on a journey many hours away with an errand that had to be performed on Friday afternoon. In addition, the Baal Shem Tov, instructed, Reb Yechiel Michel had to return before Shabbat. Reb Yechiel Michel eagerly performed the errand, but his return trip proved too long, and he arrived in his village well after sundown—after Shabbat had started! He was horribly embarrassed and totally remorseful, and he begged the Baal Shem Tov for his own tikkun. The Baal Shem Tov asked him if he were truly repentant, and, of course, he said that he was. “Fine,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “That’s enough.” “That’s enough?! But what about my student who had to do all that repentance? Does not a great sin require great penitence?” “The real work of penitence,” explained the Baal Shem Tov, “Is in the heart. Focus on the hearts of your students when prescribing penitence—and not on the volume of the punishment you impose.”

Throughout the Tradition, from Biblical times to modern, there is an awareness in Judaism that the religion is to be practiced by people—people with individual needs and situations—and that God understands our humanity. Within and throughout it all, our religion is essentially a way to relate to the Divine. As serious as God is about propriety and justice, we are also taught that God is infinitely understanding and compassionate and interested in how we humans can manifest holiness in our own and particular ways.