Shaya Cohen -


The Opiate of the Masses? Or The Neverending Road?

To the extent that religion causes people to become docile and passive, Karl Marx had a point. Quite a few religions preach some version of quiet acceptance: “Be happy with your lot.” “Believe that there is a Plan, as you are but a leaf in a rushing stream.” “Surrender yourself to G-d and His Will, and He’ll sort it all out.” The drug may be different than opium, but the induced mental result is the same: a feeling of contentment which leads to inaction.

What is the opposite of such a drug? A belief system that gives each person a purpose, goals and quests; above all, personal growth. But the problem with this kind of belief system is that it promises only work: it never offers a “happily ever after.” Instead, this kind of approach tells us of a road that never ends, an orientation that is always future-oriented.

This might be why Judaism is so challenging. All the commandments are a bit like housework: it starts again, seemingly anew, every single day, there’s a fair amount of repetition (some of it quite taxing), and it never ends. The twist is that the commandments serve a real and positive purpose in a person’s life, so even though you are commanded to do them every day, the next morning you are at least a hair’s breadth ahead of where you started the day before.

Why would I suggest that Judaism requires just endless investment? Because so many of the commandments are about how to love other people – how to build and nurture relationships. “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is the central commandment in the entire text. There is no praise of hermits or solitude in the Torah. Relationships necessarily involve give and take on both sides, the possibility and likelihood of change, the vibrancy of a living and loving interplay between two people.

We are unable to predict our own future, so try to grasp how hard it is to predict the future for other people, and all the ways relationships change and warp in that interplay over time. This is what we are commanded to build – and not just with people. We are similarly commanded to grow our relationship with G-d, which is quite a daunting prospect. If we find it hard to understand other people, it is obviously not trivial to understand G-d. A proper relationship is not merely acceptance or surrender or obedience; a real relationship requires interplay and conversation and the willingness on both sides to take the risks necessary to find a way to grow together.

But the steps in this relationship are part-and-parcel of the ongoing commandments found in the Torah. Most of those commandments are really symbolic acts to remind us of what works better (or worse) in growing a holy relationship with man and G-d.

Christianity takes a very different direction, and I think it can be traced to a philosophical reading of the famous answer G-d gives Moshe when the man asks his Creator who He is: “I am what I am,” was understood by Christian theologians to mean that G-d is out of time, unchanging, perfect, in stasis. Augustine defines G-d as totally unchangeable.

The problem, for those who know Hebrew, is that the phrase is not translated as “I am what I am.” “Ehye asher Ehye” is in the future tense: “I will be what I will be.” In other words, G-d is, like mankind ourselves, understood, known and defined by what we will say and do in the future. As Sacks puts it, “Far from being timeless and immutable, God in the Hebrew Bible is active, engaged in constant dialogue with His people, calling, urging, warning, challenging and forgiving.” I would add that G-d is also adapting, based on our own actions.

In Christianity, as I understand it (and I may well have it wrong), all the commandments have been “fulfilled” on mankind’s behalf. The process of relationship, of endless growth, has been swapped for a product, the concept of salvation and grace, an “end of days.” In Christianity, G-d’s grace may well come regardless of a person’s actions. Christianity removes the drudgery of Jewish spiritual housework.

Last year I asked, “What if there is no Plan?” The answers from devout people, broadly speaking, was that G-d surely does have a plan. I think this is because Christianity offers a destination, a shining City on a Hill, the concept of salvation and grace and heaven.

Jews are not so sure about a divine plan. G-d in the Torah certainly develops a few Big Picture goals, but whether it had to be Avram who first listened to G-d instead of someone else is left wide open. Similarly, Moshe meets G-d after turning aside to question a burning bush: what if Moshe had not done so? After it, it did not have to be Moshe – it could have been someone else, anyone else, who had enough curiosity to try to figure out the bush. G-d was perhaps going to keep putting burning bushes of one kind or another out there until someone turned aside and questioned it, starting the conversation. (Indeed, I think we are all offered personal “burning bushes” from time to time.)

Even prophecies and blessings in the Torah are often nothing more than a way to give someone hope. Isaac’s blessings to Jacob that he would rule over his brother Esau? It never came to fruition. Nor did Joseph’s dreams, or Jacob’s blessings to his sons. With the exception of when G-d makes some very specific predictions (like the Exodus) or engaged in a covenant with the Jewish people, there seems to be no concept of a destiny or a Master Plan in the text. Instead, we have all those commandments: to tell us how to grow, how to love how to be holy. Those commandments do not tell us that everything becomes cleansed in a blaze of grace and salvation.

So we Jews don’t believe that G-d removes our free will, or that things in our lives, save for death, are inevitable. To the extent Jews accept that we are responsible for ourselves and our world, we are equally cognizant that whatever G-d might like us to do, we Jews are much more likely than not to simply screw it up. We might say that man plans and G-d laughs, but the Torah offers countless examples of G-d planning, and people doing whatever they feel like as if G-d was not even there. The laughter is not one-sided.

If Judaism is an always-future-oriented process, then the predictions in the Torah and offered by prophets are really signposts on that journey, the occasional traffic signal, speed limit or caution sign. The predictions are not the “shining city on the hill” at the end of that journey. So even inasmuch as the Exodus was about a kept promise to Avraham, the promise was never of a happily-ever-after story. The promises were, as Jeremiah puts it:

For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you—declares the LORD—plans for your peace, not for bad, to give you a hopeful future. (29:11)

Hope is something that triggers our minds toward growth. In Judaism, G-d’s plans are not for a end-goal or destination; they are for us to keep optimistically building and growing and loving and seeking holiness. “I will give you hope,” says G-d. And then the rest is up to us.

After Moshe turned to the bush, he did not get a grand prize or a ticket to heaven: he got an assignment, a pathway for his life. Even at the end of his road, there was no pot of gold waiting for him. Moshe was denied entry to the Promised Land, the thing he wanted most of all. It is a lesson to all of us: as the Ethics of the Fathers puts it: ““You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”

Nobody wants to get on a train that does not have a clear destination. Nobody wants to sign up for a life of endless process, for accepting that we cannot get everything that we want. There is a reason that Judaism does not “sell” as well as Christianity; indeed, Jews don’t even make the effort. Salvation is much more popular than toil.

Marketability notwithstanding, I think there is real value in realizing the nature of the challenge contained within the Torah’s commandments: to grow relationships with man and with G-d. This can only be done by recognizing that each person is unique, and so has a unique path: we are each different facets of an infinite gem. Respect comes through understanding that since each person has a divinely-gifted soul, none of us is inherently superior to anyone else: The task may be endless, but there is surpassing beauty to be found by applying ourselves to it.

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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