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Is Your Judaism Motivated By Kindness Or Control?

Is Your Judaism Motivated By Kindness Or Control?


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Sometimes a complete stranger will send a message to one of our platforms and beg me to cut my wig. Which is always so surprising because I can’t help but wonder: Shouldn’t someone who begs another person to cut one of her belongings at least meet her first? 

Thankfully, we now have staff in place to screen crazy messages and even more thankfully, I don’t have any real people in my life who feel the need to control my religiosity, but most unfortunately, not everyone who grows up Orthodox can say the same. Indeed, the people who come to Project Makom* have only experienced Judaism as a form of control.

They have felt trapped, unable to express their real opinions or desires. They have had fear of repercussions if they go outside of their community’s box. And when I explain to them that much of the Orthodox world is not motivated by controlling others’ observance, many of us are instead motivated by kindness, they are incredulous. Which makes me terribly sad that this is what Judaism looks like to many Jews.

It recently occurred to me that the Orthodox world is really broken into two groups – those who are motivated by kindness and those who are motivated by control. Sure – there are the outer trappings we normally divide Orthodox groups by: What kind of yarmulke? What kind of head covering? Beard or no beard? Long or short peyos. What kind of suit?

But those are superficial divisions. Those are outer trappings. The stuff that matters is the heart inside the suit. And the question is – what is the motivation of the mitzvah-doer?

Does he engage in Torah in order to increase kindness in the world, as it says in tehillim (Psalms) “The world is built with kindness”? Or does he practice in order to make others comply with his will?

Does he open his hand to give like the Almighty does: Pote’ach Et Yadecha U’Masbia Le’Chol Chai Ratzon (You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.) Or is the hand a vehicle used to force?

While the Torah does command us “hochei’ach tochiach,” (you shall surely rebuke), the second half of the verse warns us that our rebuke must never be done in a way that could hurt another person: “and you shall not bear a sin because of him.” If the would be rebuker does not know if his rebuke will be accepted, he is warned – in Mishlei (Proverbs) –  not to do it.

And if that wasn’t clear enough, the master of the Mussar (rebuke) Movement, Rav Yisrael Salanter, had some important thoughts on the topic: “A pious Jew is not one who worries about his fellow man’s soul and his own stomach; a pious Jew worries about his own soul and his fellow man’s stomach.” 

Let’s be motivated by kindness, like Hashem is and leave free will up to each individual, like Hashem does.

 

*At Project Makom we are attracting the segment of the population who grew up in a dysfunctional Judaism.

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  1. “But those are superficial divisions. Those are outer trappings. The stuff that matters is the heart inside the suit. And the question is – what is the motivation of the mitzvah-doer?”

    Respectfully, Alison, the problem here is that you are skirting pretty close to Christianity. Jesus said, on many different occasions, it’s not the outer observance that matters, it’s the observance in your heart that counts. But in Judaism, the outer observance matters very, very much. You have a massive system of law and interpreters of the law designed to tell you exactly what to do in every possible situation. For example, you don’t observe the Sabbath based on the principle of “relax, spend time with your family, tune out the world, and don’t work” — you observe based on exact legal proscriptions Are you “working” when you open a refrigerator door that has a light in it? Are you “working” when you tear off a piece of toilet paper? Are you “working” when you press an elevator button? Clearly you’re not by any standard of intention, and yet you don’t do these things because the legal interpretation is that you are, so that’s what you abide by.

    If a Jew said to you “I keep the Sabbath as a day of rest and family togetherness and that means that I drive my family to the park so we can have a family picnic and the kids can play in the playground” you would say “well, that’s nice but you’re not keeping the Sabbath according to Jewish law regardless of what you feel in your heart about it.” Or maybe, because you’re nice, you wouldn’t say it, but you would know it to be a fact.

    The people sending you email about how you should cut your wig are obviously folks who need to get a life, but it’s difficult to get around the fact the Judaism is based on telling people down to the tiniest detail exactly what, in fact, they should do.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 1, 2018 at 9:52 am

      Thanks for your comment, Catholic Mom, but I think you misunderstood me. No – we are not a *feelings* based religion. You can’t just feel like a good person or have a nice heart. Judaism is about service. It is about commitment. It is about details. But for each of us it is about our *own* details, our own commitment our own service. The purpose of all the rules is as the sage Hillel summed up “What is hurtful to you don’t do to your fellow. The rest is all commentary.” All those rules should be getting us to being a mensch. If they haven’t, we have missed the point. Hashem did not put us here to simply have good feelings or to police one another. We believe we were put here to work hard and to become kind and compassionate individuals, but not busy ourselves with other people’s observance.

      • I do understand your point, which is well made. My point was simply that at the core of the religion is, in fact, control of other people’s observance. Orthodox Judaism does not say “dress modestly.” It says “cover your elbows.” It does not say “refrain from work.” It says “don’t walk outside your house with your keys in your pocket.” In a religion in which people are not, in fact, asked to look into their hearts to do the right thing, but instead are given detailed micro-instructions on how to do the right thing (even if, as you say, “all those rules should be getting us to be a mensch”), it cannot be a surprise that whether or not others are following these micro instructions becomes a topic of criticism. Christianity has it’s own problems inherent to its own nature, so I’m not claiming any kind of moral superiority here. Just that this particular problem does seem directly tied to the particular structure of Judaism.

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 1, 2018 at 2:34 pm

          God commands each person to follow His commandments. He does not command each person to enforce or judge another person to perform His commandments. In fact, He forbids us from doing this. Having a lot of responsibilities is not an invitation for one person to try to control another person. That is just them falling short. I’m simply not seeing the connection.

  2. Allison of course we are not commanded to judge another person or control their decisions. But as far as bringing up ones children, I think one could say that in a religion like Judaism with all its detailed laws where parents want to make sure that children follow in their path and follow all the commandments it can happen that in certain families this might come across in a controlling way.
    Whereas some families might be plain dysfunctional I think at the root of a lot of these problems lies the inability of parents to see their child as a separate entity with its own personality, wants and needs. Too often does a parent see his/her child as an extension of him/herself and therefore takes any misdemeanor far too personal.(Damaging the parent’s self image)
    It takes a lot of awareness and hard work to stop and make sure your parenting decisions are made because you really have only your childs best interest at heart.

    It might be more apparent in more observant circles as there are a lot more rules and details to follow the more observant you get but this principle applies to parenting in any circles anywhere and there will be some parents who struggle with that in every circle.
    Obviously in an ideal world we would be all perfect as you describe.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 2, 2018 at 9:22 am

      Thanks for your comment, Rivka. I think the key term is “bringing up.” When they are young and need to be “brought up” that is our chance to have more influence. We can have rules in our homes but ultimately, we should bring up our kids to want to be part of our observance by inspiring and creating a positive association with Torah and mitzvos. But once they are grown, we have to understand that their choices religiously are now on them. Our responsibility as their parents is to love them unconditionally. We should live as examples of how Torah and mitzvos can elevate a person but then leave it to them to choose how to live.

  3. Just saw your reply and I can see I maybe didn’t quite get my point across. I like the way how you divide up the world into two groups kind people versus controlling people and of course adults will make their own life choices.
    I just think for bringing up children it needs apart from kindness a lot of hard work on ourselves. I was trying to analyse why some children would feel controlled and therefore feel a need to choose a different lifestyle from their parents and what we as parents can work on so that our children will feel inspired by our lifestyle. (In cases where the parents don’t have a serious disorder.)
    Don’t you think if a parent takes his ego out of the picture and tries to make his parenting decisions only by what he feels is beneficial for this particular child than this child will probably not feel cotrolled?
    It probably would even lead to some slightly out of the box decisions. But I think it requires a certain courage and truthfulness with oneself.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 4, 2018 at 6:37 pm

      There is no one answer for why a person leaves observance. In Faranak Margolese’s “Off the Derech” she does find that a high number of people who leave have some trauma with religion as part of their experience. Maybe not from the parents. Maybe from a teacher or rabbi. In short, we should all live as inspiring examples, but ultimately let got, even with our children. Once they reach a certain age, they must be free to make their own choices. We must love them unconditionally, get nachas from their accomplishments. Of course a parent has hopes for how their kids will turn out. We don’t always get what we want. It doesn’t mean we can make love contingent on observance and doesn’t mean we should try to reel them back in – such a method is not even effective anyway! What a child needs most is unconditional love and mentchlicht parents. Then the rest is up to the child.

  4. Really really don’t see why you are replying like that?
    Of course there isn’t just one answer to why a child leaves observance and of course parents should love their child unconditionally forever whatever the end result is. Did I imply anything to the contrary?

    It was you who stated that unfortunately a lot of people experienced religion as a form of control and I was just trying to think what parents could do to make sure children don’t have such an unfortunate experience.
    Its fantastic that you manage to show people who had such an experience that Orthodoxy is not at all about control. But I am sure you would also agree that to prevent such a miserable childhood is preferable?
    And I really think what I said would make a difference.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 5, 2018 at 9:03 am

      I’m sorry if my comment offended you. It wasn’t directed at you but rather I was speaking to the issue in general. A kid could feel controlled by teachers, rabbis and or parents. Of course the ego shouldn’t be there and the parent should try to make the best decision for the child which could lead to out of the box decisions. I wanted to state for the record that love has to come first. We hear from people where this is most unfortunately not the case. The whole relationship rides on if they comply or not.

  5. I didn’t get offended just couldn’t see the connection of your answer.
    Of course close relationships should be based on love. I was trying to break it down to one of many practical steps that would definitely help lots of parents to improve their relationship and let the child feel their love.
    I am sure if you’d make a survey of parents on whether they love their children they would all respond in the positive even if their child has a very different view on it.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : February 6, 2018 at 8:49 am

      The reason that I responded with the part about unconditional love is because that’s the feedback I hear. That the kids who leave feel that the love they get from their parents is conditional on how they behave or conduct themselves. So yes, I agree with everything you said, but the feedback I have heard directly from this group is that if they only felt that their parents loved them no matter what they did it would make their lives much more pleasant.

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Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.