Dear Jew in the City-
I just don’t feel Jewishly inspired. What can I do?
Thanks for your question, though I don’t think it necessarily plays to my strengths. There are people who have more spiritual inclinations towards religion and people who have more rationalist inclinations towards religion. (These are not mutually exclusive, it’s more a question of percentages.) People who are looking for inspiration are usually looking for spirituality approaches and I’m more the rationalist type. So I’ll give you my best thoughts on the subject but I encourage you to ask others and to embrace whatever approach works for you.
The Talmud in Brachos says, “Rabbi Levi bar Chama said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish that one should always try to incite his good inclination against his evil inclination. If that works, great. If not, one should study Torah as per the verse “Say in your hearts…” (Psalms 4:5).
Rabbi Levi bar Chama’s advice goes a little farther but the bit about “study Torah” is the part I want to focus on. What if your yetzer hara (evil inclination) tells you not to study Torah? Presumably, the antidote to a yetzer hara not to study Torah is… to study Torah. In other words, “just do it.”
Doing something if you’re not really into it isn’t hypocrisy, it’s a form of conditioning. For example, a needy person would probably prefer that you give money to charity even if you’re not really enthusiastic about doing so. The action has merit even if the one performing it has a bad attitude.
Along these lines, the Talmud in Pesachim (50b) raises an apparent contradiction between two Bible verses. Psalms 57:11 says that God’s mercy reaches until the Heavens while Psalms 108:5 says that it extends above the Heavens. The gemara explains that God’s mercy extends above the Heavens when one performs a mitzvah with sincere, altruistic intentions. God’s mercy only reaches as far as the Heavens when one performs a mitzvah insincerely, for ulterior motives. (Please note that “only” as far as the Heavens is still pretty darn high!) This piece concludes with a phrase that appears several places in the Talmud: “mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma.” Colloquially, this means that doing something even if you’re not really into it will eventually cause you to get into it.
It’s also important for a person to put himself (or herself) in the kind of situation where one aspires to end up. The Talmudic tractate of Succah concludes with a story in which a certain woman’s sinful actions had wide-reaching consequences. The Talmud observes, “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor” because the wicked person’s neighbor gets swept up in his evil. So as not to end the tractate on a negative note, the Talmud immediately contrasts this with a verse from Isaiah (3:10), the point of which is that things are good for the righteous and for their neighbors. We see that we should surround ourselves with the right people because, as the saying about finances goes, a rising tide raises all boats.
I received your question on Thursday and I’m answering it on Sunday. My original intention was to backburner it for a little while because, as I mentioned, I’m primarily the pragmatic type and I assume that you’re looking for something a bit more spiritual in nature. I wanted a little more time to think of a new approach, though a different approach wouldn’t really be me. However, yesterday, on Shabbos, I read something that really clicked for me. It made me feel less self-conscious about my rationalist approach to this matter and I hope it will help.
In the book Judaism Reclaimed by Rabbi Shmuel Philips, which I literally just started reading, the author cites the Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah (39:8) that Israel is like a dove in that when one wing gets tired, it flies on the other wing. The significance of this symbolism, Rabbi Philips says, is that we have our spiritual approach to religion and we have our rational approach to religion. We each have our preferred method to religious questions but when we find one approach insufficient for our purposes, we always have the other to fall back on.
As noted, I’m a rationalist. My approach to your question tends to follow the lines of “just do it,” “doing it insincerely will lead to doing sincerely” and “surround yourself with people of the type you’d like to become.” This is a valid approach but it’s surely not the only one. In matters of halacha (Jewish law), one isn’t permitted to shop around for opinions until he finds one he likes but this isn’t a question of halacha. Keep asking around. If my way in such things doesn’t speak to you, then try flying on the other “wing” for a while. Good luck!
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent
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