Rosh HaShanah 5767
At this time of the year, rabbis often encourage their flock to live good lives, study Torah a little, come to Shul more frequently and generally commit to becoming exemplary members of the community. To support this, all kinds of Jewish sources are mustered to bend the congregants’ ears into submission. What does Jewish tradition really promise those who actually succeed in living a purposeful and righteous life? The Talmud offers us a brief insight:
In the ultimate future, God will make a dance-circle for the righteous and He will sit in the middle of them in the Garden of Eden. Everyone will point to God with his finger.
<o:p></o:p>So after a life of righteousness, self control and altruism, what happens to our budding tzaddik when he reaches the afterlife? He gets to dance round and round and point to God, presumably for all eternity. A dance! Is that all? After an entire life dedicated to spiritual pursuits, is that the best we can hope for?
Of course, the Talmud is actually conveying a profound message in the form of an image. Regrettably, we often assume that the parables of the sages are simple fairy-tales, but if we are prepared to dig beneath the surface, we will always uncover the most uplifting concepts. As such, the dance-circle is a sophisticated image that may be understood as follows.
While it is not always apparent, there are many manifestations of Judaism – different styles of observance, degrees of engagement with the outside world and outlooks. Of course, all must be predicated on the belief in the historical truth of the revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law (devoid of these, of course, we don’t have Judaism at all). But part from these indispensables, there is considerable flexibility within the system. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, within certain parameters, there are a range of possibilities. This idea is expressed beautifully by the great mediaeval thinker Ritva:
When Moses went up to receive the Torah, for every subject he was shown forty-nine ways to prohibit it, and forty-nine ways to permit it.
God Himself presented us with a religious system that recognises that we aren’t all the same and that we each need some degree of individual expression in our religious lives. Interestingly, as this flexibility is God-given, the truth (or if we like, validity) of each manifestation is not compromised, as they are each a version of the Divine will. It’s an amazing idea – rather than there being one right or wrong way to live, we need to function within parameters. As an aside, this idea should not be considered licence to consider anyone’s personal preference a legitimate expression of Judaism, as there are clearly boundaries beyond which one may not go.
In this lies a challenge, perhaps one of the most important that we will face in our lives - recognising (always within the parameters) the validity of other peoples’ views. This can be immensely difficult; we all feel comfortable with those who share our particular world-view and perspective on Judaism; less so with those with whom we differ. We are often especially poor at respecting those people whose life-style seems very alien to ours; they quite probably feel the same about us!
Yet to profit from the flexibility of the system, we must authenticate the religious expressions of others. This takes a great deal of maturity, but it is extremely rewarding. Through doing so one gains a breadth of perception, and understanding of others, a sense of love and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.
This is the meaning of the dance-circle of our original source. Note that the righteous dance in a circle, not a conga! The centre of the circle is equidistant from every part on its circumference. (As a mathematician, I can tell you that this defines a circle!) Each person on the circumference has a slightly different angle on life, a different form of traditional Judaism, yet is equidistant from God. No one is closer than any other and each can point to God and perceive Him from their perspective. But here’s the really exciting bit – as they dance round the circle, they experience the world from the viewpoint of each of the others in the circle. This is the greatest reward on offer – a direct perception of God with the maturity to appreciate the world through the eyes of others.
It would seem to take a lifetime to righteousness to reach this level of personal maturity. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a great time to start working on this aspect of personal growth. It is common in all parts of the community to view anyone to the ‘left’ of oneself as a dropout and any to the ‘right’ as a lunatic. Even the nomenclature ‘left’ /‘right’ is unhelpful in this quest. We are poor at tolerating difference within the observant community and mistakenly expect our children to all turn out the same way as each other. When one thinks about the extent of this problem in our families and communities, one quickly realises just how elusive the dance-circle really is. But one must try to take those first faltering steps along it: try by listening carefully to the viewpoint of a member of the Jewish community with whom one usually disagrees, consider, at least for a moment, that a man dressed in Chassidic clothes may lead a rich and sophisticated Jewish life, recognise that a child may need encouragement to express Judaism in a way different from his or her parents.