Written and submitted by Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, Chief Minister at the St Kilda Shule.
Does Judaism allow for pluralism or is there only one monolithic approach to the service of our Creator? This question will invariably illicit a multitude of answers depending on how we define “Judaism”, “pluralism” and “monolithic”. But in truth there is no doubt that expressions of individualism in our Divine service is not only permitted by the Torah but in fact encouraged.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that every Tom, Dick and Harry (or in our context, every Chaim, Yankel and Shmerel) can simply define the Jewish religion as they see fit. We cannot embrace those parts of the Torah which appeal to us and reject those that don’t. There are 613 commandments in the Torah, no more and no less, and there is a broad but clearly defined framework of Halacha within which we define what’s right and wrong, the moral and the immoral.
However, within these Halachic parameters we are encouraged to find individual meaning. We are warned against an expressionless, mechanical, and perfunctory relationship with G-d. We are exhorted to adopt the famous Zoharic directive of “Rachmana Liba Ba’ey”, namely that G-d wants our hearts to be in love with Him, not for our bodies to be subordinated to Him. And when the individual heart finds love, the body that heart inhabits will naturally follow – each heart and body in its own beautiful way. Indeed, religious pluralism is healthy for it allows each and every Jew to find his or her place amongst the people of Israel, and to discover their personal path in the worship of the One G-d.
And yet, as much as the Torah embraces individualism and encourages personal spiritual growth, we are equally warned not to leave others behind. Finding self-fulfilment is not the same as becoming self-absorbed, and personal spiritual advancement should never be sought at the expense of others who are starving for the basics.
As the commentaries note so poignantly about the plague of darkness which ultimately led to the exodus we celebrate on Pesach, that this penultimate plague lasted a total of six days. During the first three days, they explain, the darkness was simply an absence of light such that “a man saw not his fellow”; but during the last three days the darkness morphed into a thick, physical entity which froze people in their place, “he who was in a sitting position could not stand up, and he who was standing could not sit down”.
The message is profound: There is no greater darkness than one in which “a man sees not his fellow” – in which a person aspiring towards their own Jewish growth becomes oblivious to the needs of his fellow man. And should that occur, that person must realize that eventually they too will become stymied in their own spiritual development. They will become frozen in their place, so that “if they were sitting they cannot stand up”.
By all means we must strive for spiritual growth and self-fulfilment – but we must do so as a multitude of individual strands intertwined as one rope, not as separate and disparate strands, each leaving the others in the dark.
Rabbi Glasman served as the spiritual leader of the North Eastern Jewish Centre for six years and in 2011 was appointed Chief Minister at the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. He has served as President of the Rabbinical Council of Victoria since November 2009.