Monday, July 28, 2008

The Practical and the Mystical - Guest Post by Alice Jonsson

I am often struck by how practical Judaism can be. Coming from an agnostic, secular background I thought of religion in general as being mystical and fantastical, not at all practical. In fact it seemed to me that religions, and I know I’m generalizing greatly, want us to go beyond a practical solution to a moral solution- and those seemed universes apart to me. And of course so many people get bogged down in stories that may seem impossibly fantastical, like spies and giants, plagues, and arks. Or concepts about the nature of God that are just too hard to wrap one’s brain around. There are so many people who don’t understand that the Torah isn’t just mystical and fantastical feeling stories. It also helps you to get along with your mother-in-law, to succeed at work, to break bad habits, to protect friendships, and to find a more meaningful way to view mundane activities like cleaning out the gutters on your house. The tangible successes that come from applying a practical principle to everyday life make the Torah real for me.

Keep in mind, I don’t pretend to be a Torah scholar. I also realize that there are mystical ramifications for very down to earth actions, so it’s quite complicated. This is a short list of some of the practical lessons that have really helped me.

1.There’s a time and a place for self criticism: One of the ideas that I came across in Rabbi Brody’s and Rabbi Arush’s books is that you should not walk around being critical of yourself all day. The time for that is in your hour of personal prayer. You meet with your creator and part of what you spend that time doing is assessing the decisions you made, for better or worse. But you should not clobber yourself all day, like some self-flagellating martyr who, instead of beating up on his flesh, as they do in some religions, is beating up on his soul. This puts you in a disconnected space and apparently puts you into the negative spiritual spiral. This makes a ton of sense to me. Furthermore, it seems clear to me that a person who is pessimistic about himself is more likely to see the whole world in those terms, which is clearly not productive.

2. Out of sight, out of mind: If you are trying to tame a temptation, don’t expose yourself to that temptation until you are really capable of staring it in the face and shouting an emphatic ‘no’. I can’t have Breyer’s mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer without eating it. Period. I’m not there yet. So why have it around? This is incredibly practical advice.

Related to this, of course, is how we interact with members of the opposite sex. I have come to see the logic in the sexes keeping a little distance, or even a lot depending on the situation. One clear benefit of this is that it protects a marriage. This is just one of those let’s-be-real situations that I can now see as practical.

3. Men are from Mars: Very generally speaking, the notion that men and women have different roles and strengths relating to those roles has helped in many practical ways. I am a feminist, dyed in the wool, yet I am comfortable with this notion, again very generally speaking. I realize that some people on both sides of the aisle don’t think it’s really possible to be a feminist and into Orthodox Judaism, but I contend it’s not a problem. Let’s save that discussion for another day and get back to the basic premise here. While there are some men who are better at traditionally feminine tasks and vice versa, I do think we are very different creatures in many ways. I think it’s quite practical to see the world this way.

From my perspective, this in no way legitimizes oppressing one gender or the other and should never ever be used in a negative way. But having a son has shown me not only how much we have in common as sexes, but also how boys just come out differently, generally speaking. As a child I did not want to wrestle people, for example. And I did not think it was funny to be spit on. He does. If you were to approach him and stick your tongue out and blow, he would embrace you like a long lost sibling. After he spit on you. He’s two, FYI.

4. Sparing someone’s feelings can be a great thing: The notion that telling the hundred percent truth in every single situation may not be the most moral thing to do. ‘Truth’ is not the highest value in a situation where someone has served you some really awful minestrone soup that they slaved over all day. You will eat that soup as if it’s the best soup ever and you will be grateful and make that person feel your loving gratitude. Very practical. Which directly relates to...

5. Conversely if they need to hear something, and they are open to it, you must tell them: I can’t tell you how many times I have been way too honest with someone when they were not ready to hear it. So rude and fruitless! On the other hand, there are moments where you must get over the fear and be honest. And I suppose this also means we need to be the kind of person who makes others feel they can be honest with us without crushing us beyond the point of repair.

6. We aren’t the mistakes we make: Which makes accepting criticism easier. It’s not an indictment of your total self. It’s a moment to reflect on an action that can be changed. This is a liberating and, again, very practical idea. It helps to be easier on yourself if you are the guilt ridden sort. It also takes the burden off of strained relationships. That person you have a hard time with isn’t the mistakes they have made, just like you aren’t. To me it means we should deal with the action that offended us and not commit a character assassination on the person. Which should be balanced with...

7. In being kind to the cruel you are, or will eventually be, cruel to the kind: To me, this means that we must impose order and apply the rules/laws fairly, even when it’s frightening or tough to do so. When we take the easy way out by not standing up to injustice, we put others in a vulnerable position. In other words, we feed the cruelty and become part of the problem. This strikes me as enormously practical advice. Tough, yet practical. It’s a nip-it-in-the-bud thing. I see parents making this mistake often, myself included, because it’s just so darn tiring to discipline, not to mention confusing. But as an educator of ten years I can tell you that parents who don’t get a grip on the discipline are creating a lot of pain and work for others, including the child.

At this point I’m thinking of the lyrics to a song by Coldplay, “If I could write a song a hundred miles long...” This list could go on and on. I’m really interested in finding out what others see as practical Torah concepts. Do tell!

P.S. An interesting addendum, right after I wrote this I had a Torah lesson wherein the rabbi discussed how hard it is for Americans to let go of dualistic thinking. Clearly this is the case for me to some degree. However, I have to wonder if it is only natural for someone just beginning down the road to relate more, to be inspired more, by the more clear action/reaction experiences. I’ve wondered if this is part of Hashem meeting us where we are as individuals. Maybe some people will be more reassured by seeing the successes that follow the application of very practical, seemingly earthy, as I would call it, advice. Maybe this is a stepping stone towards seeing the truth of more difficult to grasp concepts such as Moshiach or understanding how the Exodus could have occurred. Conversely, perhaps a different person would be inspired by the more mystical and grand stories of the early days of the Jewish people than by the more mundane daily advice that I find reassuring. I see it as clear evidence that the Torah describes reality, that it’s the blueprint.

-Alice Jonsson

(Picture courtesy of Matt Dowling)

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A Simple Jew said...

Great posting, Alice :)

Alice said...

Muchos gracias.

Anonymous said...

(Not to disagree with anything written...) An important development of understanding Judaism is realizing that the mystical IS the practical.

Yes, Torah makes practical sense from everyday point of view -- but first of all, it is an extension of the Creator's Will into the physical Universe, not as a practical guide, but as a way to unite the physical Universe with its Creator. Because this union is the ultimate reason why the Universe (with all its everyday life and practicalities) exists and was created to begin with, seeing this in Torah is the most practical thing.

Yes, the car has a great CD player with surround sound, air conditioner, leather seats and GPS navigation. But all these things exist to help with the primary purpose of the car -- to move a person from point A to point B. So, maybe it also makes sense to look at the engine, transmission, the brakes and the mileage -- they are, after all, what the car is all about.

I guess my point is this: yes, it is great to see Torah as a practical guide to life, but one must also remember first of all about the giver of the Torah, G-d. Otherwise, why are we here?