Why Be Religious?

Is it better to be nonreligious than to be religious for the wrong reasons? Judaism says no, that it is better to observe the religious commandments even for the wrong reasons. Our tradition says, "It is better to observe the commandments for other reasons, because the person will come to observe them for the right reasons."

In other words, when one lives the religious lifestyle, one's heart will eventually find the right place.

It is implied, therefore, that being religious for the wrong reasons is not a healthy or sustainable situation. The person must grow into the right reasons, rather than stagnate in a damaged relationship with religion. So what are the right reasons, and what are the wrong reasons?

I had an interesting conversation recently. The person I was speaking to told me that they have great respect for religious people. He is not religious himself, but understands how religious people truly enjoy the religious lifestyle. He told me that his version of the Sabbath, where he does creative work and goes on family outings, gives him lots of pleasure. He is sure, though, that religious people enjoy their version of the Sabbath, complete with Synagogue, ritual, and refraining from weekday labors, no less than he enjoys his.

In other words, from a consumer perspective, some consumers prefer Kmart and others prefer Wal-Mart. You, as a consumer, he implied, enjoy a religious version of the Sabbath, while he, as a different consumer, enjoys a more secular style Sabbath. It all depends on "What do I enjoy more."

That's the unhealthy approach to religion. I reminded him that religion implies belief in God. God makes demands. While it is certainly true that the religious Jewish life is deeply fulfilling and deeply joy-inducing, that is not the reason we follow it. We observe the Torah out of a sense of faith and responsibility. We are commanded to enjoy it, for sure, but our own enjoyment is not the yardstick by which we judge the religion. We don't pick and choose only those commandments which we like.

The test is when a ritual observance is not so pleasant. For example, if somebody were to describe how they would observe the most important day of the year, I'm sure they would not choose to fast, to stand on their feet for long hours in the synagogue, to not wash their face or hands, to not wear comfortable shoes and so forth. Rather, there would be some beautiful ceremony or performance, a toast, a feast, a celebration.

And yet, Jews choose Yom Kippur. When we choose to observe the religion properly, even when it is not pleasant, we are stating that our devotion is to God, not just our own consumer pleasures. When one has the ability to deny oneself a more pleasant experience in order to fulfill a religious duty, then one has achieved the healthy relationship with religion.

And that feeling and devotion creates an even deeper spiritual joy. As the sages say, "Do not be as servants serving the boss in order to get a bonus, but rather do it in order not to receive a reward." Don't refrain from speaking evil speak today because you have a big baseball game that you need to win, and you want to score points with God. Rather, refrain from speaking evil speak even if God will make sure that the other team hits three grand slams and beats you 12 to nothing.

In other words, be a godly person. That's why to be religious, to sanctify and elevate your life and this world.

A Disease like No Other

The rabbis of the Talmud equate leprosy with a punishment for lashon hara, or evil, slanderous speech. The treatment of the leper involves him being isolated from the community, and this is seen as a punishment for his antisocial behavior. It makes sense. But there is a type of leprosy which is sometimes overlooked.

Clothing, specifically clothing of leather, wool, or linen, can also become infected with a plague. Now on a scientific level, this makes sense. This special type of leprosy is highly contagious, and the leper may have left the spores to grow in his clothing.

But an interesting question can lead to a fascinating discovery. The question, asked by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, is why just three types of clothing? There are other materials out there as well! He answers that these three types of clothing can be found in the chapter of Genesis. Adam and Eve were given leather clothing by God after they ate from the tree of knowledge. Abel wore clothing made from the linen that he had grown. Cain were clothing made from wool, taken from his flocks.

Based on Rabbi Sorotzkin's connection of the leprosy disease to the origins of mankind, we can gain new insight into this remarkable phenomenon. What was accomplished when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge? Firstly, they became aware of their nakedness. How so?

The tree of knowledge could also have been called the tree of judgment. The snake enticed them by promising that they will be like "gods," or "judges," who can tell the difference between good and evil. And that, more or less, is what happened. They became judgmental. Once they were aware of good and evil, of better and worse, they started to look critically at each other. Hence, their nakedness became an issue. This horizontal focus lead in a direct line to Cain slaying his brother.

The one who slanders or speaks ill of another human being has justified their doing so by judging the other person. If the other person doesn't measure up, they feel they may speak against them. This unique disease is not merely a punishment, it is an outward manifestation of its root cause, viewing other people as "lepers."

A Talmudic Sage described his clothing as being his "honorers." Indeed, we wear clothing to protect our privacy, and to project our worth. Adam and Eve became aware that, just as they were judging each other, they were being judged by the other. Hence, the need to cover their own nakedness. The slanderer and the talebearer impugn the honor, the clothing, if you will, of the one whom they are attacking. They are seeking to remove their clothing, so to speak. As a result, their sin becomes manifest on their own clothing.

The moral of the story? The first step on the road to evil speech is judging our fellows. The Torah explicitly tells us to judge each other favorably, if we must judge at all. Lashon Hara is not just a sin of the mouth, it starts in the heart and mind. For this, some rose-colored glasses might not be a bad idea information