A Religious Jew: God's Definition

Moshe Ben-Chaim

A few weeks back we read Parshas Balak. The Haftorah cited below also includes God's ridicule of enchanters or warlocks like Bilam, people who fool others with claims to altering natural law through curses and other "means." God rejects as undesirable the "thousands of ram offering and tens of thousands of streams of oil offerings." Why? Because Bilam's and Balak's sacrifices were based on a corrupt internal view of God and reality. Bilam and Balak were distorted people, thinking sacrifice alone gains God's favor. However, acts and appearances are not what God desires; they reflect no righteousness of themselves.

Despite the misguided Jewish masses, does God value attempts at externalizing religiosity? Doesn't He in fact punish those who do, and demand we are humble instead? Doesn't God prohibit adding more religious acts to His limited commands?

"It has been told to you man, what is good and what God seeks from you; only to perform justice, and loving kindness, and modestly walk with your God (Micha 6:8)." 

Radak cites the Rabbis (Chazal): 

"This term of modestly walking with God refers to taking out the dead and bringing in the bride. Now these, that are commands performed publicly, yet Torah says to act modestly in their performance, how much more so are we bound to act modestly with privately-performed matters."

This means that other commands that require no publicity, like charity, prayer, study, and certainly matters that are not commands (like our garment colors and hair styles) must certainly not be used to parade a false piety. Radak again comments on Tzefania 1:8 concerning God's punishment of people who wore "strange garments", saying this refers to people who sought to appear more righteous than their brothers in their dress. But Radak says, "their ways are evil." Such individuals are catering to their egos, under the guise of a false piety. For piety is the opposite of parading one's self. Their "evil", as Radak calls them, is using the Torah not to draw close to God, but to adorn the self. God is not their focus. Their focus is themselves. Rav Soloveitchik calls self aggrandizement idolatrous. But God Himself says this all so clear as He highlights Moses' praiseworthy trait of humility, "And the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than all men on the face of the Earth (Num. 12:3)." 

We learn that Torah speaks against any type of practice – public or private – where we invent ways of calling attention to ourselves. In this week's Parsha Vaueschanan, God tells us not to add to the Torah. So if someone suggests that his actions, his clothing or any aspect of his appearance forms part of Judaism, we know they are wrong. For God commands just the opposite, and He also prohibits adding to His words, which contain no law of dressing in certain colors, or how to wear one's hair (viz. other than idolatrous manners that are limited to papal, priest/nun or cardinal garb). Their is nothing gained religiously either by abstaining from wearing a given color, or not wearing it. Again, one gains nothing religiously through hair/beard styles. Garment colors and styles, and short hair or long hair have not come under the Torah's laws. We must not add to God's perfect system. 

This makes perfect sense, since perfection is an internal matter. Of course if one is preoccupied with any pursuit that does not aim towards bringing him closer to God, this is wasteful. Such pursuits can be dress, fame, wealth, for example, when sought for lustful or egotistical ends. Once, a man brought his hair as a sacrifice, and this was praiseworthy since in his specific case, he wished to become more modest by cutting the source of his elevated ego. But if one knows himself, and to be happy so as to live a Torah life, he needs a certain esteem attained through a specific level of attire, then not only is he correct to labor to purchase this level of wardrobe, but if he became impoverished, Torah demands we give him the funds necessary to return him to this very level of income and lifestyle: 

"If he rode a horse with a servant running before him when he was wealthy, then became impoverished, we restore this level to him." (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Daya 250:1) 

This means God endorses a man's need to live within a certain level of self-esteem. Thus, esteem cannot be generalized where one can legislate certain garments, hair styles or the like. Each man and woman must strive to know their level of esteem, and work with it, not going to any extreme in excess or limitation, so they each are at a happy equilibrium so as to serve God without any emotional stress. We all have different needs, and God justly does not legislate in this area. Anyone who does, suggesting certain styles are "Jewish values", violates God's words, and simple reason.

The need to externalize one's piety is generated from one's insecurity. For if one was secure with his actions, knowing he serves God perfectly, without adding or subtracting, and does so to relate to God alone…he will not seek to alter the Torah through dressing or acting for man's applause. An intelligent person knows from Micha's words above, that modesty – acting humbly – is God's way. His relationship with God does not depend at all on styles or acts, not contained in the Torah. He does not add to, or subtract from God's limited, choice words. He does not allow his emotions to distort God's Torah, despite the Jewish masses who do. He is pure, complete, secure, happy, and humble enough to know what God said, and not to falsely claim something is a Jewish value, when God and His prophets spoke against it so clearly.

A truly religious Jew follows God…alone. He is strong in his Torah convictions. He does not seek peer approval through public or external displays; certainly as God forbids favoring man's applause. A true Torah Jew "walks humbly" as God demands, seeking God's approval alone. His religious life is a private matter, as it must be. He does not distinguish himself from other Jews in any way, as this need to gain attention for his "piety" is disgraceful before God. God does not approve of egotistical people. In fact, Maimonides teaches the two traits we must never cater to are anger and arrogance. So as times and styles change within the Jewish culture, a righteous Jew will strive to blend in, not stand out. He must not hold on to former styles claiming their "Jewish" value, since God condemns this, read in Tzefania.

What is God's definition of  "religious" Jew? It is one who leads a privately religious life with God; not chasing  human applause through actions and externals, which God prohibits.