AN HONEST SINNER
The Last of Deuteronomy
For you will be heeding the Lord your God, obeying all his commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 13:19
I have always tried to be a rule-follower. I have not always been successful, but at least I am willing to acknowledge when I have stepped over the line.
One of the lines I know I intentionally blur has to do with the practice of fasting. To put it simply, I don’t. Until very recently, when medical circumstances have made nutrition and hydration necessary, I was diligent about Yom Kippur. But the locus of my rebellion otherwise has been the roster of major and minor fasts that symbolize our mournfulness for past tragedies. They make me physically miserable and spiritually resentful, never mind some of my philosophical objections to what they commemorate.
The mistake I do not make is suggesting that God does not want me to fast. Whatever rationale I have developed for my personal practice, I do not lay claim to knowing better than the instruction of the tradition and/or the consensus of believing and practicing Jews in which I count myself what God’s will is for us in general or me in particular. In the classic words of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I dissent. Unlike the Notorious RBG, my dissent is not grounded in the law.
I mention my transgression so soon after I have atoned for others because I wonder about the phrase “doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God.” The small verse above contains three measures of devotion – heeding, obeying, doing. Do they represent three ways of saying the same thing (not at all unusual when the Bible is emphasizing a point) or three different assessments of commitment (not at all unusual among commentators who consider nothing superfluous or repetitious in the Bible)?
If it is the former, my intentional transgression dooms me to be an unrepentant sinner. I know that sounds so, well, religious, but it’s a big deal when someone considers himself, well, religious. For those whose more liberal standards about Jewish practice lead them away from certain kinds of ritual observance, my choice may seem inconsequential. But at least in theory (and however broadly I define the standard), I am committed to heeding the word of God and obeying God’s commandments. I go to great lengths and inconvenience to uphold that standard.
Let me add that I am not looking for absolution, as if some other rabbi could exempt me from fasting or shabbat observance or keeping kosher. I am not looking for reassurance from others who have compassion for my reasoning. I am not looking for support from Jews Against Fasting or some other group that objects to this ritual. I know what I am doing is, by the standards I accept for myself, wrong. I prefer to live with that dissonance. That is, IF heeding, obeying, and doing are parallel concepts.
But what if the three phrases mean different things? What if the first means attending to God’s instruction, the second upholding that instruction, but the third finding that which is the distinct way for me as an individual to do what is right in the sight of the Lord MY God?
I have always been skeptical of anyone who claims to know the will of God personally. I know that flies in the face of some understandings of my own tradition and of broad swaths of believers in other faiths. Perhaps it is my proclivity to following the rules, but I look askance at any statement that begins, “I believe that God wants ME to…”
Mostly, what follows those words is an excuse to ignore a collective standard. Often it is to excuse oneself from an inconvenient requirement (which is why I will never say “I believe that God wants me to eat on a fast day.”) Sometimes it is an excuse to exceed the limits of piety (as when ultra-orthodox Jewish men will not sit next to a woman on an airplane). But mostly it is used to justify something that has less than nothing to do with God’s concerns; instead, it has to do with a personal desire to be justified with a theological claim.
God does not care about touchdowns. God is unconcerned about holiday greetings. God does not select political candidates.
I make those statements not because I know the will of God personally, but because the Bible is pretty clear about what is right in the sight of God. To do justice. To love mercy. To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. To cultivate holiness within and compassion without. To remember how awful it is to be a stranger.
I’d rather be an honest sinner than a lying believer.