Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Responsibility We Surrender- What I learned from Dostoyevsky on Rosh Hashana

As I prepared for Rosh Hashana and decided which sefarim I wanted to learn, it did not occur to me to add Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to my reading list. However, when a friend for whom I have deep respect,gave me the book on the first night of Rosh HaShana, I decided to take a look at it during the times when I would not be learning or davening.

He didn’t hand me this novel out of the blue. A few days earlier we had been talking and he told me that I had to read the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”. Thus, in addition to learning Rav Kook, Rav Hillel Zeitlin, Rav Amital and more over Rosh Hashana, I read some Dostoyevsky.

To offer a brief summary for those who are not familiar (from Wikipedia):

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive-questions by Alyosha. In the tale, [Jesus] comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

To say I was captivated and disturbed, would be an understatement. I immediately found myself thinking of the world with which I am most familiar. While there was nobody who came to mind to whom I would dare to compare to the evil Grand Inquisitor, the parallel to the people who could one day think they are waiting for their messiah, and even meet him, and be ready to watch his execution, had my mind racing.

I can’t speak for others, but one of the things that makes Judaism meaningful for me, perhaps the most significant factor, is the idea of searching for a connection with God. While I was born into an observant family, friends who are ba’alei teshuva or converts have told me about how this factor led them to Judaism. Still too often, maybe even most often, Judaism gets reduced to something smaller. At some point, it starts being only about following halacha, and learning what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call Litvish Torah (a friend recently told me that God is best found in a Ketzos). It is not that I think these things are not part of serving God. It’s just that at a certain point, those who are looking for the proverbial forest are too often spiritually neutered, and given narrow borders in which to conduct their search.

It seems to me that in order to gain comfort and standing in the community, we give up on the control that we ought to have over our religious lives, and allow others to dictate the boundaries. The Grand Inquisitor seems to be correct. It is much easier to let our religious ideas be controlled by others than to live with the responsibility of making decisions for ourselves.

Of course, at moments like this, I remind myself of what Rav Amital and others warned about the dangers of trying to find spirituality outside of the system, but I’m convinced that within the broadest boundaries of our tradition, there is tremendous room to explore, and we give up those places at our own peril.

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