Friday, August 23, 2013

Listening to your Pintele Acher

When non-Orthodox Jews (whether Reform/Conservative/Secular/Atheist/etc) are conversing with Orthodox Jews and the latter is trying to convince the former to either accept the Orthodox worldview or to increase in their observance (sometimes called Kiruv or Mitzvoim) it is common to hear the plea for the non-Orthodox Jew to listen to their "Pintele Yid" (a Yiddish term that means "Jewish Spark").

The "Pintele Yid" refers to the religious notion that all Jews have an essential core of pure Jewishness within them that can help to steer the person back to their Jewish "roots". It's similar to the theistic argument of "deep down you know God exists." Well perhaps a pintele yid resides deep down in my being, but what about the Orthodox Jews "Pintele Acher"?

Acher is the nickname (literally "Other One") for the Talmudic Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah who became a heretic, according to some, after witnessing the following event as recorded in the Talmud Chullin 142a:

"Thus, in connection with honouring parents it is written: That thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee (Deut. 5:16). Again in connection with the law of letting [the mother bird] go from the nest it is written: ‘That it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days’ (Deut. 22:6-7).
Now, in the case where a man's father said to him, ‘Go up to the top of the building and bring me down some young birds’, and he went up to the top of the building, let the mother bird go and took the young ones, and on his return he fell and was killed-where is this man's length of days, and where is this man's happiness?"

So while the Torah claimed that performing either of these two mitzvahs (commandments), honoring one's parents and shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs, that they would live a long life and a person performing both at the same time falls to his death, isn't this a plain contradiction? Isn't it obvious that what the Torah predicts simply isn't accurate?

I once heard a lecture speaking about the mitzvah of letting the land of Israel lay bare for one year every seven years (called the shmita or sabbatical). During that time the Torah promises that there will be enough food from the prior year to keep everyone sustained while there is no farming for the year long Sabbatical. It was claimed in the lecture that had this miracle not occured people would have rejected the Torah flat on its face. It makes a claim and it doesn't come true. Therefore since they didn't reject the Torah, surely the miracle must have occured, because no one would hold on to inconvinient beliefs that have been falsified.

Aside from the idea that perhaps they didn't actually perform the mitzah at all (which some other evidence suggests) or if they did they may have grown crops in Israel through loop holes similar to how it is done in much of Israel today, had they attempted it and it not come to fruition undoubtably they would have come up with one excuse or another not to accept that the prediction of the Torah was false.

Similar to the story above, while Acher ended up becoming a heretic, other Rabbis gave alternative explanations in order to preserve their beliefs in spite of the evidence. One said perhaps the man was thinking idolatrous thoughts while performing the mitzvah, another thought was that perhaps the situation was excessively dangerous in which case no divine protection is guaranteed, and lastly there is the interpretation that long life is not meant literally, but refers to the resurrection of the dead in the world to come.

What is going on here? I thought that any obvious undermining of the Torah's predictions should cause the Jews to give it up, just like Acher did. Perhaps the problem was that the Talmudic Rabbis were using their pintele yid, ignoring the obvious uncomfortable truth in order to preserve their preconcieved notions of the world, the Torah and God. They were not listening to their pintele Acher, their inner doubt, which was saying "you know at the end of the day, none of this really adds up, it just doesn't seem right."Perhaps the pintele Acher is that nagging feeling that your beliefs aren't more than skin deep prose. Perhaps they are nice sounding, comforting even, but in the end have nothing to do with reality.

Some may argue "Well perhaps that is so, but why should I listen to my pintele Acher. This nagging doubt. It will only cause me to consider questions I never had to consider before, questions that are difficult to answer, perhaps even impossible to answer. Why go through all of the strife and aggrivation when I have here a book or a Rabbi telling me the answers. I am free from questions, free from doubt. Isn't that better than doubting, questioning, considering?"

Similarly in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) 3:6 it says:

"Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah said: Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, from him will be taken away the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care; but whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, upon him will be laid the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly care."

The person above and Rabbi Nechunya both view "worldly care" as a yoke. Sort of like slavery. To them either you are a slave to the Torah (the views of ancient men and modern Rabbis) or you are a slave to yourself. The thing is being a slave to yourself and yourself alone is the very definition of freedom.

The views above are no better than those of the stiff necked Jews of the exodus. They also preferred being slaves than being free. They viewed their roles in Egypt in a similar way, as being true freedom. They even called Egypt a land of milk and honey.

They pre
ferred slavery to freedom because to them slavery was freedom. They didn't have to think for themselves or make any decisions since their slave masters did that for them.

The lesson our ancestors taught us in the Torah, even if shrouded, was that slavery is not freedom. And until you stand up and break the chains of the pintele yid you will never be able to enter Israel.

When a person asks me to listen to my pintele yid, it has nothing at all impressive to say. It says "come back to Egypt , be a slave again, you no longer need to work over the soil in Israel not knowing what the next day will bring, your slave master will provide for you daily rations, he will think for you, he will act for you" but for anyone who has known true freedom, these words will always fall on deaf ears.

And as always the worst thing a person could do is let someone or something (jewish lore and law and rabbis in this case) who have nothing to lose by you making a mistake, do all of your thinking for you. You are offered an opportunity to break the shackles and it does get besser.

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