Speaking in the middle of a season of “early” High Holy Days, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quipped about the demanding nature of Jewish ritual.
“In 3,000 years it has never once happened that the holidays have arrived on time. You just have to adjust to it,” he said to appreciative laughter.
But navigating the quirks of the Jewish calendar, like performing any ritual, is only meaningful if the rites lead to a deeper appreciation of Jewish ethics.
“One of the sad things that has happened to Jewish life in modernity is that the word ‘religious’ has come to be associated in people’s minds with ritual observance, from which one can form the odd impression that in Judaism ethics are an extracurricular activity, a nice thing, but not really all that important,” said the prolific and best-selling author.
Ritual as a path to ethics is one of the major themes of Telushkin’s latest book, Hillel: If Not Now, When? (Jewish Encounters). Much of his talk at B’nai Shalom in West Orange on Sept. 26 drew on the example of the first century BCE sage, perhaps best known for his reply to a non-Jew who challenged him to define the essence of Judaism “while standing on one foot.”
“What is hateful unto to you, don’t do unto your neighbor. The rest is commentary,” Hillel replied, according to the Talmud.
According to Telushkin, the importance of Jewish ethics can be traced to this story.
“What [the non-Jew] actually said to Hillel was ‘convert me to Judaism on the condition you can teach me the essence of Judaism on one foot,’” explained Telushkin. “So in response to that very serious question, Hillel oddly doesn’t speak in terms of God or ritual commandments…but offers this ethical summary statement.
“So we know that at the heart of Judaism is really this intense commitment to ethics.”
Telushkin’s devotion to the subject led to the creation of A Code of Jewish Ethics, a three-volume series which he regards as his life’s work. (Two volumes have been published so far.)
In his talk, Telushkin discussed how ethics apply in “the realm of forgiveness, in the realm of humility and self esteem, in the relevance of things that are of obstacles to change, in the realm of gratitude and in the realm of anger.”
For example, a comment made by a patient of his friend and colleague, the author and psychologist Abraham Twerski, said Telushkin, distills his teachings on forgiveness to their essence: “Carrying around a grudge is like allowing the person you most dislike in the world to live in your mind rent-free.”
Yet, he acknowledged, anger can prove a strong obstacle to change.
“No matter how angry you get at another person, restrict the expression of anger at the incident that provoked the anger,” he counseled. “If you do so, you will never in anger say something that will inflict irrevocable harm on another or cause a break in the relationship.” He admitted that he has violated that rule a couple of times and to this day, is deeply remorseful.
“You can really spend your life studying how these ethical laws can be applied to your daily behavior,” said Telushkin. “Use the subtleties of your intellect to figure out what’s the right thing to do.”
Telushkin’s talk kicked off a series of events that will culminate Dec. 11 with “A Night at the Auction,” a fund-raiser for B’nai Shalom. The evening included a d’var Torah by Rabbi Stanley Asekoff, religious leader of B’nai Shalom, and introductions by Sindy and Barry Liben, hosts and sponsors of the event.