Thinking outside the box of religious ritual

This article appeared in the “Jewish Journal”  on September 4, 2018

Thinking outside the box of religious ritual

A child once told his parents that his teacher punished him for something he didn’t do. His parents asked him what he didn’t do and he replied “My homework.” Judaism holds us accountable for acts of omission, as well as commission.

Just as it is wrong for Americans to shirk jury duty, it is wrong for Jews to avoid “Jewry duty,” by failing to act as a blessing to others. Such individuals never achieve the joy expressed by Senator John McCain, who sacrificed so much for his country, spending more than five years in captivity in horrific conditions. Upon receiving the Liberty Medal last year, he observed with characteristic humility and self-deprecating humor, “I’ve had the good fortune to spend sixty years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, and there were probably times when the country might have benefitted from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid 1000 times over with adventures, with good company, and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself, of being a bit player in the story of America. And I’m so very grateful.”

We do not have to be a war hero to achieve the satisfaction of serving a cause greater than ourselves. In a Democracy, some are guilty while all are responsible. As Alexis de Tocqueville said, “In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve.”

Some Jews erroneously believe that being “religious” means supporting the status quo, no matter how dysfunctional it has become, and not getting involved in the world. But our most respected rabbis have been “rabbi rousers” such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King, and protested against the Vietnam War. The Jews complained to Moses for confronting Pharaoh and increasing their burdens, and told him to stay out of politics and stick to religion. Moses, the greatest Jewish leader of all, ignored their request because this “Hebrew national” answered to a higher authority, “relished” freedom, “mustered” the courage to take on the “role” of savior, and was “frank in furtering” the cause of freedom. Similarly, the prophet Nathan rebuked King David, other prophets regularly chastised the rulers of their day, and Jewish heroes of every age don’t go on “retreats” but instead go on the offensive in standing up to tyrants and despots.

Some Jews think the most Jewish thing we can do is to bind our arms and place a box before our eyes with tefillin. My father, Rabbi Sam Silver, taught me that the most Jewish thing we can do is to liberate our minds and our hands to help others, to think outside the box, and not get so wrapped up in ourselves and our rituals that we become a small package.

In Hebrew, the word for “box” is Tayva, which is also the word for Noah’s ark. While Noah was considered righteous in his generation for not joining the multitude to do evil, he was not deemed sufficiently meritorious to warrant becoming the first Jew. Unlike Abraham and Moses, who challenged God’s plan to slay the innocent with the wicked, Noah did not think outside the box (ark) and was content to save himself and his family, while all others, including most animals, perished.

During these “Days of Awe” let us ask “Do we treat this planet and its inhabitants in a manner full of awe, or in an awful manner?” Do we fiddle with religiosity while California burns and the waters rise around “ark”aic notions that reject the threat of global warming?

Trapped beneath the weight of crushing rituals and stultifying rules, the light of reason and hope that Jews must share with the world cannot escape, transforming the light unto the nations into a black hole that vanishes from sight forever. Heaven forbid such a fate.

To atone for neglecting “Jewry duty” when it is needed most, let us think outside the box, tearing down walls of separation and replacing them with bridges of understanding, making this Day of Atonement, a Day of At-one-ment, and setting “a tone” of peace, which is the eternal mission of the Jewish people.

To reach Rabbi Barry Silver or attend the free Yom Kippur Interfaith Dialogue, call (561) 302-1818 or contact him at