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Our actions – more than our thoughts, feelings, or intentions – affect the people around us. We become conduits for Divine energy and influence to the extent that we are able to treat others with kindness, honesty, and integrity.

A focus of Jewish spirituality is the development of positive character traits through the practice of self-monitoring and making conscious contact with God. For those who dislike the G-word, this is another way to say that we seek to base our choices on a sense of interpersonal responsibility and community, and to honor the interconnectedness of all forms of life. We may conceptualize “God” as the positive, creative, altruistic energy within ourselves, and/or an encapsulation of our highest values. We wish to increase our capacity to express our strengths, as informed by our ideals about making a positive difference in the world.

Traditional Judaism attaches to this notion a transcendent, omnipotent Source which creates and maintains the universe, but which is beyond human comprehension. To believe in a transcendent unity means that we don’t think it’s an accident that we have the capacity for love, generosity, fairness, or truthfulness. We don’t think it’s an accident that when we express our best human qualities, most of us feel better. The innate, positive qualities of humanity are viewed as “given by God as a doorway to God.”

Often, due to an accumulation of unexamined behavioral patterns that we human beings naturally construct in the process of forming an identity, we may continue to act against our best inclinations, unwittingly reinforcing the outcomes we seek to avoid. To escape this struggle, we need a paradigm shift. One element of such a shift is a vision of what we want to create and to exemplify.

Great is Peace, A Modern Commentary on Talmud Bavli Tractate Derek Eretz Zuta, provides a line-by-line explanation of what the sages taught about interpersonal ethics in Derech Eretz, a tractate of Talmud found at the end of Talmud Bavli Avodah Zarah and Pirkei Avot. As I see it, Derech Eretz describes in detailed terms what it means to behave in a spiritual manner. How does an awesome human being conduct his or her life?

Derek Eretz literally means ‘the way of the land.’ In Aramaic, zuta means small, or Part One. Because it was written over 1500 years ago, much of the content would be difficult to follow out of historical context. Great is Peace provides a contemporary reading of the material.

The book is based on a series of classes taught online by Rabbi Dr. Arthur Segal. I have been privileged to assist him over the past year in its production – compiling, arranging, editing, clarifying, and designing the print edition. I chose this project because I feel strongly that the information should be made as widely available as possible. From my perspective, Derek Eretz answers the “Why be Jewish?” question quite substantively. It's about values. In time, we hope to produce a second volume on Derek Eretz Rabbah (the second part of the tractate.)

Chapter Ten, also known as The Chapter on Peace, was considered by our rabbis to be so important that they wanted to make it a tractate of Talmud by itself. We are to "love peace and pursue peace." The pursuit of peace (inner and outer) is not time-bound or situational, but an ongoing, active commitment and life-orientation.

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Comment Preferences

  •  thanks for this, bluebird (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bluebird of happiness

    as one born to the tribe, but who cannot connect with the adoration of the god/man in the sky, the definition you gave, that the best of us humans is what is "divine", if you'll pardon my interpretation, has added immeasurably to my understanding

    •  I hear that (0+ / 0-)

      The Guy in the Sky concept is so beside the point. It's not Out There, it's In Here. It isn't supposed to be about Some Angry Being imposing rigid standards from outside, but about befriending and honoring our better natures and allowing ourselves to become more of who we are. I personally reject "fear of God" and "Judgment" as externals, replacing them with Heschel's "radical amazement" (a sense of awe at the amazing stuff that exists) and discernment about what works and what doesn't work. So, I take the stuff from the Talmud as advice, a lot of which is quite brilliant.

      I read this book recently, in the self-help genre, called The Path of Least Resistance. The author, Robert Fritz, was a serious music student who eventually turned to trying to help businesses and organizations become more productive.

      In in this book, he outlines a whole different paradigm from what we're used to in this culture. We have a combative culture - we talk about the "fight" or "battle" against cancer, world hunger, tooth decay, whatever. He says, essentially, that this focus on struggle is not helping anyone, because a problem-solving mentality reinforces the existence of the problem at a structural level. Rush to react to the problem, fix the problem, lose the urgency, forget about the problem, and then it re-emerges. We often find ourselves oscillating between extremes because we're motivated by fear; we run away from what we don't want, we seek to avoid or numb or eradicate what we don't want, instead of allowing ourselves to consider what we do want, and set about making that vision a reality.

      Fritz makes the quite radical suggestion that, just as an artist envisions a painting, or a composer can hear the symphony in her head before writing it, we can carry a creative vision of our ideals into the rest of our lives. For me, this creative vision, my highest aspirations, what I think I'm capable of, and what I love, have become part of my god-concept, or principle around which I organize my choices.

      Where Torah study becomes useful is in its ability to articulate and define what "good" looks like. Judaism contains a lot of wisdom, good standards, useful guidelines, like that joke about "the ten suggestions." For me, because I choose not to take it this way, it is not about coercion, or enforcing the rule "everything not compulsory is forbidden."

      When I first began to embrace the idea of a loving God, I realized that I won the Lottery of Life, that of all the eggs & sperm that could have come together, the ingredients for me were set in motion, and here I am. That's pretty cool.

      I thought my way through it: If I am to believe in a loving God, I conclude that such a Creator would want the best for me - the best of me - my expression of what is best in me.

      Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book Jewish Renewal, talks quite a bit about the voice of cruelty vs. the voice of healing and transformation as it appears in the Torah, and the distortions we have inherited from centuries of oppression. He says the story of the binding of Isaac illustrates the principle of learning to reject the legacy of cruelty and abuse, and to embrace what is life-affirming - Abraham heard the angel and did not kill his son, despite the fact that his own father had him thrown into a fiery furnace.

      This is an internal process, not the usual "how can I believe in an external abstract man in the sky who allows terrible things to happen"? It's not about that.

      It's about how I relate to myself and how I engage with my life and other people. It's not about constant struggle and failure at the impossible task of trying to become perfect. It's about whether or not I care about myself enough to invest in living according to my highest aspirations. That's "God's love," or what Fritz says about loving something enough to want to see it exist, and making that commitment paramount.

      Sorry, this was practically another diary.


    •  your response is worthy (0+ / 0-)

      of a more in depth reading than i can do now

      but wanted you to know there's one out there in kosland, at least, on whom your writing resounds

  •  just need to add (0+ / 0-)

    that there are thousands of hasids spending the summer where i live, and their devotion to form, etc., seems so beside the point, compared to their behavior

    i.e. they devote their life to ha shem but other humans are objects to them

    •  seen similar (0+ / 0-)

      In Derech Eretz we find that the honor and feelings of another person are more important than ritual, and so if there is a conflict, someone's well-being comes first. For example, it is more important to visit a sick person in the hospital than it is to make a minyan at the appointed hour.

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