By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), invariably is read near the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the last month of the year before Rosh Hashanah. It has a special place in religious life because it is viewed as a time to prepare oneself for the process of divine judgment, which begins on Rosh Hashanah and concludes on Yom Kippur.
I was fairly ignorant about the significance of Elul until the year I began my post-high school Jewish studies. It was then that a teacher introduced me to a spiritual approach known as the Mussar movement. This movement was inspired by a charismatic, scholarly, creative Lithuanian rabbi in the second half of the 19th century. His name was Israel Salanter. He found the religious condition of the Jews of his time to be deficient in several respects. For one thing, he was convinced that people were ignoring the ethical dimensions of our tradition. He insisted that one had to be very meticulous in his or her ethical behavior and devote extra caution to relationships with other people. He was also concerned with the lack of true faith, the absence of yir’at shamayim, fear of heaven.
Thus, he developed a comprehensive methodology for achieving faith in the Almighty, true “fear of heaven.” He also formulated a program through which individuals could attain greater sensitivity to their own ethical behavior with regard to their spouses, friends, employers and employees, and neighbors, Jewish or otherwise. He placed special emphasis upon the month of Elul, when Jews approach the impending days of judgment; he realized that these waning days of the Jewish year represent the optimal time to focus on what we would call faith in God and one’s duties to his fellow man.
The teacher who inspired me to learn more about Rabbi Israel Salanter and to follow his rigorous program of religious and ethical self-improvement was a man named Rabbi Zeidel Epstein z”l. He was, for me and for my peers, a bridge to the lost world of the disciples and followers of Rabbi Salanter.
I was intrigued by one of the central teachings of Rabbi Salanter. For about the time that I was attending Rabbi Epstein’s lectures, I was also enrolled in a secular university and was taking a course in the philosophy of religion. One of the questions we explored in that class was how to obtain religious faith. We studied a wide range of techniques ranging from meditation and contemplation to the proofs of the existence of God, which were popular even among traditional Jewish philosophers during the Middle Ages. It was then that I was first exposed to William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. We even experimented with methods of cultivating ecstatic mental states in order to directly apprehend the Divine.
Rabbi Salanter suggested a very different approach, one not found in the curriculum of this college course. He preached that the way to achieve emunah, faith, or to use the term he preferred, yir’at shamayim, fear of heaven, was to engage in moral behavior and character refinement. He emphatically maintained that only when we improve our relationships with others do we begin to connect with God.
To illuminate Rabbi Salanter’s theory I refer to a passage from one of the literary works we studied in that class on the philosophy of religion. It was from the section entitled “The Grand Inquisitor” in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In it, one of the brothers, Ivan, states, “If God is absent, then everything is permitted.” In other words, the basis of ethics and morality is the existence of God. Without God, there is no reason to be ethical or moral, and anarchy reigns in human life.
Ironically, Rabbi Salanter and the famous Russian novelist were exact contemporaries of each other, although it is highly doubtful that either of them knew of the other’s existence. But Ivan Karamazov’s words, if inverted, express Rabbi Salanter’s insight very well: Instead of “If God is absent then everything is permitted” invert the words to read “If everything is permitted, then God is absent.” Meaning, God is absent in a society where men behave as if everything is permitted and there is no distinction between right and wrong. In such a society, it is futile to search for God and try to gain religious faith.
On the other hand, if a society acts in accordance with principles of right and wrong, and realizes that not everything is permitted, possibilities of faith in the divine open up. Belief in God depends upon righteous behavior. Elul is the time to intensify and enhance righteous behavior in the individual and in society, thus creating an opening for emunah and yir’at shamayim. In the words of one of Rabbi Salanter’s disciples, “Emunah (faith) can only be achieved through tikkun hamidot (character development).”
This insight, seemingly so simple and direct yet philosophically so profound, is expressed in the wording of one particular phrase in this week’s Torah portion. The verse reads: “Observe and understand (shamor v’shamata) all these matters that I command you; so that it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 12:28)
The commentator Ohr HaChaim wonders about the first part of this verse. Should it not read “understand and observe?” Why is the observation, the fulfillment, written before the need for understanding? Surely it would be preferable to first understand and only then to obey.
Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik, an ardent devotee of Rabbi Salanter’s movement who survived the Holocaust, wrote an essay entitled “Flawed Character Traits Weaken Faith,” which offers the following explanation of why we must first “do what is good and right in the sight of the Lord” and only then understand Him:
“From this we gain the following guidance: in order for a person to achieve the precious quality of faith in the Almighty in his life, he cannot do so through intellectual inquiry. He must first rectify his ethical and moral conduct, laying down a foundation of good deeds and charitable acts, and then thereby develop a complete and strong faith. Only then can he understand the meaning of yir’at shamayim, only then will faith be revealed to him.”
As we advance from the advent of Elul to the High Holy Days, to the days of awe and judgment, we would do well to remember the teachings of the 19th-century Rabbi Israel Salanter. We would do well to focus on character development and self-improvement in our ethical and moral conduct; for to the extent that we grow in our behavior to other persons, we will be granted strengthened faith and a more profound appreciation of the Ribbono shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.