(photo credit: MCT)
First, Micah explored the possibilities of what God wants from us: “With what
shall I approach God, pay homage to the Almighty on high? Should I approach Him
with burnt offerings? With yearold calves? Would God be pleased with thousands
of rams? With myriads of streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my
transgression, the fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?” Clearly this is not
what the Almighty desires of us. Micah continued with a most powerful
declaration: “It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God
requires of you: Only to do justice, and love kindness and to walk modestly with
What does it mean to “walk modestly with your Lord”? The
hassidic master Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (1757-1826) understood that it meant that
the pursuit of piety should be a private venture. Rabbi Uri explained
that “walking” with God – meaning progressing from one spiritual level to the
next – is conditional on that walk being done “modestly.” Privacy is thus a
prerequisite for spiritual growth.
Another master who favored concealed
piety was Rabbi Naftali Zvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760-1827). Rabbi
Naftali likened the privacy of the spiritual journey to building a protective
fence on a flat rooftop: As one ascends, the danger of falling is all too
With a keen analysis of reality, Rabbi Naftali listed four possible
responses to sudden exhibited piety. First, onlookers might cast a doubting eye,
assuming that lofty conduct is nothing more than an act: “You must be faking
it!” or “What is your real motive?” Alternatively, peers might scoff at any
attempts to improve, or at any meaning attained. A third possibility is that
bystanders will just not understand spiritual strivings, thinking that holiness
is incongruous for the person in question. Finally, observers might have the
opposite reaction, prematurely assuming that the person in question has already
attained lofty levels of spiritual achievement and thus stunting future growths
rather than offering words of encouragement.
The outcome of any of these
reactions is likely to be a fall for the one striving for piety. Better to keep
spiritual strivings behind closed doors, said Rabbi Naftali, than risk losing
any achievements, for the danger of falling from spiritual heights – as from an
unguarded roof – is clear and present.
Keeping the spiritual journey
gated is like erecting a fence that will prevent a fatal fall. For Rabbi
Naftali, concealing spiritual strivings was not a prerequisite, it was a
safeguard against being felled from spiritual achievements.
are distinct advantages to a public show of fidelity to God and commitment to
the Divine mission. Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapiro of Munkacs (1871-1937)
suggested that the most significant aspect of public piety was the paradigm
provided for our children. If we want to pass on Jewish tradition, if we want
our children to imbibe and cherish our values, it is imperative that they know
what these values are. Theoretical knowledge is insufficient; a mark must be
made on the hearts and souls of the next generation. Such an indelible mark can
only be made by publicly displaying our striving for
Indeed, the Munkatcher Rebbe acknowledged that this
approach carried the danger of inculcating haughtiness, but the price of not
exhibiting our attempts at piety – namely our children – is too great.
third, compromise path can be found in an early hassidic publication. In
a work published in 1792 in Lemberg (today Lviv, Ukraine), we find the following
advice, attributed to Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid (preacher) of Mezritch (d. 1772):
As a rule, a person’s piety should initially be kept from the public eye. As a
person ascends and attains higher spiritual levels, the piety should then be
exhibited. Why the change? Should a person continue the outward
appearance of lack of piety, that person may be drawn to the very lifestyle that
is supposed to be no more than a façade hiding spiritual growth!
So what is the
best course? It would appear that there is no one prescribed avenue: Different
times and different scenarios call for different approaches. While there
is no agreement as to how we should pursue piety, all the masters advocated
walking with God.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of
Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.