The Tisch: The pursuit of piety

In three verses, the Prophet Micah expressed the essence of his mission (Micah 6:6-8).

Rabbi 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Rabbi 311
(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 your Lord.”
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 real.
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.
Alas, there 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 spirituality.
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.
A 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.