It’s very easy to make the mistake of judging someone’s level of spirituality based on the clothing they wear.
When we see an ultra-Orthodox man, dressed in a long black coat and wearing a big black hat, most of us automatically assume that such an individual is committed 24/7 to righteous living.
That is clearly not the case according to a disturbing article in The Jerusalem Post this week.
The Oct. 3 headline reads: “Religious schools have highest rate of sexual abuse in education system – correlation found between religiosity, number of men and boys treated.”
The article states that a new study from the religious sector has revealed that “students in religious public schools in Israel are at a higher risk of sexual harassment and assault than any other of the Jewish education’s streams.”
With these incidents, more than double those that occur in the secular public school system, the statistics indicate that the concepts that are stressed among the religious are not effective in motivating many of their adherents to aspire to godliness.
Modest dress, rejection of worldly pursuits and interests, separation of the sexes and a community bubble designed to insulate the über-religious are not enough to overcome the human condition – one fraught with weakness, base desires and the impulse to satisfy what feels good in the moment.
It’s sad to say, but these are not failures which are relegated to only one sector of humanity. It is who we all are without the divine presence of our Creator – the only One who can save us from our own path to the open highway of self-destruction.
As we approach the highest of the High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, which begins today at sundown, it would be good to remember that all the external defenses we set up for ourselves – in order to prevent the worst of our fallen nature from emerging, doing harm to both ourselves and our fellow man – are woefully inadequate and unable to keep us in check.
Because, in the end, it’s not the long black coats of the men or the burqas worn by an extreme sect of Orthodox Jewish women, which keep sin from being birthed in the heart. It is only a deep and abiding inward connection with the Almighty, which can bring about an honest confrontation of one’s perverted nature and the realization of the great need to turn from that direction and embrace the God who is able to touch our heart, cleanse it and cause us to go along a different path – His path.
The good thing about that path is that it does not require a particular outward look. Godliness, or righteous living, is something which is not connected to a set of rules or to a fixed garment. It is based upon a close and intimate relationship with a loving God who has graciously watched over us, cared for us and provided for all we need – including how to live according to the best blueprint which He designed for His creation.
By acknowledging all of that, we become filled with unending gratitude, to the point where we want to please Him and be found worthy of His unfathomable love.
That is why two people who are deeply in love never have to try too hard with one another, because the affection is a natural extension of what they are feeling, causing them to please the other all of the time. They are not being warm and loving as a result of their great efforts to conform to “the rules of love.” For them, the rules are just to live out each day awaiting the next opportunity to lavish their beloved with all they can.
The religious life, although well-meaning in its aspiration to achieve goodness, mercy, kindness and justice, often attempts to arrive at those same ideals through a ritualistic and contrived set of standards, which, to its adherents, will safeguard them from any possibility of falling.
But it is those very rules and strict observances that we are neither motivated to keep nor drawn to fulfill if they do not come from a heart compelled by love for ourselves and for those around us.
And here’s the real dilemma. We can only be godly when we operate within the confines of godly love – the kind that values and respects who we are and how we were meant to bless others. But, again, it is not available through outward appearances or props of our own making.
It is only accessed on the inside – the very tucked-away places of our heart, which must be replaced with godly substance.
This issue is unique to all of us and certainly does not solely belong to the religious community of Israel; although, it is something that they, too, must internalize, and no better time to do that than on the eve of Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when we are supposed to have a personal and honest reckoning before God Almighty.
The time to get it right on the inside is now, and we might begin by asking God to “give us a new heart and a new spirit – to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26) – as it is the only way we will succeed in our quest to live as we were meant to!
May all of our names be inscribed in the Book of Life!
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.