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Rabbi Aaron Alexander

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God's Good Name

Posted: 09/20/2012 10:04 am

It's that time of year again. One religious message permeates the entire Jewish world for days on end. Repentance and atonement. Thousands of chests are being lightly beaten world wide, hundreds of times each, urging hearts to courageously identify the mistakes, missteps and pain that deserve immediate attention. The idea is that if you can identify, apologize, show regret and vow to not repeat your offenses, a judicious combination of sincere repentance and the Yom Kippur holiday can grant atonement for all the ways in which each of us miss the mark. And if you have wronged other people (as opposed to God), repentance requires that you personally approach those you've wronged to earnestly request forgiveness, or the Yom Kippur holiday is powerless to grant atonement on behalf of God.

In one of the more stark teachings of Talmudic Judaism given in Rabbi Ishmael's name (Tractate Yoma, page 86a), this general framework is offered with a stunning ending. There is one manner of sin that one cannot receive atonement for until death. In our parlance, that means it's really really bad. It is the sin of desecrating God's name, a hillul hashem. We can imagine all the possibilities: Cursing God. Atheism. Public denigration of religious practice. Later rabbis immediately try to pin down exactly what offense is intimated by the language of desecration. Enter Rav, a Babylonian rabbi who lived in the third century CE. His response:

"Desecrating God's name occurs when someone like me (a religious leader/scholar) buys meat from a butcher and doesn't pay for it immediately."

Come again? I thought we were talking about heretical theology and/or public God bashing?

But maybe this is precisely what Rav is teaching us. There are certain expectations that living a public religious life demand, clergy or not. And in coming up short on these expectations we are often unaware of the deep consequences that ripple through society. In this particular case, Rashi, an 11th century commentator to the Talmud, explicates what may transpire in a community in which this kind of breakdown happens. He offers that if a religious leader delays payment, one who observes this may come to take the serious crime of theft lightly. And then another. And before you know it community trust vanishes and all of it ends up being in the name of God, intended or not.

Unfortunately we see all too often extreme examples of this phenomenon: rabbis trafficking human body parts, imam's preaching violence or priests molesting children (not to in any way equivocate these in weight, just in hypocrisy). Desecration at its worst. But this rabbinic teaching reminds us that living a public religious life magnifies even our most mundane interactions. How do we treat our servers at restaurants? In what ways do we show anger publicly? Do we text while we are driving? Minor compared to the worst of transgressions, yes, but major if we can only imagine the trickle down impact of our foibles.

Hyperbole? Maybe a little bit. But implicitly embedded in this text is a core definition of what it actually means to desecrate God's name. When those of us who have dedicated our lives to promoting a Godly vision of the world even appear to subvert others, we slowly (or immediately, depending on the gravity of the action) destroy that which we purport to elevate: God. And for this, claim Rabbi Ishmael and Rav, there is no earthly atonement.

I admit, this is a high bar to set for the openly religious. Appearances can deceive and imperfection is part-and-parcel of being a human. Perfect behavior is surely an unreasonable expectation. But at the very least it should give each of us pause. When it comes to human dignity, respectful relationships and social contracts, our religion ought not be silent.

If we take religious life seriously and expect this season of repentance to bring depth and meaning to our spiritual lives, let's not forget to consider carefully and seriously even the seemingly insignificant human interaction, simple transaction or semi-private moment.

God's good name may very well depend on it. So does our atonement.

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