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Jewish World Review
Do thoughts count?
By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Intent, action and responsibility
In 1976, we spent Passover in Safed, Israel, in a small hotel. Among the guests was a Mr. Weiss, who had come to Israel from Germany in the early 1930s. He told us this story:
Once the leader of religious Zionism, Meir Berlin (later Bar Ilan), found himself in Safed late at night. Safed then was extremely small. There was only one public inn. Berlin entered and asked for a bed.
The innkeeper adamantly refused. He had no space.
Berlin was beside himself. He would have no other place to stay but the street.
He begged the inkeeper, who refused Berlin outright.
Finally, the innkeeper allowed, "I do have one bed, but there is someone else in the room, and you wouldn't want to be with him."
"Who is it?" asked Berlin.
"David Ben Gurion."
Ben Gurion and Berlin were fierce ideological opponents, the one a religious Zionist, a believer in the Torah; and the other a secular Zionist.
"I don't mind at all," Berlin told the innkeeper.
"OK," said the innkeeper, "but just because you don't mind, doesn't mean Ben Gurion won't mind. I must go ask him."
The innkeeper asked Ben Gurion, who said "no problem."
Now the innkeeper was intrigued. He had two of the most important and contending leaders of the fledgling Jewish settlement in Israel in his inn. He couldn't imagine the fierce arguments that would occupy them the whole night. He couldn't wait until morning to find out what happened.
Actually, this is what did happen:
Both leaders lay down to sleep. No arguments. No exchanges. Either Ben Gurion or Berlin (I forget which) told the other: It's hot in here. It's unbearably stuffy. Please open the window!
The other replied: No, it's too cool. If I open the window, I'll freeze!
First the window was opened, to accommodate the one who was too hot. Then the other, who could not stand the cold, shut the window. A few minutes later, the other, choking from the heat, opened the window. So it went, open and close, until both finally fell asleep, unhappy but exhausted.
The next morning, the innkeeper asked Ben Gurion and Berlin what they had discussed, and was told this story. Whereupon the innkeeper, whom we may imagined rolling his eyes, replied: "Really? That's the one room in the whole inn whose window frame has no pane."
As pointless as was Ben Gurion's and Berlin's debate over hot and cold is the question as to whether, in Judaism, thoughts count.
Do thoughts count? Of course they do, one might be tempted to say, especially after forgetting an important birthday, then remembering it two weeks later. If the person you forgot is gracious, he or she will say, "It's the thought that counts." Meaning: What really counts is the action, but I'll forgive you since you meant well.
Which counts most, then, thoughts or acts? It's a complicated topic in Judaism.
Saul of Tarsas, propagator of Christianity, thought that Judaism regarded actions above all else. Judaism doesn't care what you think or feel, only what you do, he said. Judaism values the "law." To Saul, this was a biting criticism.
Some 1,700 years later, this was a high compliment, according to Moses Mendelsohn, the founder of the Jewish enlightenment in Western Europe.
Mendelsohn argued that Judaism required only action and that this was a strength. Mendelsohn wished to adopt European ways of thought and felt he could do so and still remain a good Jew, provided only that he performed Jewish acts the mitzvos, or commandments. Judaism, he said, was strictly a matter of "legislation." Any Jew was free to think whatever he wanted about G-d and philosophy, just so he observed the laws of the Torah.
Here is a contemporary version of the same approach, heard in certain Orthodox Jewish circles: Homosexuality is wrong, but only to the extent that it expresses itself in an act. The act is wrong, but the thought or "orientation" is not proscribed. Judaism values the "law" only. The circle comes back on itself, from Saul of Tarsas to Mendelsohn to some Orthodox rabbis. Strange bedfellows indeed.
The point is this: Yes, Judaism values acts; yes, Judaism is a religion of acts, of mitzvos; but no, acts do not exhaust Judaism. Far from it. Just as Saul was wrong about Judaism, ignoring the importance that Judaism places on love and other emotions and intentions, so, too, every Jewish thinker who tries to reduce Judaism to deeds alone ignores a pivotal quality of the religion.
This is brought home in this week's Torah portion by the olah sacrifice. It was offered on many occasions, one being this: Having sinful thoughts that are not carried out. Do thoughts count? Indeed they do. The very first sacrifice in Leviticus the olah was brought for imagining sin, for thinking unworthy thoughts. One dreamt of sin, nothing more. For this one was obligated to go to the trouble and expense of offering an olah sacrifice in the Temple.
We have no more Temple, but we do have sinful thoughts, and we do have a clear value statement about them in this week's Torah portion. Thoughts count.
Not just sinful thoughts, of course. Judaism, while stressing action, also prescribes states of mind. This topic is explored by Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda in his Duties of the Heart ("Chovos Halevavos"), reprinted and translated repeatedly since it was first published a millennium ago.
The most important "duties of the heart" or states of mind are love of G-d and fear of G-d. While love or fear of G-d may be expressed in actions, they may also be pure states of mind, attitudes toward, relationships with, the Creator. Thoughts count.
The Torah asks us to be honest, but also not to think about being dishonest; to utter words of prayer, but also to elevate ourselves through them into a relationship with G-d. The Torah asks us to honor our parents with acts of respect and means of support, and also with attitudes, emotions and demeanor. The Torah asks us to purify our thoughts, and the Psalmist knows our weakness in this area. "G-d knows the thoughts of man, that they are vanity."
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik said this about Judaism's laws of mourning: The required framework are the laws of shiva, the formal week of mourning the sitting on low stools, the covering of the mirrors, the confinement to the house for seven days but the actual fulfillment of these laws is the inner sense of loss, the emotional grief.
Judaism, to use Rabbi Israel Salanter's term, seeks to mold "the whole person" (adam ha-shalem). In a whole person, acts count. So do thoughts.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News. To comment, please click here.
© 2009, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg