Principles vs. People

We must not lose sight of people when we observe the rituals and principles of Judaism

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Q. There are so many rituals and laws in Judaism. How can I prevent myself from feeling like my whole religious life revolves around nothing but repeating ancient ritual?

The longest reigning chess champion in history was a German Jew, the son of a cantor and the grandson of a rabbi. He was a friend of Einstein's, and the author of books on mathematics and philosophy. His name was Emanuel Lasker. Contrary to the usual mental image, chess is a young person's game; it requires great stamina to sit for five hours at a stretch at full concentration--like taking a long final exam where one lapse loses everything. Yet Lasker held his title for 27 years. Well into his 60s he was a feared opponent at the chessboard.

What was his secret? Lasker was famous for playing the man, not the board. If his opponent hated defense, Lasker launched an attack, even if it was not the soundest strategy. Lasker believed that no matter how impersonal chess may seem, one is sitting across from a human being, with human weaknesses and strengths.

He was the oldest man ever to win a major tournament, because he was clever enough and canny enough to compensate for any loss of tournament acuity with increased wisdom about human nature. Even when his stamina slipped, Lasker remained a consummate psychologist.

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Lasker's direct opposite in this is Bobby Fischer. Fischer ignored his opponent. He once said, "I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good moves." Fischer's game had a direct simplicity. A famous grandmaster once said of Fischer that "he plays like a child." This was not meant to disparage his game, but he had a straightforwardness that was nearly impossible to confuse or confute. Things were black and white, true or false, the best move or not.

Fischer played by principles. Lasker by people.

What is the result? Ultimately, Fischer was the better chess player; arguably (and chess players love to argue about it) the greatest who ever lived. But Lasker was far more successful as a human being, living a long life surrounded by loving friends and family. Fischer slipped into anti-Semitic mania and strange paranoia, and no one who had followed his career would be entirely surprised. For Fischer could never see past pawns and principles to people.

This same distinction exists in all areas of life. Principles are central to living. Without "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" the world falls apart. A great deal of life, and of Judaism, centers around principle.

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