Principles vs. People

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

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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.

Yet one who lives with principle alone can turn into a monster. The Talmud makes fun of a Chasid Shoteh--a foolish pious person, who lives only on abstract principle. Such a person, the Talmud teaches, will not save a woman from drowning because she is naked, and he should not touch her. The principle overrides the human situation.

Compassion, individual circumstances, and uniqueness cannot be compressed into principle. "One must be flexible as a reed and not unyielding as a cedar," teaches the Talmud, training us to understand that life will not always allow for rigidity.

Much of life must be conducted by principle, by category. Young, old, student, professor, husband, wife; but at the same time, as we use these categories, we have to recognize that they are inadequate. Beneath them all is the person.

Greek mythology has left us the graphic image of the Procrustean bed. Procrustes needed to fit everyone on a bed of a certain size, so he just lopped off the parts that inconveniently hung over the edges. Sometimes principles do the same: They cut off the unique, the different, the overhang in each personality that tells us that every spark of God manifested in a human being is different, and his or her very own.


In a world where ideology is like a Procrustean bed, we see thousands of political Bobby Fischer--people whose commitment to the abstract blinds them to the human being on the other side. Ideas are powerful in motivating people to goodness in this world, but they can turn into captors, as ancient religious doctrines override the essential demands of humanity.

Many years ago, the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was walking with a basket of fruits and vegetables under David's Citadel in the Old City of Jerusalem. A tour guide pointed at him, and explained to his tour group: "You see that man there? Well, up a bit and to the right is David's Citadel."

Amichai thought to himself, "Redemption will come the day the guide says, `You see David's Citadel? Well, that is not important. But down a bit, and to the left, is a man carrying a basket of fruit and vegetables home to his family.'"

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