Send your questions for Rabbi Wolpe to

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.

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.

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.'"

Is this the dreaminess of the poet? Perhaps. But the kernel of truth remains. Not that ancient sites and ideology mean nothing--we are too old and tradition-steeped a people to make such a declaration. But the beating heart of tradition is the people who live it. If we are blind to the people, the rules will crush us.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus