There is one feature in my vision for an Orthodoxy that soars beyond its present confines, one that inspires a creative, outward-looking spiritual energy and enables our community to fulfill so much more of its profound potential. It involves taking a principle of Jewish law that lives a quiet, unassuming life in the pages of the Talmud and bringing it to the fore of our religious consciousness. The principle is known as kavod ha'briot, which literally translates as "human dignity."
The Talmud teaches there are circumstances under which concern for human dignity overrides the law. Or put another way, there are times that the law places its concern for human dignity above its concern for matters of ritual.
One instance in which this sort of determination is made is the ruling that in many cases one may interrupt his or her recitation of the Sh'ma prayer (the central daily affirmation of our commitment to God) to respond to a friendly greeting of a passerby. The thinking behind this is that the harm done to the passerby's dignity if his greeting goes unacknowledged is a weightier concern than the momentary interruption in prayer.
Another instance was played out in the Temple in Jerusalem. When people annually brought their first fruits to Jerusalem, those who were literate read the prescribed formula of gratitude to God, and those who were illiterate repeated the formula word for word after the priest. When the illiterate began to stop appearing with their first fruits, embarrassed by having to repeat the formula after the priest, the sages ruled that everyone would repeat the formula after the priest. Although this was not the ideal way to recite the blessing, concern for human dignity generated a higher value.
This kavod ha'briot principle need not--and should not--be thought of as merely a trouble-shooting mechanism. On its own, it must function as an autonomous religious imperative. Activities that restore dignity to fellow human beings should automatically occupy the highest rungs on the ladder of our religious behavior. They should guide how we decide to which causes we, as a community, donate our time and money.
We must generate an elevated and holy protocol for how we engage, individually and communally, those with whom we disagree. This principle should influence how we view the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And most essentially, we must apply it to ourselves.
We must demand that our religious observance creates for us a life of highest dignity. It may very well require reordering our priorities, and it will certainly take a great deal of self-examination. But there isn't the slightest doubt in my mind that Orthodoxy has, and always has had, the right stuff to deliver this dignity to its adherents.
It's important to get started, to seize every opportunity for forging our new mindset as it presents itself. On a Friday night a few years ago, our synagogue hosted a special service and dinner for Jewish families who were not practicing Jewish tradition, but who were interested in learning about it.
Just before we began the service, we lit the Sabbathcandles, and I mentioned that by doing this we were joining an unbroken tradition among our people--a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, a tradition that highlights our commitment to peace and understanding within the home. Later, as the Sabbath dinner was winding down, one participant requested that we take special care as we clear the tables, for much of the leftover food could be wrapped and, on Sunday, brought to City Harvest, an organization that collects food for the homeless.
Should not the instruments of fostering peace and well-being within our own families be shared with other families? This quickly became our new tradition. And it was evening, and it was morning, and Orthodoxy mattered.