Over at experimental theology Richard Beck has a story about a girl who came to him and said something about how she needed to work on her relationship with God. And he called her on it.
I responded, “Why would you want to do that?”
Startled she says, “What do you mean?”
“Well, why would you want to spend any time at all on working on your relationship with God?”
“Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”
“Let me answer by asking you a question. Can you think of anyone, right now, to whom you need to apologize? Anyone you’ve wronged?”
She thinks and answers, “Yes.”
“Well, why don’t you give them a call today and ask for their forgiveness. That might be a better use of your time than working on your relationship with God.”
Obviously, I was being a bit provocative with the student. And I did go on to clarify. But I was trying to push back on a strain of Christianity I see in both my students and the larger Christian culture. Specifically, when the student said “I need to work on my relationship with God” I knew exactly what she meant. It meant praying more, getting up early to study the bible, to start going back to church. Things along those lines. The goal of these activities is to get “closer” to God. To “waste time with Jesus.” Of course, please hear me on this point, nothing is wrong with those activities. Personal acts of piety and devotion are vital to a vibrant spiritual life and continued spiritual formation. But all too often “working on my relationship with God” has almost nothing to do with trying to become a more decent human being.
Read the rest of the post–it’s from a Christian perspective, but the message is perfectly transferable to Judaism.
What Beck is saying is just a more modern version of the book of Amos, which you should check out if you haven’t ever looked at it. It’s short and to the point, and among other things, it takes the people of Israel to task for being nasty people who happen to bring a lot of sacrifices. Basically, Amos tells the people to stop working on their relationship with God, and instead begin working on their relationship with each other. He preaches a message of social justice to a people who are used to fasting, giving money to the Temple and offering sacrifices as their standard Jewish practice.
Now, I think Beck is basically advocating that one abandon any work one might want to do on one’s relationship with God and focus everything on interpersonal relationships, which isn’t a Jewish concept. Judaism does have ritual requirements that we’re meant to uphold. But, I think a lot of times people work as hard as they can to be frum without wondering if they’re also, um, being jerks.
I know. Not a particularly novel point, but one worth making every once in a while.