Parashat Naso

Surrogate Judaism

Some try to "outsource" their Judaism, but this approach has severe limits.

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The role and responsibility of those giving the blessing, is clear; however, what is the responsibility of those who would receive the blessing? Must they be present to receive it? What about those who are out in the fields and are not able to make it to synagogue at all? The Talmud (Sotah 38b) presents an unexpected conclusion: those who are behind the priests (even if they are within the precincts of the synagogue) do not receive the benefit of the blessing, while paradoxically, those who are out in the fields, out of earshot, perhaps not even aware that they are being blessed, enjoy its full effect.

It would be an undue hardship for those toiling in the fields to come all the way into town to hear the blessing and then return to their work, and they are regarded as "anisi"--blameless due to forces beyond their control. Even an iron curtain would not separate the path of divine blessing. In contrast, those who are in the city, or indeed, in the synagogue, and do not trouble themselves to come for just a few minutes to participate, do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The sages realized the significance of this teaching, applying it to those who could not reach the synagogue for other types of worship as well (Rosh Hashanah 35a), but in fact it has even broader implications in our own day. We live in an era of specialization, in which anything from financial management to cooking to childbirth can be "outsourced." While there are certainly many times when a professional, an expert, or a helping hand is appropriate and even essential, there is a danger in applying this instinct too broadly in the realm of religious life as well.

The Desire for Surrogacy

Sometimes the desire for surrogacy is relatively innocuous. Often I'm approached by those who ask if I can pray for the recovery of someone who is ill: "Rabbi, can you make a misheberakh [prayer for healing] for so-and-so? I know you have no idea who they are, but I don't really get to synagogue often, and you know how to do it…" Sometimes, out of sensitivity I'll take the name and add it without comment. I wish that it were even more often that I could muster the gumption to insist: "Of course I'll pray for so-and-so. But it would be so much more meaningful if you, as someone who cares so deeply, could be present to pray as well."

It happens on a more troubling level when institutions or groups offer dispensations to avoid Jewish responsibility or involvement in exchange for financial support. For example, there are any number that offer a "kaddish" service in exchange for a contribution. A suitably pious surrogate, perhaps even in authentic Jewish costume, will say a memorial prayer daily for your deceased loved one. Perhaps it is effective fundraising, but it sends an unfortunate message that it is appropriate to rely on others to discharge our religious obligations and negates the role that "average" Jews can, and must, play in their own religious lives.

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Rabbi Joshua Heller

Rabbi Joshua Heller is the rabbi at Congregation B'nai Torah in Atlanta, GA. Previous to that, he served as director of the Distance Learning Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.