I recently reunited with a heredi guy who knew me from my orthodox youth. In response to his question regarding the state of my Judaism, I responded that I am no longer observant, but Judaism and Torah study still play a major role in my life.
“So your Judaism is like a hobby” he said.
I’m sure I was supposed to be insulted, but actually the concept of Judaism as a hobby put a silly smile across by clean shaven face.
After all.. people are pretty passionate about their hobbies, but tolerate those who don’t share the love. People get dressed in special clothes and follow certain rituals to engage in their hobbies, but don’t (or shouldn’t) get too bent out of shape when they miss a game or an event. Normal people keep their hobbies in check; don’t let them interfere with family life, their love for their kids or earning a living and certainly don’t expect society to support their hobbies. Most people (maybe some European soccer fans excluded) don’t get violent over a hobby. If memory serves.. John Lennon imagined a world without religion …. but hobbies are cool.
One of my real objections to religion is its inconvenient requirement that it’s followers stay consistent. No exceptions or time-outs. That’s not the case with a hobby or even a life style. You can watch your cholesterol but have a steak once in a while. Somehow the consensus is that if you keep kosher, you can’t make any exceptions. What’s with that?
Which brings me to Leviticus 26: 21 “And if you treat Me as happenstance (קרי), and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins.”
וְאִם-תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי, וְלֹא תֹאבוּ לִשְׁמֹעַ לִי–וְיָסַפְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַכָּה, שֶׁבַע כְּחַטֹּאתֵיכֶם
Although Rashi brings multiple translations of (קרי) keri, it is his first that has always stuck with me and that is the accepted interpretation amongst traditional Jews.
Heb. קֶרִי. Our Rabbis said that [this word means] temporary, by chance (מִקְרֶה), something that happens only sometimes. Thus, [our verse means:] “If you treat the commandments as happenstance, a temporary concern.
ואם תלכו עמי קרי: רבותינו אמרו עראי, במקרה, שאינו אלא לפרקים, כן תלכו עראי במצות. ומנחם פירש לשון מניעה, וכן (משלי כה יז) הוקר רגלך, וכן יקר רוח (משלי יז כז), וקרוב לשון זה לתרגומו של אונקלוס לשון קושי, שמקשים לבם להמנע מהתקרב אלי
According to Samson Raphael Hirsch “keri” means “accident”.
“keri” derived from karah (see Commentary, Bereshis 24:12) – denotes anything that happens without intention or beyond our reckoning. Accordingly, it is a purely relative concept. Something in it self can be intentional and premeditated, yet we did not intend it or plan it; it just happened to us and came to us by chance….
Your going with Me is only keri. Your acting in accordance with My Will is not your only intention and is not the result of a decision on your part. Your foremost resolve is not to obey ME, not to do only My Will. You no longer are opposed to My Will as a matter of principle, but My Will is not important to you. Other considerations determine you way of life, and you leave it to chance whether this brings you into conflict or accord with Me. The troubles that befell Israel accomplished at least one thing; their defection ceased to be extreme opposition, directed – as a matter of principle – against God and His Torah. But heeding God is still not their first and only aim. The illusory interests of prosperity and power remain their primary concerns. Their walking with God remains incidental: they keep God’s commandments only if these happen to coincide with their own interests.
The truth is that the correct translation of “keri” is hostility. As Baruch A. Levine writes in his commentary to Leviticus “Hebrew keri, “hostility” and the idiom halakh ‘im … be-keri, “to walk with … in hostility,” are unique to this chapter. Targum Onkelos translates be-kashyu, “with hardness, obstinacy” deriving keri from the root k-r-r, “to be cold.” Compare the noun form karah, “cold wave,” in Nahum 3:17, and mekerah, “cool chamber” in Judges 3:24
What is fascinating to me is not how this word may have been mistranslated, but the enthusiasm taken to use the mistranslation as an opportunity to preach the gospel of consistency.
Shmuel David Luzzatto in his commentary to this verse, wonders why there is so much conjecture on the part of the commentators as to what keri means since, after all, Onkelos preceded them all and not only gives an obvious translation, but also clearly follows the translation that was accepted on the street, at the time. [I’m no expert in ShaDL, but he seems to take real offence at the mistranslation… he calls it a “perversion” עיוות )*
In Genesis when Eliezer, Abraham’s servant who is by the well looking for a bride for Isaac prays to God:
And he said: ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, send me, I pray Thee, make it happen ( הקרה ) to me this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham. Genesis 24: 12
וַיֹּאמַר–יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם, הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם; וַעֲשֵׂה-חֶסֶד, עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם
Here Hirsch writes: “Nothing is farther from the Jewish concept of “MiKreh” than the idea of “chance”, with which it is usually taken to be associated.” Ironically, this is exactly how Hirsch takes keri to be in the verse under discussion in Leviticus. But the point is, that Hirsch is voicing an unquestioned assumption, that it seems is universally accepted in Judeo-Christian theology (probably Islam as well) that the infinite, omnipotent God is also all-knowing. That everything is preordained and that “chance” is only a human perception.
There is a clear bias against happenstance, serendipity, temporarily fealty, chance, accident, the unintentional, the unexpected, or as the King James translators put it in their notes as an alternative translation of “keri-contrary.” if ye walk at all adventures with me. (Leviticus 26: 21 King James Translators’ Notes) **
When did chance and adventure become a dirty word?
I suppose one could argue that God is omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient (all knowing) so we must act accordingly but.. The God in the Hebrew Bible did ask Adam: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3: 9), and on seeing the corruption of man, God changed His mind and regretted/repented on creating the world (Genesis 6: 6-7). Surely my consistent religious friends would answer that these are just anthropomorphic expressions, not to be taken literally. I would argue that the Torah speaks in the language of man, and that while it is true that God does not play hid and seek and does not repent, clearly the sacred text wants us to behave as though He does… that’s why it used these human terms. The biblical text, in its choice of anthropomorphisms chose to re-present a God who is not always around, doesn’t always know where we are and.. changes His mind and mindset. This is the God that God wants us to be like.
I believe that a straightforward reading of the Bible actually shows that it not only has no problem with “chance” and adventure but it embraces it.
Remember when Jacob “chanced” upon a spot only to realize he was at the gate of Heaven (Genesis 28 11-17)?
Not only was Eliezer praying that he would get lucky, but when we pray for healing for the sick, we pray for a fortuitous moment (עֵת רָצוֹן) eit ratzon “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favorable time”. (Psalms 69: 14) There are some times and some places where we can “chance” upon a unique spiritual experience.
If the Bible favors consistency in it’s God and leaders, why do both zig zag so much. Why does God need to “remember” His people and his promises? Why does God hide His face and reveal it? Why do our saints and heroes fall short so often? Why do we favor teshuva – return/regret so much?
Think of Moses and David and the model is not “as straight as an arrow”, but rather of a boat tacking, or as they say in the great movie The In-Laws… walk serpentine!
I would argue that when it comes to finding a connection to one’s religion, to the spirit, to God, consistency is not a good thing.
I am actually less guilty than some of my co-religionists, for going through the motions. You have to put on tephilin every day to catch yourself doing it out of habit. If and when, I put on tephilin, I savor the moment. The same goes for prayer, and I follow the Rabbis of the Mishneh on this one:
Pirkei Avot Chapter 2, Rabbi Shimon says, when you pray, don’t make your prayer keva, fixed (routine).
וכשאתה מתפלל, אל תעש תפילתך קבע
I advocate a Judaism which favors happenstance, serendipity, temporarily fielty, chance, the accidental, the unintentional and the unexpected. In fact, everything that the quoted Rabbis and Hirsch find wrong with keri; I embrace….
In closing…. As one finishes the Book of Leviticus (VaYikrah), one cannot but be struck by the fact that the Hebrew word for calling (Vayikrah) and happened (Kara) are very similar. They are linked by the concept of mikra-gathering. A holiday is an event that occurs because it is announced and people happen together.
So for example, for the upcoming festival of Shavuot the Bible writes:
And ye shall make proclamation on the selfsame day; there shall be a holy convocation unto you; ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations. (Leviticus 23: 21)
וּקְרָאתֶם בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, מִקְרָא-קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם–כָּל-מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ: חֻקַּת עוֹלָם בְּכָל-מוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם
That’s the Torah I’ll be accepting this Shavuot. Maybe someday you’ll join me…. C’mon, it’ll be an adventure! Kef!
* Shmuel David Lazzatto, Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah, Leviticus 26:21
Leviticus Chapter 26 (Original 1611 KJV Bible)