J-BOM: Striving for the Ethical Life

J-BOM stands for Jewish Book of the Month Club and is a term coined by young MJ blogger Yahnatan Lasko for a movement of bloggers and readers working through great Jewish books together. The April selection is Visions of the Fathers by Abraham Twerski. I have suggested that busy people start with an abbreviated reading of Twerski. The readings for the first part of April include: Introduction, 1:1, 1:2, 1:6, 1:10, 1:11, 1:12, and 1:14.

The May selection will be The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendehlson.

The June selection will be As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg.

The July selection will be Chaim Potok’s The Promise.

The August selection will be The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Bart.

There are a number of reasons people are against the idea of striving to be ethical, to live the righteous life God desires.

Most people have been a part of some kind of ineffective religious effort. Maybe it was a small thing: “Attend synagogue / church weekly and you will be a better person.” Maybe it was a large thing: “Feed the poor and volunteer every chance you get and you will be a better person.”

As is often the case, the results were disappointing. Those poor people smelled bad and complained. The synagogue / church was boring and irrelevant to life. This intense activity did not curb temper, lust, addiction, selfishness, or whatever personal demons we were trying to overcome.

Some readers of the New Testament have a problem with striving because they believe that this is somehow against the principle of grace (God’s favor which he gives even to the undeserving). The problem is, the New Testament does not teach quietism (doing nothing and passively expecting God to make us holy). The New Testament teaches in many places that God gives greater favor to those who are faithful. The New Testament teaches striving for the godly life. Grace ultimately means that our best efforts are insufficient, not that they are unimportant. Grace also means God forming something in us which requires our effort as well.

Abraham Twerski speaks with the authority of a person used to reforming sinners. In his psychiatric practice, Twerski has helped an untold number of addicts. His realism is refreshing. His wisdom is obvious. And the wisdom of scripture and Jewish tradition shine on every page of his commentary on Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot 1:15 begins, “Make your Torah study a fixed practice.”

Twerski tells a story of a physician who had come to him for addiction treatment. Seeing him several months later, Twerski asked if he was following the prescribed regimen of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“Yes, I still attend three meetings a day,” said the physician.

Twerski was startled that the doctor had not fallen into a reduced schedule of meetings. Three a day seemed fit for a beginner, but who could keep up that pace? Doesn’t this doctor have office hours and work to do?

The doctor replied that he had office hours in between his meetings.

Why, Twerski wanted to know. The doctor’s reply is classic, “If I don’t attend three meetings a day, I will drink again and I won’t have an office at all.”

As Twerski repeatedly shows us in Visions of the Fathers, we have drives inside us that work against the good, that resist God, that resist love, that pull us toward worship of self. If we think a touch of faith or a little dab of Judaism or a spot of Christianity will transform us, we are deluding ourselves.

A well-known Messianic Jew said, “I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after teaching others I myself should be disqualified.” You might look that one up in 1 Corinthians 9:27.

Twerski says:

That is how it must be with Torah. The study of Torah must come first, and everything should fit within that framework. If this priority is observed, one will find more time for Torah study than if one squeezes Torah study into a busy schedule.

If I don’t immerse myself in Torah (by which I would include any and all of the biblical literature), I will be an addict again and I won’t have an office, a family, a purpose, a usefulness in this world at all.

Practical Notes

(1) Everyone is different. Find your helpful habits of holiness. Prayer. Repeating a verse or thought to internalize it. Reading scripture and/or commentary. Engaging in acts of service. Giving. We might all have different ways of connecting with God and putting our selfish drives in their proper place.

(2) It may seem that work crowds out Torah. But a little Torah strategically at various points of the day can put work in perspective. It’s not the amount of time that matters but the priority of concentration. When we see work in light of Torah instead of Torah in light of work, then we have found the balance.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christian, ethics, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Torah and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to J-BOM: Striving for the Ethical Life

  1. judahgabriel says:

    >> If I don’t attend three meetings a day, I will drink again and I won’t have an office at all.

    That really resonated with me. Thanks for posting this, Derek. I’m going to renew my studies.

  2. Just a tid bit for those who have never been to AA. AA is very much a spiritual journey. They tell you up front, that if you do not believe in a higher power, you don’t stand a chance at sobriety. It is part relating with fellow addicts about struggling with sobriety, and part drawing strength from a fellowship with other believers. All meetings end in prayer, so he was praying at least three times a day for strength. There’s power in prayer bro!

  3. Pingback: April J-BOM: Update on my LACK of participation… :( « Craving Communion

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