Jewish Spirituality
Volume 18

By way of preface:

Jewish Spirituality - Volume 18

Re: Thoughts on familiarity
Subject: Re: Thoughts on familiarity
By: Mordechai Torczyner

In Volume 17, Scott Spiegler wrote:
>> Familiarity is the great enemy of every feeling of holiness and elevation. When a
>> man stands facing the most elevated and lofty state, and sparks of holy fire are
>> ignited in his spirit, familiarity steals into him and extinguishes the holy embers,
>> one after another, until the fire is wholly crushed.

>This sounds to me like a weaker version of the addage, "Familiarity
>breeds contempt". Though I would want to make the distinction between
>familiarity of this kind and familiarity which lends itself to trust and
>comfort. For example, I may play the guitar and, by virtue of devoted
>practice, may be familiar with the instrument, so that I trust where the
>notes are and feel comfortable finding my way around the fingerboard. I
>would say that this kind of familiarity is a good and valuable thing.

This is precisely the tension which a Jew must face in every aspect of Jewish practice. Simply put, we need familiarity in order to function, but we must reject familiarity in order to function meaningfully.

Take prayer:

As the Rambam explains in the beginning of his explanation of the laws of prayer, the sages saw that people who did not have a formalized prayer structure and liturgy did not pray regularly. Over time, they ceased to pray altogether. Therefore, the prophets and sages convened a council and authored the Shemoneh Esreih, also known as the Amidah. Familiarity becomes a tool - learn a regular liturgy, and its recitation becomes much simpler and less demanding.

On the other hand, we are warned in the Talmud that we may not turn our prayers into a rote practice. Familiarity is the enemy, as it destroys the personal meaning we are supposed to inject into prayer.

As Scott did, I will also use human relationships as an example: A husband understands that his wife would appreciate a visible display of his affection, and he buys her a dozen roses for Shabbos. This is a lovely, spontaneous expression of his affection and appreciation - but what does he do the next week? If he decides to be spontaneous again, and again the following week, without repeating himself, it is fairly clear that he will run out of ideas at some point, or he will find it difficult and skip a week. On the other hand, he could simply buy his wife a dozen roses each week - but will it then have the same meaning as the first time?

I'd like to take Scott's post one step further to the ultimate question - Is it better to be:
A. Familiar and rote, or
B. Spontaneous and inconsistent?

Is it better for the husband to be spontaneous when he can, and otherwise do nothing, or is it better for him to buy his wife a dozen roses each week?
Is it better to daven only when one is able to generate the energy and concentration for meaningful prayer, or is it better to say the words thrice daily even when one cannot properly focus?

In 21st Century America, the answer tends toward choice (B); people prefer heartfelt, if consistent, spontanaeity.

However, Judaism gives a different answer - because Judaism has different parameters.

The American parameters are: "Do you love me? If you don't, I'm not interested."
The Torah's parameters are: "Fulfill my Torah, and love Me."
In other words, Judaism requests action on two levels - action in fulfilling the Mitzvos, even without intent, and then action in dedicating one's heart to Gd.

When we recite Shema, we invoke two levels of responsibility - "VeAhavta," "Love Gd," and "veHayah Im Shamoa Tishmiu…LeAhava…ULeAvdo," "Listen, Love and Serve." Service is practical, not spiritual. The Gemara does say that Gd chiefly desires our hearts - "Rachmana Liba Ba'i," but absent that, Gd wants our deeds.

As such, we are stuck with familiarity - we dare not eliminate it as a tool, and so we must use it, and contend with it as a threat.

Have a good Shabbos,
Mordechai Torczyner

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