In Praise of Irreverence

“The chief rabbi of the shtetl (small Jewish town), a sage renowned throughout the land as the greatest mind in Jewish thought, is approached by two young Seekers of Truth. They have traveled for weeks, a great distance, on foot, in order to sit at his feet.

    “Rabbi,” asks one, eager for wisdom. “Why can’t we eat pork?”

    The Rabbi reels back and, smacking his hand to his forehead, exclaims, “We can’t?    


     Award winning author and self-proclaimed curmudgeon David Rakoff, pokes fun at his Jewish religion with this story of a rabbi who should know that a good Jew doesn’t eat pork. Using humor to make his point, Rakoff proclaims the importance of not taking religious rules too seriously.

     Perhaps the rabbi was truly wise and not surprised by the censure against eating pork, but knowing his questioners  were expecting a wise and learned response to their inquiry, and that they were confined by a legalistic understanding of Judaism, his intent was to shock them into a different and more liberating way of thinking. This may also be the point of the iconoclastic Buddhist saying “What did the master say to the hot dog vender? I’ll take one with everything!” And it may have been the impact Jesus wanted to have on his followers when he, despite it’s being forbidden, performed healings on the Sabbath, when he told parables with unlikely heroes (Good Samaritan), and when he paradoxically claimed that the last shall be first, and the greatest serves the rest.

     Whether in the realm of religion or any other aspect of life, we can easily become rigid in our understanding about how we are to live. Without intending to do so, we can find ourselves thinking/believing/acting small about matters that are boundless, contenting ourselves with keeping the letter of the law rather than living its spirit.

     There can be a reassuring sense of security and comfort when we comply with conventional ways of living, but like the “Seekers of Truth” in Rakoff’s story, we may sometimes need a wake-up call, we may have to be shocked, have the rug pulled out from under us, be blind-sided by a larger truth in order to become more fully alive.

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