Empty Words & Meaningless Acts

jeremiah bullfrog

“Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches.               

But let him that boasts exult in this, that he understands and knows me, for I am the Lord Who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:22-23).

This Shabbat, Jews all over the world will be reading chapters seven and eight of The Book of Jeremiah.  In these chapters, the prophet describes the land the Israelites will live in if they return to G-d’s ways:

5 For if you improve your ways and your deeds, if you perform judgment between one man and his fellowman,  
6 [if] you do not oppress a stranger, an orphan, or a widow, and you do not shed innocent blood in this place, and you do not follow other gods for your detriment,  
7 I will allow you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave your forefathers from days of yore to eternity. (Jeremiah 7:5-7).  

Jeremiah tells the Israelites that they “talk the talk”, praising G-d in the Temple, but they are not walking the walk:”

9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, offer up to Baal, and follow other gods that you know not,  
10 And will you come and stand before Me in this house, upon which My name is called, and say, “We are saved,” in order to commit all these abominations?

These chapters from Jeremiah are read after the weekly Torah reading for this Shabbat, Tsav, which is Vayikra 7:1 -8:36.  In this Torah parsha, G-d gives Moses precise details concerning the three daily offerings to be made in the Temple by the Kohanim. By combining these two readings, the rabbis are presenting us with the ages old debate of Creed versus Deed.  Which is more important, what you believe or what you do?

Moralists, ethicists, theologians, philosophers, believers, and non-believers have debated this question for centuries.  For some, as long as you believe in G-d, then you actions cannot be immoral.  For others, it does not matter what you believe in, or even that you believe at all, as long as you perform good deeds.  The readings for this Shabbat seem to imply that for the rabbis, the answer to this question of which is more important, creed or deed, is a resounding “Yes!”

What Tsav and Jeremiah present us is not creed v deed but rather empty words and meaningless acts.  They warn us of performing ritual for ritual’s sake and avowing faith without putting that faith into action.  This is what Abraham Joshua Heschel defines as “dogma:”

[A] graven image which [man] worshipped, to which he prayed.  He would rather believe in dogmas than in G-d, serving them not for the sake of heaven but for sake of a creed, the diminutive of faith. (Man is not Alone, p.169)

Like Jeremiah, Heschel warns against belief for belief’s sake. “Creeds may change, develop and wither away,” he says, “while the substance of faith remains the same in all ages” (p.170).  Creeds requires only belief, while faith requires action.  In other words, it is not enough to believe in G-d if you do not live in the image of G-d (i.e. with love, justice, and mercy).

Say what you want, believe in what you want, but put those words and those beliefs into action.  You cannot have one without the other.

Shabbat Shalom.

2 responses to “Empty Words & Meaningless Acts

  1. The question of creed or/vs. deed is often divisive for Christians. The book of James that calls for “faith without works is dead” in contrast to any number of scriptures used to contradict James citing how works-based righteousness is sinful/heretical. For me, the “or” and “versus” presents a false choice or, at the very least, an unnecessary choice. Both are essential, one without the other is diminished.

    Liked by 1 person

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