Monday, December 18, 2017

Altruism and Avoda Zara

A guest post by Chava Safrin

I had a conversation with a friend this week. She told me that anyone who deliberately didn't keep Torah and mitzvos was guilty of avoda zara. Why? Well, keeping Torah/mitzvos is a testament to God's, His creation of the world, and His active involvement in the Universe. Denying that to do, instead, whatever one wishes is self serving. Self serving, of course, is putting the wants, needs, and desires of the self before the will of God. And that is avoda zara (according to my friend and, apparently, Paul in Romans in the New Testament).

That’s a great kiruv argument towards following the Torah, right?

Only it relies on the idea that everything we do on our own is from some base desire that's hedonistic and selfish - our desires are essentially controlling us. It is only by subjugating our will to the will of God do we experience real freedom.

Is that even true? Are we always selfish when we do things we want and always selfless when we serve God?

For that question, I looked at the concept of altruism - the selfless concern for the well-being of others. Is it really selfless? Sure, donating hours of your time serving food to homeless people at a soup kitchen is nice, but is it truly a negation and subjugation of the self?

I don't think it is. On some level, none of us ever really do things we don't want to do. We may not enjoy the experience we are in, but we may be looking for the long term gain, the health benefit, the later payout. Essentially, there is reward for the things we do even if the thing itself isn't immediately rewarding. That doesn't mean the person feeding the homeless is evil or selfish - his actions are still beneficial for others - but he does it because he wants to do it.

We always do things because we want to do them.

Including the choice to serve God.

For some people, it's easy. They enjoy Torah, they love all the mitzvos. They find meaning in every commandment and they are happy to do it. For others, it might be harder to follow all the mitzvos. But maybe they're trying to avoid punishment, or attempting to have a relationship with their Creator, or doing it because they don't want to get in trouble with their parents, or they really need to fit in with their community.

But its always a choice. And it's always something they want to do because they want to do it.

Is there a real difference, then, between the person who does what they want and the person living a Torah life? Is there something inherently more valuable about the choices made in either lifestyles? Can we really say that one is fully subjugating his will to do the will of God?

I don't think there's any difference. But maybe that's just my desires controlling me.

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