Piety = True Faith?

This will be an interesting post. This is something that I struggle with in regards to my own faith. You could call it “Pharisee Syndrome” and others call people who act like this “Holier than Thou”. How do you obey teachings for the proper reasons and not for the sake of having others say, “Oh look, there goes Boris with his Bible, and annointing oil. I hear he fasts five times a week and carries his prayer rug with him everywhere.” (This is a great exaggeration but you get the point.) To help illustrate this topic I am going to use a couple of stories written by David Kossoff in his book, A Small Town is a World. I will paraphrase and quote as needed to get the point across.

The first story involves the town of Klaneshtetl’s Rabbi, Rabbi Mark. He is a witty fellow with a lot of patience and humor. He is called on one day, by a local rich man and friend, Reuben, to help with the rich man’s son who has become what he would call an ultra ultra orthodox Jew. The young man did not join them for supper than evening since he was fasting and praying. The story reads like this:

Mark met him the next morning. He came to Mark’s pleasant room which looked down on the stable yard covered in snow. The young man was articulate and learned. Widely read. He treated mark with a certain condescension which the Rabbi ignored. mark was looking behind the priggishness for a gleam of humour, of tolerance. It did not seem to be there, and Mark was sad, but last night’s meal had shown a rich vein of laughter in the family. He interrupted the boy’s rather opinionated flow.
‘You dress like an Elder of the old times,’ said Mark.
‘Yes,’ said the young man. ‘Always in white. I dress only in white.’ He carefully listed his pieties. ‘I drink only water. And I mortify myself. I lie naked in the snow, I have sharp nails in my shoes. Daily I have myself whipped on my back in penance.’
‘Look down in the yard,’ said Mark. ‘The carriage horse, who is white from nose to tail, has just drunk water, which is his only drink, and is rolling now in the snow, naked. He wears shoes with sharp nails in and is whipped every day. Tell me,’ said Mark to the young man, ‘what are we looking at, a saint, or a horse?’
The boy drew breath to make a learned reply and then didn’t, and smiled, and Mark felt hopeful. -(pg. 98)

The second story surrounds what is known as the Day of Atonement, when those of the Jewish faith will fast and pray continually for God to forgive them of their sins. Originally this incorporated an animal sacrifice but not in these times. It began at sundown the night before and would last to following day’s sundown, at which time the town would assemble together and pray until the fast was declared complete by the Rabbi. We pick up the story half-way through it…

Mark looked around. How ell he knew the town. Twenty-five years he’d been their Rabbi and he knew everybody. The very poor, the not so poor. The defeated and the successful. The good and the bad. The honest and the rascally. They could be maddening, his flock, with their narrow small-town minds and their dislikes and prejudices and superstitions. And yet, thought Mark, and yet, every now and then…
His gaze fell upon a little man down to his left, quite near. The man was a cobbler. A widower, called Motel. A poor man, whose own boots badly needed the skills he had. He stood now in a large prayer shawl swaying with the others, his eyes closed, lips moving, book in hand. Book? though Mark. Motel with a book? Motel can neither read nor write. A foot measure he can read, nothing else. mark caught a word and bent a little to hear better amidst the drone of prayer.
‘- and I’ve done what I should on this day, Almighty,’ Motel was saying. ‘I’ve listed my sins for forgiveness and atonement. The things I should repent. To be honest, the list doesn’t come to much. Some bad things I’ve wished people who won’t pay me. Som working on the Sabbath when things were bad. Some unkosher food. Compared to what you get up to, Almighty, a nothing. You took my Rachel in childbirth, and the child also. You allow pogroms, wars, pestilence, disease, drought, flood, massacres, wickedness, everything. So listen, Almightly, I’ll tell you! I’ll fogive you and you forgive me.’
Motel opened his eyes and Mark looked away, but Motel knew he’d been heard. The service went on, the sun went down, the ram’s horn rang out and the Fast was over. People wished each other well and went to their homes.
As Mark locked up the synagogue, he saw Motel waiting for him.
The cobbler came closer. ‘Did I do wrong, Rabbi?’ he asked.
‘No,’ said Mark. ‘You were foolish. you let God off too easily. With that list you could have asked forgiveness for the whole town. Come, Motel, come and break your fast with us.’ -(pgs. 184-185)

“Don’t you realize that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is eliminated? But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matthew 15:17-20)

The truth is that we all tend to cover up what we really are thinking or feeling about situations, people, and other things in our lives. We want acceptance. It is much easier to present yourself as an open book. If you find that you don’t like yourself when you do that or that everything that you would say would be offensive if you were to say what you were feeling or thinking then you might want to evaluate your own understanding of the purpose of life. Is it to be bitter with everyone because they don’t conform to your standard? Is it to be everybody else’s conscience? When was the last time you talked positively about anyone? Those are the questions that come from the heart.

I enjoyed this post. I hope you do too.

Boris the Illusionist


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