I remember making a grave theological error years ago–luckily, nobody was hurt–in a homework assignment. The idea I propounded was that if a person who means no good in a blameworthy act was deflected in doing their evil deed, then as long as their was no harm done to the intended victim, the first person was rendered blameless. I even went so far as to say that a person might plan a dozen murders, but acting out none of them, be guiltless of any crime. I did this under a shameful misreading of Jewish law. Doubtless the misunderstanding was born of a Protestant Christian upbringing which overemphasized the “opposite” of works: faith. Perhaps also I read into it an explanation I read in a book about how good deeds were “works of faith” but did not go into the possibility of evil which lies inactive.
Anyway, having thought about it–and I hope this is not pompous point being made–I have come to the view through study and prayer to realize that mere good deeds are not enough. This is not to say that a person need be Orthodox or even Conservative or Reform within Judaism to attain the point at which our religion aims towards. It is an attitude of prayerfulness which completes practices like keeping Shabbat or keeping Kosher. Whether a person reads the Sefer Haggadah or Walter Bruggeman’s Theology of the Old Testament to complete their religious study, they should approach what they do with an attitude of humility–without this humility all deeds and all prayers are worthless. It is as Buber insists: between each two people there is a third: God. And to reach the true meaning of a scholarly or sacred text, one must always have God in the heart, too… (Of course, as an Orthodox rabbi I had insisted: a person must have good relations with those people they can see in order to have good relations with God whom they cannot see. In another Blog I may discuss Tzedakah. It is as important as studying and prayer but is too important to be made a subsection to them.)
Anyway… the deed which is good begins with the Spirit that is pure of heart. Don’t misunderstand me: none of us is totally pure at heart, nor does God expect us to be. As one Talmudic adage puts it: “An unmarried man lives a life of sin. Sin, is that so? Well, he lives a life of sinful thoughts.” In the old days early marriage was recommended because it would keep unwanted sexual intercourse from happening. I won’t comment on this save to say that in our age young people must be stronger. The point is that a person who loves God and fills the mitzvoth moves towards a pure heart.
The real purity of heart goes beyond sexual purity; it is to love and be loved by God, and to love one’s fellow human beings as one loves oneself. This love is the binding of thought and deed, wish and prayer, intention and action. The one who has achieved Godliness is the one who when the evil instinct suggests a wrong says, “No,” and the idea disappears and when the good instinct says, “Yes,” both begins to do good and then brings that deed to completion. It is true that good intentions are not good enough: to really bring good into fruition a person must work step by step to carry forth their initial aim to a final end. It is as simple as having a recipe and going through the steps–well, perhaps it is not that simple in real life, because of course none of us receive ready-made recipes in real life… The closest thing is the study of our Chumash and prayerbooks… and the acknowledgment that each of us must give ourselves to others. That is the secret of binding a pure heart to the mitzvoth.