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Real Cardiac Jews

Torah Talk on Ekev 5779

Have you heard about the new movement in Judaism? It’s not Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, or even Reconstructionist or Renewal. It’s “cardiac Jews.” You know—“I’m Jewish in my heart.” While we usually think of this as a kind of abdication, meaning “I'm Jewish in my heart but I don’t do anything about it in my actual life,” there is one sense in which being a cardiac Jew can have real meaning.

In the middle of our weekly Torah portion of Ekev a great question is asked: “What does the Lord your God ask of you? “That you have awe of the Lord your God, and walk in all of God’s ways and love God, and serve the Lord your God will all your heart and all your soul.” But it then follows this wonderful spiritual and moral instruction with a puzzling passage in which it tells us to do something physically impossible. We are commanded to “circumcise the foreskin of our hearts.” This is a new kind of berit milah, and one that smacks of flat-out self-murder.

Circumcise our hearts? How are we to do that, with a flint knife on top of an Aztec Temple? And how could that possibly relate to the moral commandments we have been given in this portion, which form the core of our Deuteronomic covenantal connection to the Ethical God?

If we were to do that actual act, circumcising the heart, cut off a flap of the essential human organ, we would die, no matter how skilled the mohel. So it must be a metaphor. In fact, this passage defines the fact that the Torah was never meant to be read purely literally, and makes it very clear that the Torah is, and always was, a teaching device to create and focus moral and spiritual direction, not a simplistic piece of ancient lore intended to be taken literally.

So what does this metaphor mean? It means that to truly love God, and walk in God’s ways, and to serve God, and to love our fellow human beings, we must change.

“Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts” teaches us to open our hearts to God, to holiness, and to goodness. In order to be able to do what God asks in the ethical covenant of Deuteronomy we must cut away a certain layer that exists there. We must remove the hard casing we construct over our innate humanity, the armor of ego and self-interest and self-importance that build up out of our insecurity, or out of overconfidence. We must find a way to cut away the arrogance of the eternal critic and the cool hostility of the perpetual cynic. We must remove the snide pleasure of a circulator of Lashon HaRa, and the self-righteous anger of the eternally injured.

We must take our heads out of the equation for a bit, shut off the controlling negativity of the brain and let our hearts express the depth of feeling and empathy within them.

It is a kind of spiritual brit milah that Ekev teaches.

When we remove the hard casing around our hearts, when we perform this spiritual milah, we change ourselves for the better. For then we can open our hearts and feel, and know, that God is good, and desires good—that what God wants is something we can offer. That the various ways that Ekev advocates of exploring how to fulfill God’s desires are really no more than a means to creating good in the world: one path, of kindness, ethics, and personal respect. This is the heart of the matter. This is the lesson of the heart.

On this Shabbat, and over the coming week, may we each learn to listen to our own hearts, to get our heads out of the way long enough to touch that holiness within us. And then we may become truly cardiac Jews—Jews in our heart, leading us to become truly Jewish, in the best way, in all the other aspects of our lives.

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