COMMENTARY: The Pursuit of Human Perfection

Jews all over the world are in the midst of a 10-day period called the High Holy Days. It starts with Rosh Hashanah, a celebration of a new year, and ends with Yom Kippur, a solemn day of atonement.

The overriding theme is the pursuit of human perfection and the obligation of each person to continually assess and improve his or her character, or as Mordecai Kaplan put it, “to seek reconstruction of our personalities in accordance with the highest ethical possibilities of human nature.”

It’s more than making New Year’s resolutions. The idea is to pause from our daily lives and sit in objective judgment of ourselves, to examine the state of our souls, to hold ourselves accountable, and to acknowledge any gaps between our conscience and our conduct, between the standards we profess and the actions we perform.

We may not always have the moral strength to bridge the gap between our ideals and our actions, but we have the moral duty to try. Our sins and shortcomings are compounded when we ignore or accept them.

Jews are given four specific tasks: 1) reflect, 2) repent, 3) seek forgiveness, and 4) forgive those who ask forgiveness. Although the process is clothed in religious ritual, these concepts are equally powerful in a purely secular context.

Religionists and secularists agree that humanity is unique among living creatures in the capacity to understand good and evil and to choose between them. Whether we call it morality or ethics, whether we think in terms of our souls or our character, all who have pondered the purpose and potential of human life conclude that a virtuous life is the best life.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

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Comments 14

  1. Your commentaty is beautiful. My prejudice isn’t. The majority of Jews that I have had contact with are from New York and most of my experiences with them certainly don’t seem to address the four tasks of the Jews. They come across to me as pushy, rude, self-serving, inconsiderate, and subscribe to the love of money and status as their God. And when they are of a friendly nature, it is often when they want something from someone else. I’m regret, yet must admit, that this has been my percceived experience. I realize my critical mindset here and realize that I haven’t, so far, gotten past this attidude. It is perpetually reinforced. I am not a religionist but would surely want to become a Jew if the Jewish subscribers lived their religion, not just profess it. It sure would be a help to me on my path of life. I sure admit that I have enough trouble walking my talk, and I don’t need to include myself in a group that is as hypocritical as the Jewish transplants and visitors that I experience in the Southern Nevada desert. It’s arid enough here without adding spiritually arid individuals into my life.

    1. JB, I married a New York Jew, and I completely understand how you came to your observation of this group of people. I myself am not Jewish, and had never encountered any Jewish person until I met the man who would become my husband. I too, have come to certain conclusions about New York Jews based on first hand knowledge and experience. Because I am/was not Jewish, the woman who became my mother-in-law was incredibly rude, self-serving, inconsiderate, pushy, and believed the world revolved around her, and she never let me forget that she was unhappy about her son marrying me and one of the main reasons she was unhappy was because I am not only not Jewish but also because I am not “white” (I am Chinese). I did everything to try and please her. I agreed to be married in a temple even though I was raised Baptist. I allowed our two boys to have their circumcisions performed outside of a hospital environment for a traditional naming ceremony. I have faithfully cooked a Passover dinner (and all the other holidays’ meals and rituals) for the past twenty some years and all our children went through their religious training (bar and bat mitzvahs). She was the meanest and stingiest and worst kind of mother-in-law and unloving grandmother you could imagine (she told our middle child, a son, that he was “too brown” when he was visiting them one summer, and our son was around 9 years old at the time. His feelings were deeply hurt). I realized that I could only control my actions, and not hers, and that is how I coped with her prejudice against me. She died seven years ago from lung cancer (life long smoker), and though I am relieved for my sake as well as my childrens’ to be unburdened by her hate, I do feel badly that my husband lost his mother. I can only think that I received a mother-in-law like her in this lifetime because God figured I could handle it. Isn’t there a saying that God will only give you what you can handle?

      1. CG … Your mother-inlaw was a good teacher to let us know how not to present ourselves to the world. We all want to love and be loved, yet we seem to go about it in the craziest of ways. It is certainly difficult for me to have respect for people that practice that type of behavior. For me, I need to refocus on my errors instead of others, and try to make my focus to present a “teach only love” attitude. That gives me more work to do than I think I can accomplish in one lifetime. To fully get over my Christian fundamentalist teachings and the negative attitudes and their effects on me is, in itself, a full time challenge. In your situation as in mind, don’t we have to ask ourself, What lesson of value do I need to learn from this experience? I remind myself that it’s not what happens to us, it’s what we do about it. That’s what counts! We can handle it! We can handle anything that comes our way! Thank you for sharing your story. Peace!

  2. JB, truly I share your position on this matter. Nevertheless, as it is with Christians so it is with the Jews and other forms of practices. Many of us Christians are just bearing that name christian. But my reflection on this is that my focus is what (the message) the writer is trying to convey and how it could help me in my daily life as a human being seeking perfection. How about that? Point rather to self than to others.

  3. Realities such as love (not romantic, but that which puts others first), truth (objective), morality, honesty, generosity, forgiveness, repentance, and self control are all problematic for us as human beings, because we are finite and broken.
    How do we handle that? In my opinion we chose some system to deal or cope with our failure. For example, we use religion to feel better about our selves (I did this bad thing, so I will do some good things to make up for it). Sometimes we simply redefine the terms to suit our own lifestyles or simply deny such virtues exist and suppress the truth.
    The more positive approach is to focus on our success and compare ourselves to those who are worse, but again this does not really fix us. This is of course why religion (Do’s and Don’ts), spiritualism/mysticism, and what is currently the rage in secular society relativism/subjectivism (agnosticism and atheism) are popular; they are simply coping mechanisms, so any coping mechanism is in fact destined to fall short as none of them bring the transforming love we need (truth & forgiveness), nor the power to change, heal, and grow and no definition of what the goal is. These are all mechanisms which sooner or later fall short.
    There are more mechanisms for coping with our brokenness, but only one honest response really exists. And perhaps these realities are supposed to help us come to that conclusion, to say, “I am broken and finite and I can’t fix myself. I have used religion, spiritualism, and have personalized the truth and denied and suppressed the truth that I am broken.” Now, with all the coping mechanisms aside I stand at the threshold of a discovery, GOD. Unfortunately, we are always competing with him for control, so he is often the last option.

  4. I will not allow the imperfections I observe in others who proclaim or aspire to perfection prevent me from trying to attain perfection. I will show understanding of the imperfection of all of us on our journey to that level of perfection we so desire. Perfection and holiness is of God who ask us to ” Be perfect or holy as our father who is in heaven”. The fear of failure should never make us not to try. But then I appreciate and feel the views of JB.

    1. Thank you for your kind and spiritually motivated response. I can certainly agree with you. T believe the real “rub” with me and with what I wrote is that so many hide behind their religion, professing rather than practicing. And they often appear to pedestal themself because of their subscribing to their religious persuasion. I admit that I am contaminated. I was reared in a religious fundamentalist and it is way to easy to be critical and judgmental myself. Oh my, the lessons life brings to our attention when we study, practice, and learn to respond to Spirit! Onward!

  5. I seek progress rather than perfection. I measure that by how far I have come on my journey of growth rather than how far I am from reaching my destination.

  6. Romans 9:30-32 says there are two types of righteousness: a faith righteousness and a righteousness that comes by the Law. Righteousness by the Law is a righteousness based on performance. Another way to say it is “self-righteousness.” The truth is, nobody can perform well enough to get Law righteousness, because the Bible says in Isaiah 64:6 that “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” And James 2:10 says that if you keep the Law and yet offend in one point, you are guilty of breaking the entire thing. In other words, if you did ninety-nine out of a hundred things right and one thing wrong, according to the Law of righteousness, you would be unrighteous. BUT! If you put your faith in Jesus, you would receive His righteousness—faith righteousness—even though you did ninety-nine out of a hundred things wrong! What a deal!

    There are many people today who wouldn’t consider themselves to be seeking after Law righteousness, but they really are. Their only hope of entering into heaven instead of hell is that they go to church, they try to be good, they live up to some standard of morality. That’s what this is talking about when it says the Jews weren’t seeking righteousness by faith but by the Law. They were trying to earn what God had given as a gift.

    Isaiah 29:13
    The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
    Mark 7:8-13
    8 For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men[c] —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”…..13 making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”
    James 1:26-27
    26 If anyone among you[a] thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one’s religion is useless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.
    Hebrews 10:1
    For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.
    Colossians 2:8
    8 Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
    16 So let no one judge you …..regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. 18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not[d] seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind….
    20 Therefore,[e] if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—…..according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.

    1. Interesting how religious nuts quote scriptures to puff themselves up, making them right at the expense of everyone else being wrong if they don’t believe the same as they do. It really irks me when Christians tell me what the Lord says. That’s your belief, your religion. That doesn’t make it truth. You can believe it to be the truth if you choose. But why does your truth have to be everyone else’s truth? You can back everything you believe with scriptures taken out of context. And someone else can counter you by doing the same. I am so glad that I removed myself from religious doctrine and dogma. It’s all made up and the players are imaginary. They say that they love Jesus, but wouldn’t know him if they saw him … if he even was a him. Should a non-religious person have so many hallucinations about imaginary people and things, the mental health professionals would prescribe them antipsychotic medications.
      Now I’ve likely really threatened GRL. I’ll likely get a reply that directly or indirectly makes me wrong. And that person will pray for me, again making that person right and me wrong. Sick!

  7. I am amazed at how so many managed to turn this into a religious discussion when the very basis of the commentary was that tenets of a particular religion can have practical application in the non-religious sector and that we could likely all benefit from that personal, internal reflection no matter what our belief system may be. This isn’t about whether the Jews we know abide by this tenet or whether Christians we know practice what they preach. Stop reflecting your expectations on others and judging them – turn it inward and judge yourself. Internal reflection and personal growth, that is the message here.

    1. Cindy, that was the message YOU received from the commentary. It is apparent that others got a different message … or messages. Namaste.

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