Delivered by Julia Berg, Rabbinic Student, on January 31, 2020
You want to know what stresses me out? Deli menus. There’s no way I’m alone in this. Delis are amazing, don’t get me wrong. I do love delis. They’re some of the few places that know just how amazing French toast is when made with Challah. They serve breakfast all day long! Matzah ball soup year round. There’s something about the deli vibe that just feels comforting. However, when the waiter hands me a menu I do tense up a little. Can you blame me? It’s neverending! A whole page just to detail all the types of eggs I might order, another half page for sides, at least two pages in total for all of the breakfast options. And I’m not even sure if I want breakfast! Everything looks delicious, but what if I regret the decision I do make? Do I want to commit to a sandwich the size of my head? It’s an ongoing struggle to make this kind of decision.
But I have good news for all of us who also flounder in the face of deli menus. Our Jewish sages tell us that one should not delight in rendering decisions! In fact, the one who whose heart is presumptuous in making a decision is foolish, wicked and arrogant! To that I say, bring on the 10 page deli menus!! But why? Shouldn’t I be so relieved once I’ve made my decision and the menu is finally taken away from me? Shouldn’t I celebrate after the hard work I’ve put into making my decision?
Well, yes. I think it’s the process that was important. I gave every cuisine a fair shot, weighing my options carefully. Although in the end I did have to eliminate certain cuisines entirely so that I could make my order, I could not make a decision without reservations.
That’s what reviewing Jewish text is like. It’s long and there’s so much from which to choose! It becomes fairly clear that making decisions isn’t its strong suit or even its purpose. Take a page of Talmud, for example. The center paragraph holds the original text that is intended to be analyzed and the majority of the page is just everyone else’s opinion on the matter. It’s a page full of indecision!
Not everyone was for this approach though. In the 13th century, Maimonides, a Spanish Jewish scholar, tried to tell Spanish Jews EXACTLY how to live their Jewish lives and what to believe. He left no room for argument. He insisted that his way was right. He seemed quite happy to make these decisions for the Jewish people. Let me tell you, it didn’t go over so well. Some Jewish communities BANNED the book. Maimonides came off as arrogant. Sure, he was a learned man, proficient in several professional fields, but who was he to be so sure of these lifestyle decisions for people? To this day it is an important text, but not without other Jewish texts and opinions alongside it.
A couple of centuries later in the mystical city of Tzfat in Israel, another learned man came along and tried to do a similar thing to Maimonides. His name was Joseph Karo and he wrote the Shulchan Aruch, which translates as “the set table.” By this, he meant to metaphorically set the table for a Jewish lifestyle by creating a Jewish code. Most Jews were living in the diaspora and were living in kingdoms where they usually had to hide their Judaism. As a result, they were forgetting how to be Jewish. He wanted to help them out. So he tried to make some of these lifestyle decisions for Jews. So far this sounds pretty similar to Maimonides’ approach. And this legal code was similarly debated, however Karo took a slightly different, more palatable approach. He brought in other arguments and although he came to a decision himself, he was not expecting Jewish people to blindly follow his opinion. Although he was making a point to create a work of decisions, he was not necessarily DELIGHTING in these decisions.
You probably know the old saying “two Jews, three opinions.” We’ve never been known for our absolute decision-making. And really I think that is part of why I love Judaism so much. Maimonides can have his approach to leading a Jewish life, Joseph Karo can have another that he supports, and at the end of the day, many of us will likely not agree. Of course there are the parts of Judaism that we do agree on, the identifiers that make us Jewish. But the how behind them seem to be largely up for interpretation as they have been for years and years.
So yes, it is okay if you are indecisive and don’t delight in making decisions. But as I mentioned, there is a balance. If we only ever wallowed in our indecision, we’d never get ANY delicious deli food. In fact, we would miss out on a lot of the joys of life. So, whether you need to become more confident in your decision making or you need to delight less in making quick decisions, there is still room for balance. You can weigh your options, consider the different sides, and simply be content. You need not be smug. Really you just need to be at peace with yourself.
And not that you asked, but I think I’d like to order the challah French toast.