Religion is Not (Just) Private

When my two kids are playing nicely together, few things make me happier. But every so often, a big argument erupts between the two of them, and one will say, “You should have known that’s what I wanted!” And my wife or I will have to explain to our kids that, unfortunately, we can’t read another person’s mind. We remind them that the only way to share what you want, to express regret for a mistake, or to ask a favor, is to let the other person know.

That can be a challenge – we are the only ones with access to our own minds, and our attempts to translate our “mentalese” into language and actions are rarely perfect. There’s a private mental life that we all have, but all others can respond to are the words or actions they can see or hear.

In this week’s double portion, Nitzavim-Vayeielch, the end of chapter 29 draws a distinction between “concealed” acts and “overt” acts:



‘Concealed acts concern our God ; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching.’

Commentators wonder about how both we and God are to judge these two different types of actions. While there are several explanations for this verse, one is that we humans can’t judge someone’s private or secret acts; only God can do that. That seems obvious. The more subtle implication is that it also means that it then becomes incumbent on us as human beings to judge those actions, both for good and for ill.

So much of the American view of religion is that it’s a private relationship between ourselves and God. But as we move into the High Holy Days season, we’re reminded that we confess our misdeeds communally, publicly, and out loud. While God is the only one who knows what we are thinking and feeling, it’s the community that can tell us how we have experienced others’ actions.

When we do hurt others, our natural inclination is to explain why we did what we did. What’s more important – and what’s harder – is to consider how our behavior has impacted them. In an op-ed, psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains the challenge of trying to understand private thoughts when all we can see are public actions. He shares a fascinating study about the interplay between private thoughts and public actions and speech:

Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

In a study conducted by William Swann and colleagues at the University of Texas, pairs of volunteers played the roles of world leaders who were trying to decide whether to initiate a nuclear strike. The first volunteer was asked to make an opening statement, the second volunteer was asked to respond, the first volunteer was asked to respond to the second, and so on. At the end of the conversation, the volunteers were shown several of the statements that had been made and were asked to recall what had been said just before and just after each of them.

The results revealed an intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it. In other words, volunteers remembered the causes of their own statements and the consequences of their partner’s statements.

All we can examine are our own words and actions that others can see, and we are the only ones who have any window into our own thoughts and feelings. We tend to excuse or explain our own behavior and judge others more harshly. So as we enter into the season of repentance, forgiveness, and repair, let’s remember that while we can always rebuild our private relationship with God, our true religious responsibility is to reflect on how our behavior has impacted others. As the Machzor says, “For sins committed against God, Yom Kippur atones, but for sins committed against another person, Yom Kippur doesn’t atone until they have made peace with one another.”

Now I’m just hoping this is a lesson our kids will be able to remember for 5784, as well.

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