Off the ladder, into the tree: models of religious growth in Judaism

The metaphor of a ladder is employed often within orthodox Judaism as a way of visualising an individual’s religious journey through life. I believe that the use of this model reveals an all-or-nothing approach to personal ideology and practice which I don’t feel accurately represents the religious experience of most individuals. I think that a better metaphor could be used in its place, that of a tree. Both the ladder and the tree are famous already in Judaism, the former for its significance in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12-15), when the patriarch saw angels descending and ascending a ladder reaching to Heaven as he slept, the latter from such verses as the one in Proverbs which proclaims “it [the Torah] is a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18). I believe we need to perform a little mental manoeuvre and jump from the ladder to the tree.

Firstly, though, what does the ladder metaphor mean, and why is it popular? Many, I feel, like to place an emphasis on linear progression in religious observance. Each act of observance or facet of belief might be represented by a rung of our ladder. A person is on one rung. All that is on the rungs below them they believe or practice. All that is on the rungs above them they do not. Yet. It is, however, their goal to achieve, bit by bit, the belief in or observance of whatever is still above them. However, I believe this is problematic. Consider trying to summarise a person’s entire life – opinions, ideals, actions – as fitting into one of a few finite categories which will describe and explain them precisely. How many of the subtle nuances of which their life consists must we first disregard in order that this process be effective? Because something must be the one factor which overrides all the others and determines first and foremost how the person is categorised, at the expense of other factors considered less important or relevant.

Making this determination depends, of course, on personal or societal values. For example, imagine that a person’s hair colour is considered to be their most important trait. Thus, this person is a blonde, that person a red-head. All other traits, both physical and character-defining, are now subordinated to this one. As people base certain prejudices on this one specific trait, the individuals thus categorised, no matter what their other characteristics, are vulnerable to these prejudices, for example the dumb blonde or the red-head who is mocked for their ginger hair. It is here that a trait becomes a type, a category of person. They are no longer a person who has blonde hair, or a person who has red hair. The trait begins to define the person. It does so by influencing how such people are conceptualised, both by those around them and by the people themselves. Aware of these categories, and seen by others as a member of a certain type, the individual begins to interact as a member of that type, and others are further justified in interacting with them as if they were a member of that type. Either may precede the other, but both are self-perpetuating, reinforcing one another in a cycle. This is similar to repeatedly telling a child that he or she is a good or a bad person, and treating them accordingly: the child will often begin to see him or herself in that way, and the label will have become deterministic and self-fulfilling.

As with our blonde or red-head, so with our type of Jew. How can we subordinate the multitudinous facets of the religious experience to one aspect? How can we place a complex person into a limited, and, it will become apparent, limiting, category? The problems of the ladder can be further explained by looking at the categories of religious observance which might be used to sum up a person. For example, someone on a certain rung of the ladder might be expected to observe a certain standard of kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), maintain a corresponding standard of Shabbat (Sabbath) observance, have corresponding attitudes towards sni’ut (modesty of dress and behaviour), maintain a corresponding degree of tefillah (prayer) observance, and have a corresponding conception of spirituality and the metaphysical aspects of Judaism. However, here the word ‘corresponding’ is misleading: such correspondences across differing levels of stringencies within these aspects would be very difficult to assert.

The categories proposed by those employing the ladder metaphor assume that the rung on which a person places themselves, or, more commonly, is placed by others, determines how that person interacts with all the others. When on rung four, for example, the person has mastered and incorporates into their life all that is on rungs one, two and three. They have yet to achieve the ideas or practices of rungs five, six, etc. However, these levels assume to incorporate too many different facets of a person’s potential observance; for example, kashrut, Shabbat observance, sni’ut, spirituality and tefillah observance, as listed above, are all facets of Judaism to which one may relate differently. Furthermore, within each of these categories lie more categories. For example, with kashrut. Does a person keep kosher only by not eating pork? By not eating non-kosher meat? Do they eat ‘veggie-kosher’ (as long as the food is vegetarian they assume it to be sufficiently kosher)? Do they separate meat and milk? Do they accept milk that hasn’t been specifically supervised? Do they require that everything has a hechsher (a mark signifying rabbinic supervision of the product)? Do they mind where the hechsher comes from or will they only accept one or two authorities? With laws of modesty also: does a woman cover her elbows, knees and collarbones? Or even neck and ankles? But what if she wears trousers? Is a person stringent regarding kol isha (a man not listening to a woman singing)? And to what extent? Are they shomrei negiya (not touching the opposite sex)? And in what circumstances? Encountering any person with a less than conventional combination of these factors causes problems for the ladder model.

Many people are surprised to come across otherwise very religious orthodox people who may be less than honest in business dealings, or who gossip about others. But should this lead us to call into question every other facet of their observance, no matter how stringently and carefully observed? This is surely not fair, and denies an individual the credit, and the dignity, which they deserve for their other practices. These may be the individual’s personal failings, of which we are all prone to one or two, and we may choose not to look to such a person as a role model for those particular aspects of our lives. Nevertheless, an individual’s failings should not detract from their strengths and good deeds in other areas; and of course, these strengths do not condone or make more acceptable their less enviable characteristics. Likewise, a less religious or non-orthodox Jew may be ethically faultless, and believe this to exempt them from other prescribed actions such as Shabbat or kashrut. They feel they don’t need to do this, that, or the other, because they’re a good person. However, just as the lack of these particular observances should not encourage any detraction from their high ethical standing, the ethical standing itself certainly does not exempt such an individual from Shabbat or kashrut observance. As with the religious orthodox person, the less religious or non-orthodox person’s lack of observance in certain areas should not lead to a dismissal of their strengths, and those strengths themselves do not make their weaknesses more acceptable.

The sub-categories within any category of observance described above may break down still further, until the only constants which can be compared are the individual decisions an individual person makes in their life. Relationships between any of these factors are not always necessary. Instead of the ladder metaphor, then, we begin to see a tree emerging from our picture. Instead of the vertical linearity of the ladder’s rungs, these factors now assume independent, horizontal existences. The branches representing major facets divide down further into the aforementioned subcategories, and further still from them to the individual decisions which shape the observance of the larger, more overarching areas of life. For example, one branch may represent kashrut observance, and from it grow the subcategories discussed above. This metaphor provides a model allowing for greater sophistication when describing not just actual behaviour, but also ideal behaviour. If the ladder is abandoned in favour of the tree, the pressures on a person to adhere to any pre-configured ideal are lessened. A person might thus avoid constriction into a restricting, imposed norm, and be better equipped to decide for themselves when they wish to adopt any particular area of religious observance, and to what extent. They will not rush up the ladder, but steadily climb the tree, moving from branch to branch, horizontally as well as vertically. With the need to adopt a blanket set of ideals or practices – any specific rung – gone, the growth of a person can proceed more naturally, as the growth of the tree itself. Because the ladder, after all, is merely dead wood.


3 thoughts on “Off the ladder, into the tree: models of religious growth in Judaism

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this, but I think one aught to make a separation between observance that is Bein Adam L’chavero (between man and his fellow man) and Bein Adam L’makom (between man and the divine). In terms of one’s connection to the divine, I would say the tree model works very well indeed. After all, as Koheleth tell us, “there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). It then follows that by definition, a righteous man is someone who is never fully observant, and even if you were to use the flawed ladder analogy – he would never reach the top.

    Yet I think there is a strong tradition within Judaism that in terms of Bein Adam L’chavero there are certain minimums. An inadequate amount of derech eretz (lit. ‘the way of the land’, but with a more general meaning of basic human morality) removes one from the Jewish community. The person who has spoken loshan hara (slander, or maligning someone) is afflicted with leprosy and removed from the community. As is someone who kills, or deliberately desecrates the Shabbat in a public space despite warnings to desist, and so on. So I would dispute that the ultra-orthodox man who cheats in his business dealings is analogous to an ethical secular Jew who keeps kosher but not shabbat, for example. There is much more room for manoeuvre in the private space between man and God, but much less so in the space between man and his neighbour.

    Posted by Joe Miller | 12 March, 2012, 10:26 am
  2. Apologies for the awful grammar in that post – was in a rush. (My excuse and I’m sticking to it).

    Posted by Joe Miller | 12 March, 2012, 10:35 am
  3. Hey Joe, thanks for this interesting response; I had not considered this demarcation, and it is supported nicely by Solomon’s Kohelet. However, I’m not sure the minimums of bein adam l’chavero translate into a ladder model. Consider someone who takes pains to offer hospitality to guests and strangers within their community, but can’t resist the temptation to speak badly about some other people, or vice versa. Or someone who gives charity generously but is unscrupulous in their business dealings, or vice versa. Should we not acknowledge that they do some good for their fellow man, but lack in other aspects of their conduct? And should the one colour our view of the other, such that we think less harshly of the bad because of the good, or more harshly of the good because of the bad? I definitely agree with your last sentence, and it is very nicely put, but I still think these actions lend themselves better to the tree metaphor than to the ladder.

    Posted by Michael Kay | 17 March, 2012, 10:55 pm

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