What is “religious”?

What is the measure of a proper religious life? Is it the number of mitzvot someone performs? How strict one’s observance is? A spiritual aura? Rabbi Yitzhak Magriso (Turkey, 18th C.) in his Ladino commentary to Pirkei Avot, offers us a profound insight into this question as he comments upon the following mishnah: “(Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai) said to his students, ‘go out and see, what is the good way that a person should cling to?…’” (Avot 2:13). Rabbi Magriso explains: “These students did not remain stagnant, rather were always renewing their spiritual practice”. They did this based on the guidance of their renowned teacher, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who, taught them “do not be satisfied with what you’ve achieved already in the house of study, rather, go amongst the people and see what problems need repairing and as a result you will also have repaired yourselves”. This beautiful expression offers us the wisdom that sometimes our growth comes from focusing on others’ needs, not our own.

It is at this point that Rabbi Magriso’s commentary turns to address our opening question. He argues that this idea of working for the needs of others and finding our own transformation within that work, is an idea that runs throughout Tanakh in verses such as those in the prophet Jeremiah that say, “Thus says the Lord: stand at the roads, see and inquire into the ways of the world. Find out  what the good way is and walk upon it!” (Jeremiah 6). Finally, he takes us back to our ancestor Jacob after his wrestling with the angel. As Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, he is told “for you have striven with divine beings and humankind, and you have succeeded”. Focusing on the order of the words, Rabbi Magriso teaches, “only when you have succeeded on behalf of the people is it a sign that you have achieved completion”. 

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