So there’s an interesting debate happening in the comments section of the post from last week about niddah/menstruation stuff and halakha in general, and Jordan made a comment that I wanted to respond to, but since it’s kind of a global thing, I thought I’d just address it up here. (Seeing as at least here I’m ba’alat ha-blog and all.)
So here’s the officially unofficial, true-for-at-least-these-five-minutes statement on why I identify as a halakhic Jew. Subject to change without notice. Just don’t get cranky at me at least ’till you read the whole thing, for pete’s sake.
One of the things that I noticed when I first started getting interested in all this Jewy stuff was that, when I did things according to halakha, the halakha was usually smarter than me. The Jewish legal tradition says: no cooking on Shabbat, no writing on Shabbat, no watching TV on Shabbat, no spending money on Shabbat. These are all activities that I generally enjoy (okay, TV really depends, but you get the idea.) What I noticed almost right away is that when I refrained from doing stuff that I WANTED to do, I got something that I really, truly, deeply NEEDED. Not doing the things made space for something else to happen inside the quiet and the stillness. A sort of cellular-level spiritual nourishment, an opportunity to–oh, heck, I’m researching Elijah now, pasok overused or not–hear the still small voice, for once. And there have been plenty of times over the Shabbatot since then when I’ve felt antsy and cranky and like, say, all I wanted to do was go to the movies or check my email or whatever. But my commitment to halakha has kept me from running like a drunk elephant to and fro after my desires. Even though I have been, many times, tempted to do what I felt that I wanted in the moment, instead I was grounded, again and again, into taking care of myself on a much deeper and profound level, making time and space to connect with and care for the Sacred.
So that’s one answer–that halakha and halakic living often gives me what I need on a profound level, that it helps guide me into a more sophisticated spiritual practice than I would be able to invent on my own and/or if I were left up to my own devices and superficial desires. That doesn’t, by the way, mean that it’s always fun. Sometimes in the quiet of Shabbat (for example) I hear for the first time that I’ve been angry or hurt or scared all week long–in the noise and running and activity I can pretty effectively drown that out and repress that knowledge, and if I let myself do whatever I desired also on Shabbat, chances are often pretty good that I’d choose to keep taking in stimuli so that I didn’t have to notice and deal with whatever’s been going on there. When I say halakha is smarter than me, that’s what I mean. I’ve often said that halakha is the monestary–it’s the framework that keeps one’s focus, on a daily and minute level, on one’s relationship to the Divine. It affects every aspect of one’s life for a reason. And yet, it’s portable–with this system, one can live in the monestary and the world at the same time. Finding that balance can be difficult, but that, too, is part of the thing–sitting around the (literal) monestary is relatively easy. Negotiating a rigorous spiritual practice when there are a million tugs in every direction is not, and part of the work to negotiate that is vital to the spiritual process.
Another answer–one that is much more to the core of how I understand things now–is that halakha, for many of the same reasons, is, through its act of connecting the practitioner to the Divine, a form of Divine service itself. Not eating treyf is a form of Divine service, making sure that you say the Shema on time is a form of Divine service, saying the Birkat HaMazon and returning lost objects and building a kosher Sukkah and rending one’s shirt when one hears that a close relative has died–they are all ways of servicing God, both directly and indirectly. Whether or not I “want” to do a specific thing at a specific time becomes less relevant. It’s not All About Me. There’s certainly some stuff in there about ego-nullification and humility in there–which, like the “I gain something from doing this” argument, ultimately places mitzvot observance as a utilitarian value, one that can be replaced if we find another thing that does the same thing. But ultimately I regard mitzvot now as something to be done for their own sake, something to do because to do so is to worship and because I regard myself as commanded. Mitzvot can’t be replaced by anything. In part I follow Rambam who argues that it ultimately doesn’t matter if we find reasons for the mitzvot or not. The reason for mitzvot are mitzvot.
I believe that to align my will with halakha is to align myself with Divine Will. This is how Jews serve God. There are other ways to serve God, and I don’t think Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists and everybody else are not serving God. But that’s not the Jewish way, it’s not what Jews do. I believe that as a Jew I have an obligation to do certain things and to not do other specific things–a hovah, a requirement. This feeling of commandedness (and belief in communal commandedness) doesn’t meant that I’m going to run around throwing rocks at anybody who doesn’t do what I do–a startlingly disporportionate number of my close friends are Jewish and either not Jewishly observant or not halakhically observant. And I can hold my belief in the fact that this is how it works together with the understanding that not everybody thinks that this is the way the world works just fine. As strong as my commitment to this philosophical and religious system is, my commitment both to pluralism theoretically and the people I love more concretely is stronger. This is how I believe it works, and/though (probably fortunately for the universe at large,) I don’t get to decide for everyone. (Of course, when–God willing–I’m a rabbi, I will be making certain kinds of decisions on behalf of whatever community I’m serving, but they will have authorized and empowered me to do so, so I don’t consider that the same thing.)
Why not, one might ask, just do the things in Judaism that one likes and feels connected to? Several reasons. One is, as I stated above, I think that very often the halakha is smarter than me. I might be feeling lazy, or insolent, or frustrated, and/though halakhic living does not let me get away with short cuts, with cheating myself or God in this relationship. And halakha is something that’s highly, highly filtered–over literally thousands of years, people have been working to develop this system of connection between the self and the community and the Divine, and that’s why it’s so smart. The vast majority of the time (the exceptions I’ll get to in a second), halakha gets you to the place where they keep God–you dial the number and you get the right line, as it were. (Sometimes Somebody’s home and sometimes you get voice mail, but so it goes.) I have a lot of trust in the fact that thousands and thousands of people who love God have been working to develop this system of connection. And I believe that, generally speaking, the concepts and ideas that don’t work and don’t get us to God have fallen away. Someone proposes an idea, a method for doing something, and the community doesn’t accept it, or it doesn’t last over the long stretch of time and into future generations. I think there are reasons why we have what we have now, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the rituals and laws we have work, on both the purely human and the human/Divine levels. And I, for one, am very reluctant to tinker with the source code, to assume that my shitah (idea about something) is going to get both myself and generations of communities where we need to go more than the thing that’s already on the books. Maybe it will–maybe my new replacement thingy will also be a workable number to ring God. Or maybe it won’t. Maybe the number I’ve got goes nowhere, or maybe it goes someplace where I’m drawing on something truly skanky and bad. I’m a halakhic Jew because I want to make sure that everytime I call, my call goes through. Have I mixed enough metaphors, yet?
It gets harder when I see a gap between my understanding of the world and the halakha on the books. And, of course, there are those instances. Pretty much all of the ones I can think of have to do with gender and power, but I’m sure there are others. Because halakha has been written by human beings who lived in cultural contexts, historical times and places, and they had their own hurts and angers and whatever else, and sometimes all of these things affected what was written. Part of the halakhic process is the attempt to reveal Divine will, and I don’t for a second believe that all of what we’ve got now is full 100% Revelation. The metaphor we use for when that happens is the coming of the Messiah, and clearly we ain’t there yet.
So–and this is where I address Jordan’s question a little more–what to do when we see that happen? Because I err on the side of trust, and the side of belief that the rituals we have operate on innumerable levels at once, and that they may serve our human spiritual needs in different ways now than they have in the past, and because they are a form of Divine service–for all these reasons, if I see something I don’t like, I tend to err on the side of curiosity. There may be important and useful things there that I don’t see at first, and if so, it’s important not to throw away the important and useful and connective-to-God. What is this ritual (or whatever) about? What did it do originally? What are some of the core ideas underlying it? How did it get to its current incarnation? How have people understood it in different times and places? With niddah, certainly, that has been my process–anyone who saw the essay I wrote for the anthology I edited knows that I’ve struggled pretty hard with the idea of niddah myself. And I’m glad that, at the end of the day, I’ve come to a way of understanding it that feels OK for me–I came up with one solution there, and I’m in the middle of writing another essay on the subject (for an anthology that’ll be published some long time from now) and have found that my thinking has changed in some ways and not in other ways. Basically I’ve been trying to engage in the act of wrestling with God that is an important part of our religious practice and tradition. There’s a reason why the thing that is “neged culam,” more important than just about everything in Judaism, tends to involve a lot of arguing back and forth. Talmud Torah is not linear and it is not always without some serious, impassioned disagreements. So the first thing I do, if I see something that seems problematic, is to fight with it and to see if I can understand it in a new way.
Sometimes that doesn’t work. There are plenty of places where I do think it’s upon our generation and those to come to create space in Judaism that hasn’t always been there. Pretty much all the ones that I can think of have to do with the granting of certain kinds of people full rights, autonomy and status as Jews. Enabling women to take on leadership roles. Granting full rights and status to same-sex relationships and the people in them. Making space for transfolk and anybody else who doesn’t live inside a gender binary (which is, come to think of it, all of us to some degree or another.) Etc. There are mechanisms in halakha for radical change–sometimes it requires a major takanah (edict), more often it requires a more sophisticated reading of or new interpretation of the halakha that we have on the books. Just as I believe it is upon us to not throw the system away, I also believe that it is upon us to fix what is broken. When you have a smashed ankle, you don’t cut off your foot–but you also don’t pretend that nothing is wrong. Diagnosing the ankle is the hard part. Fixing it can be challenging, but it is profoundly holy work. You are not required to complete the task, nor may you desist from it.
I never said that I was consistent. Just to be clear about that. There are lots of answers to some questions, and though some of them may seem mutually exclusive, there’s often an internal logic anyway. Whether that logic is rational, emotional, spiritual or some combination is more of an open question.
Okay, that’s my why I’m a halakhic Jew rant for the day. I’m sure I missed some stuff I wanted to say, but now I have to go think about Isaiah, Elijah and Moses. Speaking of God and all.
This is GREAT.
Seriously. I shower you with rose petals. This is awesome.
And my personal practice looks very different from yours, so I’m not just saying that because what you’re saying matches my lifestyle.
One of the priests at Zen Center has referred to taking the bodhisattva vows as “practising beyond one’s preference”… admitting that not once during the 5 years he lived at the monastery did he feel like getting up at 3:00 in the morning to meditate was what he REALLY wanted to do at that moment.
You wrote: “And I, for one, am very reluctant to tinker with the source code, to assume that my shitah (idea about something) is going to get both myself and generations of communities where we need to go more than the thing that’s already on the books.”
I think the source code metaphor is brilliant! Have you seen it before?
For anyone who’s involved in programming, it’s quite vivid and apt.
Thanks! Never seen the source code metaphor before, it (plus the extended dial-up, DSL, wireless metaphor about how your relationship to God is lately) came out of conversation with my friend Laura. We’re both low-level geeks who are friends with real geeks…. *shrug*
Douglas Rushkoff has done some stuff with a metaphor similar to your source-code one — for a while his site was a kind of Judaism wiki (only not using wikicode), where he was encouraging people to involve themselves with the source code of the tradition. These days that url seems to point to his blog, though, so who knows…
I really liked what you have to say here. I especially appreciated the part about learning to trust halacha through the spiritual reinforcements that came along with doing things that were hard.
I agree with you that we can’t always count on receiving those reinforcements. All the same, I received so much unexpected benefit when I started keeping kosher. Even some of the things that I thought would be the hardest (talking to my parents about it, for instance) turned out to lead to positive and surprising results.
Knowing that helps me to believe that my future steps towards halachik Judaism may also provide me with unexpected rewards and that I have to trust, even if I can’t see them right away. Na’ase v’nishma, you know?
Umm, could you come be the rabbi for my synagogue? 🙂 Seriously, I completely agreed with this post, and it’s rare that I hear another young Jew discuss halakha as a form of Divine service, while acknowledging the clash with modern sensibilities as well as the validity of other religions. Keep up the good work!
The hard part is figuring out which parts need to be changed and which don’t. What is the source of the decision besides the ego? I am just as adamant as you about feminism and gay rights and egal practice, but you haven’t really addressed the difficulty, and that is what the fundamentalists can nail us on.
I was very impressed with the day of learning at JTS a few years ago on gays in Judaism, because it used the rules of halachic decision-making and the source texts of our halacha to find halachic ways to pursue justice on these issues. I think change has to come that way for it to not just come across as “preference.”
That thing about the ego is very fine and intelligent. Bottom line is, even our respecting halakha involves ego, because we feel more powerful afterwords. More powerful even than the biggest immoral-rich-thug having orgies every night in his beverly hills mansion. And definitely more powerful than all those pubescent teens looking forward to be just like him. Sof davar, hakol nichma. Et haeolohim yÃ©ra veet mitzvotav shemor. Ki zeh: kol haadam. When we shall serve for no reward (like Moses, who never entered the land and the BESHT, who abandoned his olam haba), when we can really understand what that means, we can serve truthfully.