See, then I start thinking about all this halakha stuff, and I find that there’s more to say.
My friend Ahud says that he considers halakic living to be in part, a form of a social contract. Kind of like like believing that a state should have laws, even if we disagree with some of those laws (or, occasionally, jaywalk or go over the speed limit). Even the Rambam said (somewhere in Guide for the Perplexed, forget where) that not every person is going to be super-thrilled about every halakha–but that fact does not invalidate the system. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz put it,
“What characterizes Judaism as a religion of Mitzvoth is not the set of laws and commandments that was given out at the start, but rather the recognition of a system of precepts as binding, even if their specifics were often determined only with time.”
And in terms of determining specifics–the act of doing so according to our contemporary understandings is often lot less radical than one might think. I’m comfortable arguing that certain things that are not traditionally part of Jewish readings of halakhic texts are perfectly kosher within the bounds of existing halakha–permitting women to take on positive time-bound mitzvot, exempting married women from covering their hair, eating bread from a non-Jewish bakery, to name a couple off the top of my head. There is both room within the system for more radical readings, and also, often, not the necessity. And at core, I have chosen to accept the system–imperfect and all-encompassing as it is–as binding upon my life.
And, one more note on the spiritual consequences of halakha vs. non-halaka (though, hopefully this is clear, I’m not so hot on the utilitarian value of the system). There is nothing remarkable about praying when you feel like praying. That’s easy, that’s pleasurable, that feels good. Big deal. What is much more difficult is praying when you don’t feel like praying–dragging yourself out of bed, focusing on the prayerbook when you’d rather be doing anything else, stopping something you’re engaged in because it’s getting later and you still haven’t davvened Mincha (afternoon prayers). And on some level, that’s where the action is, that’s where the necessity is. One could make the analogy of going running–if you really want to climb the mountain (or just be in shape), you have to jog every day, whether you “feel like it” or not. And having a rigorous daily practice is a way of staying in shape. But more than that, I think–Judaism is not about chasing the next great aesthetic high. It’s not about just having feel-good experiences where the sky opens up and you feel all, like, connected and spiritual. I’ve had them, lots of them, some really big ones. They’re fun. But they are not the point. The point is staying focused and present and connected to God in all the small moments, the hard moments, the drudge moments. And even if you don’t “feel” connected each moment, all of the small questions and minute decisions are also a form of asserting the value of that connection, of worship in their own right. A mirror, if you will. (And sometimes you don’t “feel” something at the beginning but the kavannah, or focus, kicks in midway through.) It’s about doing things that aren’t about your drunk elephant desire (which sometimes feels like praying), but rather placing yourself in a system designed to wrap you in and obligate you to a constant, almost incessant, barrage of service to the Divine.