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This week's portion: Inclusion and service

Halakha: Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way

Among the many highlights of the 2013 OHALAH conference (for me) was the plenary session on Halacha called Honoring the Past, Finding Our Way. It offered a fascinating cross-section of Renewal approaches to halakha through the lens of how different Renewal communities relate to kashrut, preceded and contextualized by some teachings about what we call integral halakha. Here are some glimpses of that session and of my responses to it.

DanielSiegelRGBRabbi Daniel Siegel was the first speaker. He began by citing Rabbi Ethan Tucker's three-lecture series, "Core issues in halakha," which describes the narrowing of the halakhic process which took place as the Protestant community in Germany in the 19th century petitioned the government to split funding for different branches, different churches. "There was a discussion within the Jewish community about whether or not to do the same thing. Some Orthodox rabbis wanted to stay in contact with the Reformers, and others wanted to split off."

When the Orthodox community withdrew from the larger Jewish community, in Reb Daniel's words, "they took the leaves out of the halakhic table, leaving a much smaller group." And as a result of that, the halakhic response to change began to shift.

For instance: when women began to practice in ways which hadn't been seen before, there were two different communal responses. One was, "We know the women of Israel are sacred and holy, so how do we take their practice of this custom and bring it inside the mainstream?" And the other was, "How dare they do that, how dare anyone be outside our boundaries, they're wrong and they have to change." I appreciate his point that that kind of strict boundary-enforcing is not necessarily the only authentic response to change.

Over the course of his remarks, Reb Daniel said several things which I remember hearing from him during our halakha classes, and which still resonate for me. Here are a few tastes (boldface / emphasis mine):

Halakha is not a set of decisions, but a conversation. There are many positions possible and they can exist simultaneously. [...]

Halakha is not [about] knowing how to find something in the Shulchan Aruch, but [rather] how to participate in the process of which the Shulchan Aruch is the digest. [...]

There is no such thing as "The" halakha. Halakha does not speak. Halakhists speak. And they respond to questions which are asked of them, usually not by laypeople but by other rabbis.

Reb Daniel articulated his sense that the halakhic process is much better represented by the corpus of sheilot and teshuvot -- questions and responsa; the conversation -- than by the codes and commentaries. It's better represented by the flow, rather than what's static. And then he said:

Our halakha is a tikkun [a healing] on the situation which Ethan Tucker described. Our halakha is insisting that the leaves be put back in the table, the chairs brought back, and we're going to sit down [and be part of the conversation].

We're not starting something new. We're learning the old stuff in a new way so we can bring it into this moment of our existence, and we're doing it in a way that keeps us connected. That's what Reb Zalman means by backward compatibility. And there are issues where we may not be able to do that! But we are insisting that the table be expanded, and that halakhic issues be the issues which face all of us in our lives.

The halakhic process is the effort to link the revelation at Sinai and the redemptive process it set in motion with the details of everyday life. How do I live in this moment in a way that connects me with Sinai and with our ultimate purpose of bringing redemption to this world?

He also argued that "Halakha is the primacy of the ethical. It is our job to make sure halakha rejoins the ethical whenever they diverge." As operating principles for our halakhic process he listed (among others) "eilu v'eilu" ("these and those are the words of the living God" -- in other words, the valuing of a multiplicity of voices), the idea that Torah's paths are paths of peace, and the notion of the enduring (and productive) makhloket / disagreement.

He spoke about ways in which the halakhic process allows us to innovate while remaining consistent with our past and the trajectory of our future. And he ackowledged that "every so often we come to a moment which is so different from the past that the only way to retain the integrity of the halakhic process is to rethink its basic operating principles. This happened 2000 years ago. That's a paradigm shift." Paradigm shifts happen rarely; but just as we were in one 2000 years ago when the Temple fell, we're in one now.

The entire paradigm of how we look at ourselves in the world, not just as Jews but as people, is changing. That's the moment we're in. We need to create a way of doing this process, of connecting the details of our lives, with our entire history and our entire future. We need to be able to do that in a way that takes that change into consideration. We call that integral halakha.

The senior seminar required of all ALEPH rabbinic students is in integral halakha -- I posted a bit about it, a few years ago -- so nothing Reb Daniel said here was surprising to me, but everyone I spoke with agreed that this was a really tight, valuable formulation of the material.

Rabbi-David-CooperRabbi David J. Cooper of Kehilla began by saying, "Part of my reason for being up here is to provide food for makhloket [holy disagreement]." He described his understanding of integral halakha, and the value it places on backwards compatibility, as follows:

As one interprets prior decisions of halakhists and you are faced with adapting these decisions or changing them within your contemporary context, that you should ideally uphold and recognize the integrity of the halakhic process -- its discussions and outcomes -- by locating your present halakhic developments or advancements within that discussion. In practice what this means is that you use the prior halakhic processes and outcomes as a guide even if you are evolving beyond the particular holdings of prior halakhists, and you endeavor to adhere to these holdings as precedents wherever possible – only abrogating them or denying their current validity when contemporary understandings and sensitivities make it ethically or morally impossible to do otherwise.

If your practice conflicts to some degree with prior halakhists, you might seek to demonstrate that what appears on the surface to be discontinuous with a prior halakhic practice is actually continuous if you see it from a more subtle meta-point of view which

As interesting a notion as that may be, he acknowledged, it's not actually the basis on which his particular community makes its choices. He offered an explanation of the origins of the notion of backwards compatibility -- I think of it as being a software term, but he cites an older origin, arguing that it's a term borrowed from the physical sciences, referring to when a new theory pre-empts or supercedes an older theory. He offered an example:

Einstein, even as he superseded and contradicted Newton, had to show why Newton's equations were still so accurate in predicting the orbits of the planets even if Newton's ideas about the force of gravity were shown to be incorrect. In short Einstein's theory had to be backwardly compatible to Newton's. It had to supercede it and yet leave it intact for the limited applications in which Newton's equations still worked. Einstein has to do this because, even if scientific theory had developed in the years since Isaac Newton, the physical character of the universe had not changed at all.

But halakha deals with people and society, and the social universe, unlike the physical universe, does in fact change. The social universe of 1700 was very different from 2012 and from 212... As the social world changes, there have been fundamental changes in how we relate to God and how we hear God's voice, how we define redemption, and how we redeem the world.

We live in a social universe where our very self-definition as human beings has changed. Our relationship to community, individuality, gender has changed. Einstein could supercede Newton and leave him intact as well. But I do not believe that we can leave the decisions of the halakhists intact as Einstein did for Newton. I don't believe we can be authentically backwards compatible.

Having thus "pulled the rug out from under our feet," he moved on to talking about continuity. Our Jewish past may be different from our Jewish present, but it's still our past and still informs who we are and what choices we make. He spoke about eating consciously, a practice which many of his community members identify ex post facto with kashrut. He spoke about the ethical imperative toward inclusivity, of making it possible for as many people as possible to eat at the potluck, and what kinds of practical choices are dictated by that value.

And he spoke about the reasons why his community often makes choices which align with tradition: not because of backwards compatibility, but because of the parameters of the present Jewish community. "This is horizontal compatibility. Compatibility with the present... The past does not get a veto with us, and when it votes, it only gets to do so by proxy -- through community members whose ritual needs are real and present in this moment."

I found Reb David's perspective really valuable -- both because he articulated an interesting challenge to the notion of backwards compatibility (and I appreciate, on a meta-level, the big-tent inclusiveness which allows both of these rabbis to see themselves as part of the same Jewish Renewal community despite differences in halakhic approach and thinking) and because the idea of horizontal compatibility -- ensuring that our practices maintain some continuity with practices of other "kinds" of Jews in other places at this moment -- is a really interesting one to me.

Image004Next up was Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan of Or Shalom (who blogs at On Sophia Street). She spoke about kashrut and halakha through the lens of her congregation's dietary practices, which include (though are not limited to): a dairy kitchen which is mostly vegetarian; for ecological reasons, the disallowing of paper plates; the general choice to have potlucks rather than paying for kosher catering; and the maintenance of a garden from which they try to harvest and to cook at least one communal meal each year.

Their communal practice is informed by a variety of principles, among them respect for the Jewish literacy level of the congregation, maintaining a community kitchen where they make food with their own hands and feed one another, commitments to the principles of bal tashschit (don't waste / don't destroy) and avoiding tzar ba'alei chayyim (suffering among living beings, e.g. ensuring that animals are humanely raised and slaughtered), and keeping a traditionally kosher l'pesach kitchen for one week each year "to honor people's felt sense of setting that time apart as something special and holy."

It's important to us that we do not see these rules as any kind of compromise between competing views. Not a compromise with tradition. We see this as an expression of our serious ethical commitments. And we don't think of this practice as a matter of personal choice. But most people experience the imperatives in our principles as coming from a place beyond themselves. These really are ethical principles.

We believe that God is a compassionate being and that we need to be compassionate. Torah tells us God placed us in the world to tend it and care for it, and we take the message of that story very seriously. We don't see our practice as falling short of Jewish responsibility and something we should feel secretly and vaguely guilty about. We see it as a serious and correct understanding of core Jewish responsibilities.

She acknowledged that this is the ideal reality, and that in practice we don't always live up to our ideals. What really happens, she said, is that they make decisions through deliberation and then see what people actually do and then re-evaluate as needed. "In a sense, that's within the spirit of traditional halakha. We have to do things that actually reflect the community of practice. We're elevated by trying to live more consciously by our principles, but if we can't live by it, it doesn't make much sense to say that this is our principle."

Marcia-pragerOur final speaker was Rabbi Marcia Prager of Pnai Or, who began by acknowledging that "these are issues that tug at our hearts."

She asked a series of questions:

How many of us here are in congregations where there's any conversations about the kashrut of a kitchen? How many of you are in shuls which don't even have a kitchen? How many of you grew up in families where there was a commitment to something called kashrut? How many have taken on a practice which you call something like kashrut? And how many of you know exactly what that is that you've taken on?

It was interesting to see how many hands went up in response to each of these questions, and how many hands went up more than once.

After telling some poignant family stories, Reb Marcia spoke about how she teaches kashrut in her community using many diverse lenses, including her background in cultural and physical anthropology. I was particularly intrigued by this piece of what she said:

The early texts of Torah speak powerfully of our human-cellular memory of moving from early anthropoids into beings of higher consciousness. That's encoded in the early stories of Torah. Those early stories include our memory of emerging from a species that was vegetarian to being carnivorous...

So: what did it mean to become meat eaters and to grow in our ethical understanding of the implications of that? We come to categories of permitted and forbidden which cause us to eat as low as possible on the food chain even if we're going to eat meat.

She cited the way that cattle were treated in the wagon trains which used to move cows from Texas to Chicago in the late 1880s. They couldn't kill a steer every time they needed dinner, so they would put one in the back of the wagon and slaughter it slowly, cutting off pieces and using tourniquets to keep it alive. (The room gave a collective shudder.) And then she juxtaposed that with Torah teaching:

Encoded into our text is a profound commitment to ethical eating. And to understand the pain of animals. Don't we have to care as much about how an animal lived as how the animal died?

She acknowledged that "So many issues inform how we live on whatever this spectrum is that we call kashrut." And she told a wonderful story about the importance of not shaming someone if they bring a dish to a potluck which is, perhaps, not exactly correct according to the parameters of that community's dietary practice.

Toward the end of her remarks, when she was discussing her own community's kashrut practices, she said, "we ask people to adhere to a tradition of ingredient that people can be flexibly and lovingly living more-Jewishly-informed lives." I really like that last phrase: "flexibly and lovingly living more-Jewishly-informed lives." That's something I'd like to foster in my community, too. The notion of encouraging my community to "flexibly and lovingly live more Jewishly-informed lives" resonates with me on levels beyond merely the question of what we do or don't eat.

After the formal panel was over, we moved into small groups to discuss what we'd heard, and then reconvened to share some gleanings with the larger group. I suspect we could easily have spent all day on this, and we didn't even make it beyond kashrut to the second issue which had been suggested for consideration. My breakout group had a terrific conversation about our relationships both with halakha and with kashrut / conscious eating, and also wound up riffing a bit on some of what we'd heard the four speakers say.

I really enjoyed having the chance to see four of my teachers lovingly model some of the multivocality of our tradition and of our Jewish Renewal community. This was a great panel / conversation -- I'd love to see us do this (or something like it) each year, exploring halakha and our relationship with the halakhic process through the lens of a different meta-issue each time. 

Shabbat shalom to all!