Poems of praise
In the garden

Braided halakha

Danya at Jerusalem Syndrome made two really good posts recently about halakha (usually translated as "The Law," though the word comes from הלך, the root which means "to walk," so I like to think of it as "The Path" or "The Walking"). A lot of what she said rang a bell for me, which is fascinating, because I have some issues with halakha. (More on that shortly.)

Halakha, she says, is what Jews have instead of monastic living. It's the framework that keeps our focus on relationship with God at all times. Best of all, it's portable, enabling us to live simultaneously "in the monastery" and in the world. "Finding that balance can be difficult, but that, too, is part of the thing--sitting around the (literal) monastery 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." No argument from me on that. Judaism is meant to be lived in the world, not in seclusion, and navigating the tension between worldly priorities and religious priorities is an important part of the path.(This comes from her first post on the subject, halakha is your friend. Go, read the whole thing!)

In the addendum post, more, she makes one of the points that resonates the most for me:

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.

Preach it, sister. Spiritual highs are a piece of the picture, but they're not the whole picture, and ultimately they're not the point of Jewish practice. The point is enriching our lives, the low points as well as the high, with connection to the All. It's easy to be mindful in a moment of spiritual peak; it's harder to maintain that consciousness when one's stuck in traffic and running late, or to begin the day with the blessing for gratitude when one wakes up with a sinus headache. Maintaining a regular practice can help one train oneself to connect with the Divine through all things. 

Discipline and practice make sense to me. The desire to sanctify the ordinary makes sense to me. Continually re-creating space in one's life in which God can arise makes sense to me. And yet my relationship with halakhah is...complicated.

This may be rooted in my Reform upbringing. One of the Reform movement's earliest documents, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, accepts the moral laws as binding, and celebrates "ceremonies which elevate and sanctify our lives," but explicitly rejects "all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization."  That was tempered in the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, which included the  lines, "We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times."

That renewed attention often results in Reform Jews finding new meaning in the old practices that the movement had once considered irredeemably outdated.  Even so, Reform Judaism is built on the assertion that it is the right and obligation of every Jew to wrestle with these issues for her or himself, so adherence to any particular understanding of halakha isn't presumed.  And that's how it's possible for someone like me to lay tefillin in the mornings, yet have no qualms about driving or checking email on Shabbat. Walking the walk is important to me; I just define "the walk" in my own way.

On the one hand, I understand the argument that sometimes the point of halakha is the discipline. One needn't "understand" halakha in order to follow it, and following can have meaningful results -- plus it's a uniquely Jewish way of sanctifying the ordinary and serving God in all things. (In this, Danya echoes Rav Soloveichik's classic Halakhic Man -- an excellent read, by the by.) On the proverbial other hand, I have rooted myself in a branch of the tradition where kavvanah (focus or intent) is paramount, and I can't bring that focus to a commandment that isn't meaningful to me (or, worse, one I find actively distressing). "Because we've always done it this way" is not a sufficient reason for me to take on an obligation or a practice. I see the value in the discipline, but something in me finds the notion of being "commanded" problematic. 

Rabbi Marcia Prager addresses this issue near the end of The Path of Blessing:

[T]he issue of mitzvot being obligatory is problematic as well as exciting. What do we do when we encounter a mitzvah we don't understand, or that we think we do understand and therefore reject? Is the system fixed and sealed, or is it flexible and unfolding? Is it ancient wisdom or ancient prejudices? Is the authority to craft the mitzvot allocated only to a hierarchy of male legalists in a particular chain of rabbinic command, or can we approach the evolution of mitzvot in a feminist, historical, and critical way? Do we practice only the things we understand and appreciate? Can we understand and appreciate without practice?

Her hope is that we are in the process of a grand shift: not toward a "minimalist and purely personal 'non-halakhic' Judaism" (that might be an apt description of the Reform movement's earliest position) but toward "a 'post-halakhic' Judaism deeply rooted in the contributions of the rabbinic paradigm but 'reformatted' to take Jewish wisdom, spiritual insight, and committed practice into the next age." I see her answer as a kind of both/and: we need to preserve the value of the discipline, and we need to reevaluate the old paradigm in new ways, too.

What exactly does that mean? Well, for me it means that the journey is as important as the destination. My relationship to this Jewish way of walking is different now than it was ten years ago. I think it's safe to assume I'll have a different perspective on it a decade from now. What's most important to me is that I'm engaging with the questions. I think the future of Judaism is brightest when we each commit to our own wrestle with the tradition. For some of us, that wrestle will lead to adopting a traditional halakhic practice; for others, a post-halakhic stance; for others, something else entirely. Judaism is flexible enough to contain all of these -- plus, the wrestle itself is a path.

In Alaska a few summers ago I saw some stunning glacial rivers. The rivers don't flow in a single channel. Rather, they constantly shift and multiply and come together again as water levels and currents ebb and flow. Each river has a general direction, a beginning point and an endpoint, but its paths shift constantly. This is one of my favorite metaphors for the Jewish community: we're braided, like a havdalah candle or a glacial river. Over time our paths -- our halakhot -- shift and intertwine, differ and merge. But we share a Source, and we're headed in the same direction.


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