This week I return to rabbinic school...a little bit. I'm taking one class this spring, called Integral Halacha, which is functionally ALEPH's senior seminar; I'm taking it with the other six rabbinic students who are, like me, aiming for ordination next January.
Integral halacha: transcending and including is the title of one of Reb Zalman's recent books, co-written with Reb Daniel Siegel, who'll be teaching the class I'm about to take. Ideally, integral halakha aims to maintain continuity with the past and also to provide flexibility for the present. Reb Zalman has written:
How do we find meaning by continuing to be Jews? How do we connect to joy, to purpose, and why should we want to within a Jewish context, if it has been the cause of so much pain?
The way I can answer these questions is by creating a new, transcending, Judaism which honors the past and goes beyond it. Our practice must reference the larger purpose of the Jewish people in the world, our commitment to God and to what we call tikkun olam, to being agents of redemption. We now also know that we are not alone in this commitment, but part of something greater, a sharing with other people and paths.
We'll be reading Reb Zalman's book as part of this class, among other contemporary texts. But the heart of the class will involve studying some of the major halakhic codes and various teshuvot (halakhic responsa), in preparation for each writing our own responsum to a halakhic question -- that's the senior project required of every ALEPH musmach (ordinee.) We'll be learning in three broad areas of subject matter: marriage & divorce, the perennial question of "who is a Jew," and relating to other denominations (though the halakhic questions we each answer in our teshuvot will not necessarily arise in these areas.)
Our first assigned reading is an excerpt from Rambam's Mishneh Torah on the subject of the agunah -- the "chained woman," e.g. a woman who is stuck in her marriage. Today the term is often used to describe women whose husbands refuse to grant a writ of divorce, though it can also mean someone whose husband is missing and may (or may not) be dead. (Think Enoch Arden.) Anyway, over the last several days I've been grabbing time while Drew is napping to try to begin working on my homework, which means sitting down with that first chunk of Rambam.
The first hour I managed to spend working on Rambam was a little bit disheartening. It's been two months since I did any schoolwork at all, and both my concentration and my word recall are rusty. (I haven't used my language skills since before Thanksgiving... and I haven't been getting much sleep since then, either, which I'm pretty sure makes my brain measurably less functional.) I also haven't taken a halakha class in a while. I did a lot of text translation this past summer and fall, but it was almost all Hasidic material -- which has both a different style and a different basic vocabulary than legal texts do.
But the second day that I sat down with the text, the reading was easier. Maybe it's a matter of getting back into the groove. One way or another, I'm looking forward to our first class. I'm excited about having a little bit of school folded in to my childcare-centric new life; I'm looking forward to the learning we're going to do; and I'm really looking forward to the chance to learn with the rest of my rabbinic ordination class. I know these six people pretty well, but over the year to come I anticipate getting to know this cohort even better, and I expect that the learning we will do with and from each other will be pretty wonderful.