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Authentic Judaism = Authentic Halacha
Susan Handelman (Sh'ma, 11/206, January 23, 1981)
"R. Leib, son of Sarah, the hidden Zaddik who wandered over the earth, following the course of rivers, in order to redeem the souls of the living and the dead, said this: I did not go to the Maggid in order to hear Torah from him, but to see how he unlaces his felt shoes and laces them up again. " So goes a well-known Chassidic story, somewhat quaint and strange to our ears. What one wonders, could one great Zaddik learn from the way another tied his shoes--and why concentrate on such trivia to begin with?
In fact the modern Jew tends to ask the same question about the body of Jewish law passed down to us in the Shulchan Aruch and various codes--that is about halacha in general. Or perhaps we should better say halacha in it's "specifics": what can one possibly learn from it, and why concentrate on such trivia anyway? That mass of' irritatingly minute prescriptions which cover the pages of the Shulchan Aruch is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for the modern Jew in search of himself. Its laws appear impossible, extreme. Here are directives about matters such as which shoe to put on first, when to wash one's hands, what to wear, how much of the body should be covered, when and when not to touch one's spouse, how to sleep, eat drink, even evacuate. Let alone the intricate directives concerning proper observance of the holidays, prayer, litigation and so forth.
Nonetheless, says the Talmud: "Since the Temple was destroyed God has no place left except the four cubits of halacha. What kind of God, one wonders, cares about shoelaces? No one will argue about the need to strengthen Jewish "identity," "culture," "values"-but that we need to strengthen ourselves in abiding by Jewish law, in all its sticky specifics, is another matter.
What does it matter whether one drives to shul as long he gets there, or which shoe one puts on first, and so forth. Justice, morality, being a good person, supporting Israel--these are the true components of Judaism. Shabbat, kashrut, perhaps even mikveh make for a nice "lifestyle"; but let's not go too far; lets not be irrational, fanatic; and above all, let's not call it "law."
Many factions have rejected halacha
The validity of halacha is indeed one of the major issues of contention for modern Jewry. The disengagement of halacha from the rest of the Torah did not, of course, begin recently. Nor even with the Jewish thinkers of the Enlightenment, those precursors to the liberal humanist theologians of the past hundred years who helped create the various factions of modern Judaism. There were also, of course, the Karaites in the ninth century--who from a certain point of view were quite modern": in essence, they felt that the Written Torah, i.e. the Bible, was perfectly acceptable; but the Oral Torah, that mass of intricate Rabbinic interpretation, discussion, and prescription had veered off the point and could be dispensed with. And before them-the Jewish Hellenists. For to the Greeks, the Torah was neither beautiful nor rational, its directives for behavior were strange and tortuously legalistic.
To the Christians, halacha was (and still is) anathema. The "letter" of the law was pitted against its "spirit," with Paul arguing that in fact the law was the very source of sin. Instead of following halacha, one need only " believe," feet, and be reborn of the spirit to follow not the discipline of a burdensome law but the illuminations of one's inner heart. And it wasn't long before the reforming group of Jews associated with Jesus had completely severed themselves from Judaism, taking along with them some fundamental Jewish concepts, but adapting them so successfully to the philosophy and culture of the pagan world that the Judaic element became an empty shell, filled with anti-Jewish beliefs.
All of which is to say: when Judaism is separated from halacha, when the flower is snipped from the branch, it might remain fragrant and lovely--but not for long.
How inevitable is the process? Is it also the fate of the reforming movements, which have so influenced contemporary Judaism for the past two centuries, to be subtly, unconsciously transformed into little more than mirrors of Hellenism and paganism in their modern guise? Have we not, in our rejection of halacha, also unwittingly Hellenized and Christianized those very "essential roots" we seek, abhorring the letter for the spirit? Yet we seek a Jewish "lifestyle," a Jewish "identity." How can halacha have anything at all to do with this?
Halacha unites spiritual and mundane
In fact, the popular term, "lifestyle," if we stretch it a bit, might serve as a roughly accurate translation of the Hebrew word halacha which as it is well-known comes from the root halach, meaning "to walk." The word does not specifically denote "law" (Hebrew din or mishpat), but "path," the "way to walk," the way to pattern one's life.
But there is more. Style is not always synonymous with substance. There is a profound insight in the popular cliche, "lifestyle": we desperately search for life style, because we lack life substance. Style can become a substitute for contents. And so we try to pick and choose, amalgamate and discard, imitate and absorb bits and pieces of other people's lives, cultures, religions, philosophies, politics, struggling to sew some patchwork of' ideas together to clothe our nakedness. Like the era which gave rise to Christianity, ours is one of great religious syncretism.
But halacha is more than style; though it contains its own inner mechanism for dealing with the effects of temporal, cultural, and geographic change, the essence of halacha does not change. Precisely because the essence of halacha is the unity of the concrete actions it prescribes with the " theoretical or conceptual" basis of the Torah. Halacha is that which unites the most "spiritual" aspects of Judaism with the most physical, mundane details of life. Halacha is that unique religious expression which--overlapping the bounds of other non-Jewish concepts of "spirituality"--somehow is able to connect God to ... how one ties one's shoelaces. Being good, ethical, spiritual, Zionist etc., is, halacha insists, somehow bound up with the way we eat, dress, cook, sleep, keep the Shabbat, and so on. Why?
Because in essence, the Torah teaches that nothing, literally nothing is trivial for the Jew; that there is utterly no aspect of one's life which is unimportant; no action, word, thought to which one can afford to be insensitive. There is no aspect or moment of life which the Jew does not seek to elevate and sanctify and permeate with Jewishness. That's why in Judaism, soul and body, idea and action, the most metaphysical and the most mundane realisms are not separate--as is the case with Greco-Christian culture. And halacha is this very unity of style and substance, soul and body, spirit and letter, daily life and the Divine. We have God who "mishes in."
Halacha should not be modernized
Precisely in the detail does one find the whole, or to use more philosophic terminology, only through the particular does one reach the universal; concrete and abstract cannot be separated. Precisely in the seeming small details, in the minutiae, in the concrete halachot is the essence of Torah expressed.
This concept is actually very contemporary. Twentieth century science teaches us the same lesson: the secret of nature, the ultimate strength and power of the universe lies not somewhere in the vast cosmic expanse, but within the infinitely small world of the atom. The biggest explosive force comes from a highly-controlled reaction using the most minute nuclear components.
Those familiar with Kabbalah will recognize that the same term, tzimtzum, meaning contraction, condensation" is central to Jewish mystical thought. The idea 'is that God, so to speak, contracted himself to make a space for the universe, and that he condensed his thought and will through innumerable contractions into the physical letters and words of the Torah. Halacha, for the mystic, is the greatly condensed wisdom of God, inseparable from the most abstract metaphysical speculation. Which therefore explains why the very compiler and editor of the Shulchan Aruch vas none other than the great mystic and Kabbalist of the Safed circle, Rabbi Yoseph Caro.
And Caro was not alone--our greatest speculative mystics were also our greatest halachists. This combination of law and mysticism is unique to Judaism. The most spiritually sensitive of our tradition were also the most attentive to the minutiae of halacha, for halacha is the body, the very concrete expression of the soul of Torah. Those who reached the highest levels sought not to abolish, alter, or "modernize" halacha, but to reinforce it.
Yet the call for American Jewry has been to "modernize" halacha, to adjust it to the norms of the prevailing culture, until, gradually, halacha has all but disappeared and it's a matter of each for himself. Each must decide for himself, according to his own "inner light" what is right, wrong, appropriate, inappropriate behavior. How Protestant we have become. Cut the flower from the branch and it can't last for too long. It shrivels and dies. We are left with some abstract, ineffectual spirituality or vague ethical monotheism, and we have created a Judaism in America that is bodyless, content-less, a style without substance that has been alienating Jews in droves.
We must seek meaning in the halacha
Can halacha be attractive today? Yes, because halacha the very concrete expression, the very ground and bedrock of Jewish "identity," "culture," "values", and all the other abstract words which don't exist in the Bible--because the word "Torah," meaning "teaching, instruction," includes and indissolubly binds together "religion," "ethics...... politics" with one another and with the way one ties one's shoes. One can't separate them; separate halacha from Torah, Jewish action from Jewish thought, and you separate the Jewish from Judaism.
To be sure, some halachot are not congruent with some contemporary styles of thought and behavior. That, however, is no necessary reason for immediately doing away with them and for rationalizing a Judaism which we adhere to only when it's comfortable for us to observe. And should or we, of all people, be most skeptical of the styles and conceptual fads of modern culture--have we not suffered in this century most from the hands of those who were most culturally and technologically advanced? Did not "liberal humanism" fail us miserably, and does it not appear as if it is beginning to fail us again--for oil? Instead of casting away halacha, let us search for it's deeper meaning, it's intricate and its indissoluble connection to those aspects of Judaism unquestioningly meaningful to us and the world.
But let us search with Jewish eyes-not with eyes of the Greek who seeks only the beauty of the surface, harmony and rational proportion. Or with the eyes of the Christian who disparages this mundane world of the flesh and seeks his salvation in a purely abstract, spiritual realm. For we will find in halacha what to the Christian is trivial and "unspiritual" and what to the Greek is unbeautiful and non rational. The Torah not only deals with the beautiful and rational and spiritual elements of ourselves, ignoring the rest, but also (and perhaps more importantly) with what is not beautiful and not rational, and what is spiritually intractable--with our physical behavior in the world of everyday life, down to the last detail. For if one doesn't pay careful attention to those aspects of human behavior which are non-rational, they can easily become -wildly, destructively irrational-rather than guides which lead us above and beyond the limits of reason.
Even he who is concerned with beauty, proportion, and aesthetics will tell us that details are important. The artist above all, knows that one incorrect line, awkward angle off color can destroy the painting; the poet agonizes over the exact word. Jewish beauty, however, is not embodied in plaster and paint and poetry, but in deeds, physical acts--the most minute, the most mundane--over which the Jewish agonizes and meditates, deeply as does the artist over his composition. Meditation over the proper way to tie one's shoes merges into meditation on the secrets of creation, the Shulchan Aruch into the Kabbalah. In going to the Zaddik to learn how he ties his shoes, one learns all. For the Jew's life, his way of "walking, " the specifics of halacha, constitute the essence of his art, his ultimate masterwork.
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