Thursday, September 1, 2016

Being Halakhic

In the English-language press in Israel and, just lately, here in our American Jewish press as well, I’ve lately noticed the word “halakhic” being used to qualify not behavior or rituals, but people. That may seem like a natural extension of the earlier usage, but the whole notion of describing someone as being “halakhic” strikes me as yet another blow to the nuanced, thoughtful definition of the word halakhah that, at least in my personal opinion, should be nurtured and fostered by all who hope to see Judaism retain its relevance and its appeal to a new generation.

The word itself, the Hebrew word halakhah, is used widely (although, other than in academic prose, almost solely by Jewish authors) to denote Jewish law in all of its jurisprudential detail and maddening intricacy. To be a master of halakhah does not mean merely to be an observant Jew, therefore, but truly to be conversant in a legal system that is known both for its precision and its almost byzantine complexity. To embrace halakhah, on the other hand, requires, not scholarly bona fides at all, but rather a humble willingness to step into the world of Jewish observance as governed by an ever-evolving system of legalized norms based on ancient principles that have morphed forward through the ages to the point in their development that they have attained to date. Neither of those concepts—becoming a master of halakhah and embracing halakhah as the measure of daily behavior both within and without the context of formal worship—seems particularly obscure to me. And yet I somehow balk at the thought of people “being” halakhic, as though that were a thing that you could be or not be, something like being a college graduate or a convicted felon. Both those things you can say in an instant if you are or aren’t…but is “halakhic” something you can that unambiguously choose to be or not to be? That is the question I’d like to explore in this space this week.

The word halakhah, itself not a word in biblical Hebrew, nevertheless has its roots in the classical language, and in two contexts that suggest its two aspects nicely: the standard verb used to denote walking or traveling in classical Hebrew is halakh, which has a far more obscure homonym used several times in the Book of Ezra to reference some obscure travelers’ tax imposed on wayfarers in the Persian Empire. Both antecedents are relevant: although in rabbinic literature the term is mostly used to denote the correct legal opinion in a potentially confusing context, the term came in later times to refer both to the life-path followed by people eager to live in sync with the laws of the Torah and also to the sense those people have that their choice of that specific course forward in life is not rooted solely in their will to live in that particular way but by a deep sense of obligation that hovers over the whole enterprise…thus making it, in some possible/impossible way, their personal choice to live lives governed by law not by choice at all but rather imposed on them from the outside by Heaven itself.

In our world, the term halakhah has come to denote the set of rules, norms, laws, and obligations that have evolved as the context in which Jewish people seek communion with God through the medium of allegiance to the covenant that binds the people Israel and the God of Israel. On that more or less all would agree. But fewer appear to know that those norms and rules have their own developmental trajectory in the world, one fully consonant with the etymological component of the term that suggests the notion of halakhah as journey rather than as destination, as process rather than product, as something you do rather than something you are.

Hold that thought…and let’s talk about grammar instead, at least for a moment. Languages evolve naturally from generation to generation as words change in meaning and as grammatical rules are abandoned and others adopted. That much seems obvious. Indeed, the sign of a vibrant, living language lies precisely in the ability of its speakers easily to understand each other despite the fact that speakers of that same language from half a millennium earlier in history might find it impossible to understand people speaking in their own language all those centuries later. Verbs particularly morph forward in unexpected ways, but the hallmark of native speakers is that they can easily and naturally identify exceptions to the standard rules as authentic or inauthentic. As a native English speaker, for example, I recognize “he sung a song” as a legitimate variant of the way I myself would express that thought, but “he becomed a dentist” as an obvious error that no native speaker would ever make.

And that brings us to grammar, the attempt of scholars to create patterns that explain, and thus can also predict, how a given language works. I suppose things may have changed, but when I was in school, grammar was a tetchy thing: verbs that appeared not to fall into one of the categories scholars determined as the rubrics that governed a given language’s verbal system were characterized with language almost always related to deviancy or defect. Sometimes they were called “weak” verbs; other times they were labeled “deficient” or “corrupt” instead. The specific terms changed from language to language—and I studied a lot of languages in my undergraduate and graduate school years—but the common denominator was that the terminology used to describe verbs that marched to their own drummers was always insulting, as though the verbs derided as corrupt or deficient were, like naughty children, willfully refusing to follow the rules imposed on them. Despite the use of such bizarre language, however, all the existence of such verbs really proved was degree to which the grammarians studying that particular language had failed to understand the system perfectly.

The study of halakhah is a bit like that, I think. There is, clearly, a strong sociological element to halakhah that scholars tend to ignore: when behavior patterns (or liturgical norms or the specifics of ritual practice) fail to suit the rules devised by scholars, they are derided as somehow deficient, inauthentic, or aberrant rather than as living proof of the dynamism of the larger enterprise.

Our Jewish observance is rooted in the system described in the columns of the Torah, but exists independently of our best efforts to explain it or categorize its elements. There are whole areas of Torah-based law, for example, that are widely ignored by all, and for no obvious reason other than the people’s blanket rejection of their underlying principles…which category includes people who would bristle mightily at that thought. Even in the most observant communities, for example, I don’t believe there are people who follow Scripture’s unambiguous instruction to bequeath a double-share of their estates to their eldest sons and leave it at that. (There is a complicated way to manipulate the laws of gift-giving and estate planning so as to appear to be leaving a firstborn son his double share but without that son actually ending up with twice as much as his younger brothers, but that only proves my point: even the people who don’t just ignore the unambiguous injunction to leave firstborns a double share of their parents’ estates don’t actually leave their firstborns that double share at all. Nor, as far as I know, do regular Jewish people disinherit their daughters if a family has at least one son despite the clear instruction of Scripture to do exactly that.) Our tradition exists independently of our best efforts to categorize its norms in many other ways as well, including liturgically.  For example, we routinely label as the fulfillment of Torah law rituals that do not constitute the fulfillment of any law of the Torah at all—eating maror at the Passover seder in these post-Temple years when there is not paschal lamb of which to partake with those bitter herbs, for example, or performing the n’tillat yadayim handwashing ritual before eating “regular” food, as opposed to holy foodstuffs like t’rumah (the ancient grain tax paid by the populace to the priests of ancient Israel and which had to be eaten in the context of ritual purity). Behaving as though the mikveh can bring those who bath in it to a state of purity in our post-Temple world is also a chimera, yet the world is filled with people who insist exactly the opposite to be the case.

We continue to evolve standards of behavior that appear to exist outside the system as conceptualized by even our most adventurous scholars. Why else would I constantly notice, particularly in Manhattan, very ritually punctilious people who would never enter, let alone dine at, any other non-kosher restaurant routinely drinking coffee at Starbucks and not appearing to mind the fact that the same barista who served them their coffee is serving other patrons non-kosher meat sandwiches? And then there are aspects of halakhic observance that simply come and go. There was a time when people routinely referenced Erev Rosh Ḥodesh, the eve of the new moon, as “the lesser Yom Kippur” and fasted on that day as a means of atoning for sins committed during the month then concluding. The greatest rabbis endorsed the custom—Rabbi Moses Cordevero, the sixteenth century kabbalistic master, and Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, called the Holy Shla after the initials of his greatest work, the Shnei Luḥot Ha-b’rit, for example—but I’ve never actually heard of anyone fasting on that day. Are there some who do? I suppose there might be…but none I’ve ever come across. Nor have I ever met anyone who fasts on Mondays and Thursdays during the weeks on which the first eight Torah portions of Exodus—called by their acronym Shovevim Tat—are read aloud in synagogue even though this was once a relatively wide-spread custom. (Again, the existence of some obscurantists somewhere who do do this is hardly the point—there are exceptions to every rule, but my point is that the custom itself has completely fallen away and is surely unknown to the vast majority of Jewish people who otherwise consider themselves observant Jews.)  Halakhic observance is always in flux, always morphing forward to suit new norms of behavior and an ever-evolving sense of morality. The Talmud is filled with rules that fell into desuetude centuries and centuries ago, but it’s hard to think of that as a tragic development: life, including spiritual life, is growth…and that is so both on the personal and on the national level.

And that is why it strikes me as odd to use the term halakhic to qualify an individual. To live within the four ells of halakhah is to subjugate one’s will to the will of heaven. That much any rabbi would affirm easily as the noblest of goals. But to accept that that level of submission to God is itself a moving target, one that is permanently in flux and that thus requires of those would attain it not mere allegiance to a fixed set of rules but rather extreme sensitivity to the tenor of the world, to the most widely respected ethical norms, and to the ability of the Jewish people to remain faithful to a system built on a firm foundation of immutable principles and norms that is somehow also ever-evolving into its next finest iteration—that is why it takes not just perseverance but a truly supple intellect to be the kind of Jewish person the men and women of the House of Israel should all aspire to become. And that is why it seems spurious to me to label people as “halakhic,” as though it were something you could just be, like a diabetic or a Democrat: the halakhah is a framework for spiritual growth across the years of a lifetime and not a goal in and of itself to attain and then be proud of having attained. 

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