Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Why I'm going where I'm going

I was asked a number of very intellegent question based on my previous post, and rather than put a long comment, I have decided to impose the answer and the viewing public. My apologies to those who dont want to read it, feel free to skip.

Up until 10 years ago or so, I practiced my form of MO, which basically was keep kosher, shabbat/chagim, learn a little here and there, go to shul on shabbat and chagim, with little thought about what my religion asked of me. Basically I was on autopilot, with the autopilot being a combination of what practices I grew up with, had seen around me, and the prevailing practice of the community around me. Gradually, I came to the realization that this may not be enough. That there was an entire shulchan aruch(code of Jewish law) full of laws and practices, some of which I performed, some of which I didnt. It occured to me that while the practices handed down to me by my parents certainly were important, that body of knowledge and deed may not be the entirety of what God expected of me as an observant Jew. This did not mean that I had to immediately adopt every specific law and practice that I came across, but it did mean that I had to examine what I did, look at the sources as best as possible, and try to figure out exactly what God expected of me, and to try, as best as I could, to do it.

Take the example of showering on Shabbat(I do not intend to make this a halacha shiur, and please dont take my word for any of this, ask a competent authority). It seems clear to me that washing on Shabbat is allowed(many used to go to a mikva on Shabbat morning, some still do), but there may be a problem with hot water and certainly with wringing out the towel or hair. So, there is probably a way to stay within the bounds of halacha and still shower, but the way I was doing it didn't, by any stretch of orthodox imagination. Showering on Shabbat was never viewed in my family as a problem. However, I could not find any viable halachic way to make it a valid practice for me. So I stopped. It didn't change my life, and no one in shul has complained about excessive body odour.

I believe in God. The God of the Bible, Tanach, on down. I believe some of the concepts of Oral Torah(Mishna/Gemara) were given at Sinai, and a lot of it was put together by the Rabbis. I accept that the Rabbis who wrote the Gemara may have made mistakes, especially in science and in society. However, I feel bound by what has been handed down over the generations and accepted as practice. As a caveat, if something has become accepted but was based on wrong information or beliefs, it doesn't neccessarily have binding authority and has to be examined carefully. In other words, rabbinic decisions(including the gemara, to some extent) have to be seen in their context, historical, social, and psychological.

What does this mean for present day practice and what I do? Lets take some examples:
Its clear to me from the sources that we are required to make a bracha before and after eating. Its not neccesarily a big deal, but it is a requirement. I sometimes forget, and if I do, and then realize it, I resolve to try to remember. No one external makes me feel bad. I feel bad because in a very small way, I haven't done what God asked me to do. The guilt doesn't ruin my day, I figure God understands. But it would have been better if I had done it, thats all.

But this examination doesn't end with minutae of practice. It also holds for broad concepts and attitudes. I dont think that my Judaism ends with practices. Unfortunately, many MO have the idea that Judaism can be Jewish practice, and secular values and culture. Concepts such as moderation of luxury, charity, education, modesty are tremendously important, and I find that they sometimes get glossed over by those of us who engage society fully. I dont want my kids watching Shakira shake her belly button, even though I think that TV can be useful and we certainly have a few in my house. I dont want my kids thinking that a 20,000 square foot home is neccessary for living. I try to live in moderation, no matter what resources are available, and if more is available, then that is more for tzeddakka. To answer the question about plunging neck lines, my guess is that the wearer of that article of clothing did not ask him/herself, "is this really what God thinks is appropriate?", and simply is following popular culture, with no thought as to what Judaism has to say about it.

I am not claiming that we all should walk around constantly thinking, "does God want me to turn here? take the elevetor to the 3rd floor?" But our thoughts and actions should be informed(always wanted to use the word that way, this is the first time) by a sense that we are God's creatures, and are here to obey His word. The exact contours of the Word is different for most of us, but we at least should try to have an acknowledgment or a thought of Him as we go through our day. That is what I am trying to achieve. It is what I think He wants.


Kosheretitquette said...

Interesting posting


Jack Steiner said...

Nice post. I have always taken issue with the idea of not showering or limited showering on Shabbos.

It doesn't make sense to me. It is still an issue of cleanliness and hygiene. What is hurt by showering.

J said...

I find the whole concept of figuring it out for yourself (through your own study, consideration, and struggle) essential for being authentic in practice and belief. And I wish more Jews were interested in really engaging the questions, from multiple perspectives to work towards "figuring it out".

Also helps that I find the whole thing fascinating to the extreme...there are so many things in this world that are difficult to wrap ones mind around, secular and religious, that it's a matter of finding those problems that one wants to delve into...and going for it...

Noam S said...

kosher e and j- thanks for the comments

jack- first of all, it isn't an issue of cleanliness and hygiene. You can certainly shower before shabbat, and right after, and only 25 hours go by between showers. Many people shower before going to bed anyway, so just shower a few hours earlier on friday afternoon.

The issue for me is this: I believe in God and his Torah. That includes the command to keep Shabbat(sabbath)- actually one of the 10 commandments. The details of how to keep shabbat are elucidated in the gemara and there are more commentaries and additions down the line. Two of the prohibitions are heating water , and wringing out things. So there is a chain of belief starting with God and ending at problems with showering on Shabbat. Now, you can choose not to believe in some part of the chain, or disagree(on a halachic or non-halachic basis) with parts of the chain, in which case the chain takes a turn and you reach a different ending point. For me, if I believe in the start, and dont find a problem with any of the parts of the chain, I am faced with the inescapable conclusions of the end of the chain. In this case, that conclusion is that unless I can shower with cold or lukewarm water and be absolutely sure that I am not wringing out anything, my belief in God dictates that I not shower on Shabbat. If I thought that the rabbinic reasoning for parts of the prohibition was bad, and there was good reason for following a different path, then I wouldn't reach this conclusion. However, that is not the case here, as far as I know.

Miss S. said...

Excellent post. If only more observant Jews from all spectrums - from MO to Chassidic, would have the same intellectual approach to halacha. Do not judge proper Jewish living by what you going on around you (just like Shakira is not okay, why should wearing opaque tights be the only 'okay'). The key to peaceful Jewish living is constant learning of Torah. It makes each and every mitvah that more special instead of just plain rote.

... Is the Window to Our Soul said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this.

PsychoToddler said...

So to boil down what you are saying:

1. You believe in Gd

2. You believe Gd gave us the Torah and wants us to follow its precepts

3. You believe in the authority of the Rabbis, over time, to interpret the meaning and practice of Halacha, and that it too is binding

4. You believe that sometimes the Rabbis were wrong about certain things and they need to be reevaluated as new information becomes available.

Is that right?

Noam S said...

missshona and sweettooth- thanks.

PT- good summary. However, depending on how you interpret point #4, you could wind up being anywhere from liberal Conservative to the rightest of the right wing Orthodox(actually the rightest of the right wing dont want to acknowledge change in halacha, even when it is clear that it has occured). I believe any re-evaluation has to be done in the context of tradition, I do not believe in change for the sake fo change.

Alison said...


Could I get a quick lesson in what's what please? Tanach is the bible (is that also a chumush sp?) and Halacha are the laws/mitzvot (are they one in the same?) The Mishna/Gemara is the Talmud divided up by the written version of the Oral Law and the commentaries? Is this correct? How does Kabalah play a role here?

The authority of the Rabbis is determined by whom? And are there contemporary Rabbis that have the power to revised, add etc to what was decided on long ago? Would it be a good analogy to compare it to our Constitution and the process of amendments?

And one more question, I hear a lot about Kosher witnesses, and hypothetically, if the civil courts in Israel were only Torah driven, many secular Jews would have to abide by it wholly or else face the consequences or leave the country. So my question is, if hypothetically the legal system was strictly Judaic, and since they are so many interpretations, loopholes, levels of orthodoxy. And so forth, which interpretation/Rabbi/ orthodox group would be kosher enough? How would that line be drawn? And as for a Kosher witness, it's the same question, again, as the joke about the stop sign alludes to, there is such a wide gap in what's acceptable among the Orthodox. So who is really Kosher?

Thanks for the clarifications.

Anonymous said...

This is my first time replying to a blog. i just want to check it works before I write a whole long thing