A guest post by G.A
To: The Orthodox
Date: Erev Sukkot 5772
Re: Three things you need to know about Halacha
I love you guys, but before things get too far off the rails (Kosher toilet bowl cleaner? Seriously?), there are a few things that you need to know.
I. There is no such thing as a Chumra
At least not the way you understand it.
What you don’t seem to realize is that every Halachic stringency comes paired with a counterbalancing leniency, and acknowledging only the stringent side misses half the picture. In many instances, a Machmir approach vis-à-vis Hilchos Niddah is simultaneously a Meikil approach with respect to the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, as well as the general injunction of Shalom Bayis, to name but two. Every Kashrus Chumra is a Ba’al Tashchis Kula (not to mention a potential Shalom Bayis Kula once again). Moreover, to the extent that the costs of observing and enforcing Kashrus would otherwise be directed elsewhere, there is an Allocation-of-Resources Kula here with respect to any number of other Mitzvos.
On a more macro level, nearly every Chumra, especially when implemented insensitively, has the potential to be a Kula with respect to a Jewish sense of community, a Kula with respect to general anxiety, and frankly a Kula with respect to whether a young Jewish person sticks with the faith or abandons it. Every new microbug that you discover needs to be weighed against not only the prohibition against bug-eating, but also that against intermarriage. Simply put, you need to think of every Chumra as turning a dial on a machine from left to right, but with a mirror image dial painted on the other side.
When you speak of Chumras, all you are really doing is focusing on one isolated aspect of Halacha, and privileging it over all others, whether they be aspects that you would characterize as explicitly Halachic, or those that you would refer to as “extra-Halachic” such as Kavod HaBriyos and the like (before you knock extra-Halachic considerations, try to find the prohibition against cannibalism … I’ll wait). To me, they’re all part of a Halachic life, and the discussion needs to be one that revolves around appropriate balancing, and not simply an ever-tighter ratcheting of Chumras and ever-larger expansion of Shiurim.
II. Change is good
Or at least inevitable.
Let me explain. You get very fussed about trying to maintain the constancy of Halacha and Minhag, which I can understand. Everyone wants to imagine that Moses himself could amble into their Shteeble or sit down and their Shabbos table, and blend in without missing a beat. There’s something romantic about that, I guess.
But what you fail to appreciate is just how much the Halachic ground shifts irrespective of your efforts to preserve it. The bottom line is that the experience of observing Shabbos 3,000 years ago is dramatically different than that of observing Shabbos 300 years ago, or even 30. This is not due to changes in any Halacha per se, but rather due to revolutions in technology, society, and culture. Someone adhering to a particular set of rules a long, long time ago is simply not doing the same thing as someone adhering to the same set of rules today. Trying to latch onto a particular ancient interpretation of a particular rule is like holding your coffee mug in place on your desk during a major earthquake (which are not the gays’ fault, by the way), and trying to pretend that your office looks just like it used to.
For example, while I leave it to you to sort this particular issue out, I hope you understand that forbidding a woman from serving on a Shul board in 2011 is not the same thing as doing so in the year 1011. Sure, the prohibition is technically the same, but so much has changed with respect to women (and Shul boards) that every relevant noun in the prohibition no longer means what it used to, and the sense that you are clinging to the past is illusory. The same goes for something like Kapparos. Trying to be “traditional” by taking a chicken from the farm and swinging it around your head before slaughtering it is in fact NOT being traditional when the meaning of the words “taking,” “farm,” and “slaughtering” is so far removed from that of the past that you seek to preserve.
The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will come to understand that what is important is not superficial adherence to tradition, but rather distilling those timeless elements of tradition, and applying them to current circumstances. I’m not saying that that you should throw out all of the old books, but you do no need to take the time to occasionally distinguish the spirit of the law from its letter, and continue to come up with approaches that combine the two in balanced, meaningful ways.
[P.S. While we’re on the subject of old books, some people seem to have noticed that great Rabbis occasionally got it wrong when it came to the world around them. This is not a big deal, people. One can be a good Jew without believing that Hillel and Shammai stayed up at night debating whether the world was ready for them to unveil the microwave or not, and that they decided not to only because it would be millennia before a decent Chalav Yisrael microwave popcorn would be invented (tick tock, Manischewitz). Scientific knowledge unfolds gradually, and even Rabbis so holy that you know them only as acronyms were not privy to anything more than their secular contemporaries. So what. There are, or course, legitimate questions on what to do with Halacha once its reasoning has been discredited in whole or in part (once again, I take the “Lo BaShamayim Hi” fifth and leave this one to you), but there is really no need to humiliate people by forcing them to publicly pledge allegiance to all sorts of bizarre apologetics. All this does is burden some of your best and brightest with the guilt of apostasy, and shut them out of participating in the community. As we speak, you could be losing your next Rambam because he (or she) can’t believe in good faith that dinosaur bones are forgeries or faith-testing gags. For the record, dinosaurs did indeed walk the earth. And they were AWESOME.]
III. Easy Self-Assessment Tool
Determining whether you are on the right Halachic track is not complicated, and does not require a single Rav, Roov, Rebbe, or Rebbi. Not even a Reb (the sole qualification for which seems to be testicles and a pulse these days).
Firstly, your Jewish experience should, generally, be bringing you comfort and meaning. I’m not saying that that it’s all beer and Skittles (I know, I know—the one candy that hasn’t gone Kosher yet … no promises, but stay tuned in 5752), but if your day is filled with anxiety about doing this wrong, then you’re doing it wrong.
Even more importantly, you need ask yourself whether the people you associate with day-today—and the world at large—look at Orthodox Jews and say, “these are good people that we should learn from in many respects.” It’s that simple. When someone sees a guy in a Kippah giving up his seat on a bus, picking up garbage, or speaking politely, their first thought should be “what else would you expect.” When they do business with you, their guard should come down, not up. And when they see a black hat, the word association should be more than just “Michael Jackson” and “White Collar Crime.”
Spoiler alert for those who have never read past Yehoshua and Shoftim, but the reason that I put you here, and the reason that I haven’t let anyone get rid of you, is so that my 6 billion other human creations (or, as you occasionally refer to them, Shkotzim) can look up at you admiringly. That doesn’t mean that you have to mimic the gentiles for fear of offending them (for My sake, if I hear one more Jewish techno song there WILL be an earthquake), and there is nothing wrong with sticking to your guns in the face of moral adversity, but I need you to keep an eye on the big picture here, and it ain’t bug filtering, or Matza-supervising, or finding America’s Next Top Esrog.