Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why I "Do Halakha"

This started as a Live Journal meme (originally from Smartphil, via debka_notion), but the topic seemed blogworthy.

Smartphil presents a number of possible answers to the question, "why do you do halakha*?" The reasons come from Rabbi David Golinkin's "Halakhah of Our Time," and are summarized here. The following are my current thoughts on why I choose to lead a (more or less) halakhik lifestyle. I've used the summary of Golinkin's work as a guide. (Note: These are today's thoughts. My reasons may be different tomorrow.)

A. Theocentric Reasons

In my understanding, there can be no halakha without the presumption that (1) God exists, (2) God cares about human behavior, and (3) human beings can, at least to a certain extent, discern God's will. Without these presumptions (we can call them "postulates," for DH's sake), you might have something that looks like halakha, but the essence of halakha is missing. (We call that something "tradition.")

I do not believe that the entire Torah, let alone the Babylonian Talmud, was dictated to Moses at Sinai. I do, however, like to think that the Torah, the Talmud, and the expressions of Judaism that came after them contain some element of divinity. I would rather not be any more specific than that. This is all speculation.

As Naomi Chana once said somewhat more articulately, I don't think God really cares whether or not I mix meat and dairy, but I do think He cares that I care. (Sorry, I'm old fashioned. My God is a He.) Halakha offers a means to demonstrate my commitment to God's will, even if I can't be sure exactly what it is that He wants.

B. Ethnocentric Reasons

To be honest, I don't quite understand the argument that Jews should adhere to Jewish law simply in order to preserve Judaism or the Jewish people. There's no sense in trying to preserve something unless it has inherent value. And I don't buy the argument that Judaism is worth preserving simply on account of the ethical principles that it imparts. Certainly, Judaism has contributed certain ethical values to the world (or, at least, certain expressions of those values), but there can be ethics without Jews or Judaism, and, sadly, there are nominally religious Jews with little regard for ethics.

That said, the specific ways in which I observe halakha have a lot to do with tradition and community. I want to strive to live in accordance with God's will, but I don't want to do it alone. I want to be a part of the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people" (as the Reconstructionists put it), and I want to be a part of a living community.

C. Anthropocentric Reasons

Golinkin offers two very different anthropocentric reasons to observe halakha:
(1) It encourages self-discipline, and
(2) It brings joy.

With regard to (1), I would say that self-discipline is only valuable insofar as it is applied to inherently valuable pursuits. It is quite possible that if I prayed more regularly I would also exercise more regularly, study more diligently, arrive on time for appointments, and be more cautious about my diet. I was once better at all these things, and I daresay they were connected. It wasn't so pleasant, though. People were always telling me to "loosen up." Maybe instead of loosening up I should have learned to hide my stress. (Something to think about over this season of repentance.)

As for (2), well, this seems like a good opportunity to plug Naomi Chana's recent posts on prayer. For my own part, I admit that one of my primary reasons for observing Shabbat as I do is that it makes me happy. I like having a chance to rest, take a break from what I normally do, wear nice clothes, eat good food, and chat with friends. I attend synagogue partly out of a sense of religious obligation, but also because I genuinely enjoy it. Missing services puts me in a lousy mood.

I certainly don't enjoy all mitsvot. Waking up early to pray is pretty unpleasant (unless I'm joining the wonderful egal minyan, in which case it's not too bad), and when I'm not in a religious setting, restrictions on eating and movement can be very awkward. I suppose the true test of my commitment to halakha is the extent to which I observe the mitsvot that I don't enjoy. But I don't think that getting pleasure out of mitsvot** is inherently bad. Like the Chassidim, I like to think that God wants us to be happy.

* Jewish law/ religious observance
** Commandments.

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