Reviving a halakhically moribund community
Last weekend’s snowstorm here in New York reminded me how much rabbis and meteorologists have in common. Both benefit from inclement weather. Meteorologists appreciate bad weather for obvious reasons. Rabbis, because if a snowstorm occurs on a Shabbos, we get what we like most: shailos (halakhic inquires). Shailos are our source of spiritual sustenance.
A shaila has a spiritual dimension. To paraphrase the Gemara in Tractate Niddah (31A), there are there partners in every halakhic query: the rabbi, the congregant, and God. God is the third partner because a shaila is not simply an exchange of data; it is the response to a request for spiritual assistance by your interlocutor.
This trinity between rabbi, congregant, and the Divine creates an electrical charge, igniting a spark of spiritual camaraderie between asker and askee. Halakhic inquiries are consequently one of the highlights of the rabbinate. It builds camaraderie, friendship and spiritual community.
Sadly, these interactions do not happen often enough. Rabbis do not receive nearly as many shailos as we would like. One suspects that the dearth of shailos is symptomatic of a larger phenomenon: an apathy towards halakha in our midst. Our schools do not teach it, and our congregants barely engage in it.
Impressionistically, one gets the sense that, outside certain Orthodox enclaves, many in the observant community seem to have lost interest in halakha. The observant community, in large part, observes less than it used to. And, to the degree that it does still keep halakha, it does so reluctantly and dispassionately.
This jadedness is at least partially attributable to an apparent misunderstanding of halakha’s purpose. Disabusing the community of this misunderstanding would help revivify our halakhic discourse.
Now might indeed be a good time to rejuvenate our relationship with halakha by revisiting some of our assumptions about its purpose. With the culture wars running out of steam we should now utilize the spare energy to begin a vigorous community-wide discussion about this topic. The end goal is to eliminate our community’s alienation from halakha and instead foster a reacquaintance with its true essence.
Our current halakhic orientation is flawed, informed by a litvish ethos whose mode is primarily rigid, legalistic and exhortative. We consequently misconstrue the goals of halakha, perceiving it as a somewhat dictatorial guide of Dos and Don’ts, when, in fact, this is not at all its primary goal. Halakha’s prescriptions are instead a means towards a far loftier end. Its real aim is pastoral, not judicial. Halakha serves as a balm for the vicissitudes of life and a prism through which to encounter its complexities. Halakha creates a framework in which we can grow and maximize life to its fullest potential. The behaviors it dictates are vehicles that help us get to that place.
Our Shabbos morning tefilah climaxes with an emphatic endorsement of the study of halakha. Right before Aleinu we say כל השונה הלכות בכל יום מובטח לו שהוא בן עולם הבא; one who studies halakha every day is guaranteed a place in the world to come. The formulation here is noteworthy. Instead of expounding on the virtues of observing halakha, the Rabbis emphasize the value of intellectual engagement with the law. “He who studies halakha” they say, making the point that halakha is not merely about observance. It is also a mode of thinking and a way of being. Observance cultivates a certain state of mind, which in turn leads to a richer life.
Notably, this is the message the liturgist thought was most important to impart to the congregation as they are preparing to leave shul and return to their daily routines.
As we prepare to read Parshat Mishpatim this Shabbat, let us give Jewish jurisprudence another look. A closer examination reveals a side of halakha that we have, to our detriment, overlooked.
Law at Sinai is given to a community experiencing its first moments of freedom. They have been slaves up until that point. They are encountering a new reality and they are helpless, they do not know how to navigate the world on their own. The law will be their guidepost to help them create a spirited society in which they can grow and flourish.
That is what law does, especially religious law. Religious jurisprudence is therapy and social design by way of legal statuettes. It is precisely what distinguishes religious law from secular jurisprudence. Halakha is jurisprudence with a spiritual punch. It is what the observant person practices in order to infuse their lives with a transcendental kick.