Reflections on a Weekend of Integral Halachah

I’ve just finished a weekend of teaching about Integral Halachach at Or Shalom and Limmud Vancouver. Naturally, I’ve been thinking about how much better I would have done if only I had…

So rather than indulge in wishing I could do it over knowing now what I didn’t know then, I thought I would share some of those thoughts as a way of continuing the discussion beyond the time limits imposed by the events.

I had assumed that people would share the feeling that many of you have or have had, namely that Halachah as we have learned it is oppressive and overly focused on answers which establish correctness of practice. My approach was to show how the halachic process was always relevant to people’s lives, that it goes beyond the codes to a literature which is responsive to individual situations, and that it is founded on transcending ethical principles and recognition of human frailties. All this in order to keep us on the path we began to walk at Sinai and which will reach its destination sometime in the future with a redeemed world and united humanity.

While people were genuinely receptive, curious, and politely challenging (this is Canada, after all), many of them consistently turned to a somewhat different perspective. Given, they said, that people are not engaged in or even familiar with halachic conversation, how were we to reach out to them? And, of course, for many of these people, the ones to whom they wanted outreach were their own children.

My response was mostly that the forms of outreach were no longer something that I knew much about. That had been my focus, our focus, decades ago when we founded the institutions which are now the components of Jewish Renewal. Outreach is something I now leave to another generation to discover and what I could do is invite people to join the process of halachic conversation in an effort to explore the new questions of our time using both the tools we inherited as well as that of Integral Halachah. And I touched, but only touched, on some of those questions.

On reflection, though, I think that this could have been more of a focus. As R. Ethan Tucker pointed out in his lecture series on Halachah, the withdrawal of the Orthodox establishment in Germany from the rest of the community in the late 19th century also meant the retraction of the halachic process from the questions and issues facing all those who were not already committed to this Orthodox approach to Jewish practice. But if we are truly concerned about whether Generation X and millennials will engage the issues of their lives using the tools of our tradition, then our spiritual and religious conversations need to be willing to engage those issues.

I dropped one potential bombshell when I said that getting on an airplane is approaching being immoral. I said this to a room full of people who fly often, many of whom are my personal and old friends. And I still fly myself. But what is our responsibility to the planet, to our children and grandchildren? To what extent is flying an indulgence and a dangerous one at that? I have a friend on Hornby Island who will not fly on principle. Is that a moral stance which we should emulate?

This is one of the dozens of real ethical questions relating to climate change which should be on the schedule of our adult education programs, our Torah discussions, and our personal practice. God is in the details, I like to say, and what would happen if we who are now the elders engaged those details in an effort to have them reveal the presence of God in the world? How would it change the elders and what impact might that have on our children and grandchildren?