Why Is Judaism So…(2)

Last time, I wrote about how we Jews contain our suffering by focusing on remembering it for limited times during the annual cycle of the calendar. Truth is, I don’t see this as a profound teaching so much as a simple observation. Do you remember how we used to say that the people of the north had so many different words to describe snow? This was because being able to recognize the varied qualities of the snow reflected the need to appreciate these differences in order to enhance survival or perhaps because living in the midst of so much snow made people aware of subtle differences in its qualities.

I’ve been told that this is not really true, though I still find it intriguing. Applied to the way Hebrew reflects our values, it is striking to notice how many words we have for praise and appreciation. In those two paragraphs that conclude P’sukay d’Zimra on Shabbat morning, there are 20 different words for our primary obligation to praise and show gratitude as well as the obligation to go beyond the praises we have received. Is there any wonder, then, that our liturgy is so vast?

Here is what I think is truly amazing: No matter how much our suffering and pain tries to pull us down into despair, we continue to focus on what is positive and beautiful about our existence on this planet, where everything sings God’s praises. We therefore have so many poems and prayers of praise that we cannot include them all in our liturgy. Some are said every day, others only on Shabbat and holidays, still others are limited to specific days and times, and many others only exist in special collections, if at all.

And, this phenomenon is not limited to liturgy. Think of the incredibly vast literature of Kabbalah, whose surface we barely touch with our focus on the four worlds and the ten sefirot. Most of us have no more than a passing acquaintance with the Zohar, a brief nod to the volumes of Hassidic writings, and perhaps an acknowledgment that there is a whole literature devoted to moral and ethical development. We are also virtually unaware of the whole area of Kabbalah called Ta’amei ha’Mitzvot which I’m told (since I also have had almost no contact with this corpus) is even larger than the sephirotic literature.

Which brings me to the often disparaged area of Halachah. Here also is a corpus of work aimed at both establishing the general rules and principles of a God-centred life and responding to the specific needs and questions of lives lived in response to the Divine call emanating daily from Sinai. Here, again, the body of halachic writings divides into two major units: the codes and their commentaries which focus on the general principles and the even larger unit of responsa, responses to specific questions about the application of general principles to life’s unique challenges in each generation.

It is true that there have been times when halachists have circled the wagons. It is also true that for the vast majority of the centuries of our existence, this process has been open, respectful of people’s needs and practices, sensitive to the changing conditions of life. Because we tend to hold onto beliefs, and because the halachic process as we have inherited it is of the circle the wagons variety, we continue to think that Halachah is the enemy and that what we do on our email lists and together at conferences and retreats is something different. In truth, however, it’s really a continuation of the halachic process with additional guiding principles (i.e. Integral Halachah). It is primarily our resistance to reviewing past responses to similar questions that seems to separate our process from that of the past. And I urge us all to give more thought to the need to balance our individual needs with that of Clal Yisrael, past, present, and future.

Reb Zalman believed very strongly that the halachic process, with the additional principles he developed, is something in which we need to participate. I know that his commitment to this over-arching principle transcended any particular conclusions or positions he advocated. This will become clear as I begin to post the sections of a work on Ger Tzedek/Get Toshav which began as a response to his concerns and took a turn that ran counter to his specific proposals. When I told him that this was happening, he said that he understood and could accept that his talmidim would use his categories to arrive at their/our own conclusions.

Stay tuned.