Thursday, April 24, 2008

More Consternation about Jewish Rules

My last post was about my difficulty with all the minutia that goes into preparation for Passover--and here I am writing on my laptop at a Passover Resort hotel. The sun is shining brightly outside and I just came back to my room from a wonderful outdoor buffet brunch, where the cheerful mosgiach made me the perfect omlet on one of those little gas flame burners, and in the background I heard the whirrr of the blenders making choose-your-ingredients smoothies. Matza brei and platters of cheeses and lox and fake bagels that look like the surface of the moon (and probably taste just as good) were on tables in the shaded patio, with crocks of hot porridge, bins of cool yoghurt and other comestibles embarrassingly abundant. So how can I continue to feel that many details of mitzvot are, um, unnecessary and weird?

Coincidentally (if there is such a thing), my 15-year-old son joined me sitting on a comfy couch in the sun this morning and we devoured our perfect omlettes together. He told me that he was up late moderating a heated discussion between a young fellow who is an atheist and only performs mitzvot to honor his parents, and one of the rabbis supervising the food prep here. The upshot was that the moshgiach used all the "why there has to be God" arguments and the disbeliever was unmoved.

Meanwhile, I had a fascinating conversation with a young seminary graduate who posits that halacha, every fastidious detail, is meant to further man's interaction with God. By applying logic to new issues, derived by a posek from the vast array of Torah thought, we bring otherwise staid and stale pronouncements into our personal realms on a daily basis. It is halacha, then, that actually forges our personal relationships with God. Whether or not to put tin foil on the shelves of one's refrigerator puts our efforts to conform to God's will foremost in our experience.

I can accept that to a point; my reaction is that we have choices even within the tight confines of halacha, and exactly HOW tight those confines are is a matter of which rabbi you follow or how some view went akimbo several hundred years ago, and just kept billowing further into ridiculousness--but now, entrenched as either minhag or halacha, cannot be retracted or rethought or revised.

An example: At the time electricity became available, I'm told, there was much discussion about its impact on Shabbat. Is turning on a light switch akin to opening a spigot? As water flows readily through pipes, electricity flows in an ongoing basis through a home's wires, and tapping into it for one's hot tray or electric blanket is no different from flushing the toilet to let the waiting water through.

It was decided that use of electricity was not similar to opening a spigot, and so Jews ended up with dark bathrooms and cold nighttime bodies and so many other inconveniences that arise from not being able to use electricity. One can say that this makes Shabbat special, if not more uncomfortable (which it certainly does) and that restraining from changing the world, which using electricity emphatically does, is the point of Shabbat, anyway.

OK, but let's say there's a new means of conveying energy that doesn't require electricity. I understand that in Israel, Jews can use the hot water from their faucets on Shabbat since the heating mechanism is solar, rather than via a gas tank that increases its flame when empty. Israeli Jews, then, regain the comfort of washing their faces on Shabbat with hot water--ahhh!--while I continue to shiver while spashing frigid water on my face. Is my experience of Shabbat somehow better because I have endured a throwback to discomfort?

Which takes me back to my disdain for halachic minutia. Yes, Torah is integrated with everything, every decision, every moment on our planet (and elsewhere!) But the amount of prescribed, mandatory behaviors is just toooooo encompassing, constricting and picayune. I contort my attitude with great duress to envision halacha as wondrous means to bind me to God. But, it's always my fault (God has none, of course) that I can't Pollyanna my way through many directives. In this religion, my view that many rules are over-the-top demanding and strange is by definition wrong, and it is my job to learn my way to seeing that fact.

Even as I write this, I am internally arguing the other side. That old yatzer ha ra is acting up, I tell myself! Also, being Jewish involves questions, so delving and questioning isn't so bad--as long as you keep following the rules. Still, there's that minutia. And then again--are we REALLY supposed to know why God tells us to so peculiarly celebrate matza, the bread of both freedom and affliction? Can we REALLY conceive why chumetz is such an anathema? And that's where I remain--stuck between reason and rebellion and acceptance.

So Rabbi Soloveitchik's "task of covenantal man" becomes a nearly impossible challenge:
“The Halakhah believes that there is only one world—not divisible into secular and hallowed sectors—which can either plunge into ugliness and hatefulness, or be roused to meaningful, redeeming activity, gathering up all latent powers into a state of holiness. Accordingly, the task of covenantal man is to be engaged not in dialectical surging forward and retreating, but in uniting the two communities into one community where man is both the creative, free agent, and the obedient servant of God.”

How do YOU solve this dilemma?

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