As I think I’ve written before, one of the books I want to write is called “Letters to a Jewish Twenty-something.” A recent conversation with a former student now studying in Jerusalem for the year prompted me to write the next entry.

Dear Alex,

You asked me for guidance about your desire to write on Shabbat. While writing on Shabbat is formally prohibited as one of the 39 acts of labor forbidden by Jewish law, you brought up a few very important rationales for wanting to write:

1. You want to write in order to capture and reflect on some of the very meaningful, thought- and feeling-provoking experiences you have on Shabbat, particularly this year as you study in Jerusalem;
2. While you appreciate living a halakhic lifestyle as a way of engaging with the rich tradition of the Jewish people, you don’t believe that halakha is actually the word of God as expressed through the Rabbis;
3. Given both of the previous points, it would seem to make a lot of sense to allow yourself to write on Shabbat as a means of deepening your spiritual experience–or, in a formulation I would prefer, deepen your dialogue with the enduring story of the Jewish people.

I responded in our conversation that you are asking a very powerful question, one that goes to the heart of the predicament of Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy today: Do you follow the formal letter of the law, even at the expense of deeper spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization? Or do you massage the contours of the law, in order to enable a more profound spirituality? Do you see the law as absolutely binding, even when it comes at the expense of a higher good? (Philosophers would call this a deontological position.) Or is the law only good when it fulfills the higher purpose in which you understand it is rooted, in which case your behavior should follow the purpose, and not the law? (A consequentialist approach.)

As I told you, my own feeling is that, though I have a great deal of sympathy for the consequentialist impulse–that is, to adjust our practice according to the purposes we understand it should be aligned with–and while I have a big problem the idea of deontological ethics–that is, behavior dicated solely by duty, and not by conscience–I still wouldn’t write on Shabbat, even if it was for your noble purpose of a greater sense of communion with the Holy One and Am Yisrael.

I can identify two main reasons for this. First, as I told you, one of the great advantages of halakha is that you don’t have to constantly evaluate your practice against your own subjective impulses. Halakha gives you a strong frame in which to live your life, and in giving over some of the decision-making to halakha, I think you ultimately create space in your life to be a better oved Hashem, a servant of God. The minute you start to cross that line, however well-intentioned the crossing, the frame ceases to be solid. Granted, one can reasonably argue that in our world of choice, every time one acts according to halakha, one is making an active choice. But in my experience, that’s not the case within a shomer mitzvot community. Yes, people frequently negotiate their observance, but there still remains an identifiable communal norm of behavior. Jews who keep halakha simply don’t write on Shabbos. When you begin to write, you may well be a very good Jew, but you have entered a space where you assume all responsibility for your halakhic decision-making, and I think that will lead to greater anxiety and difficulty down the road.

Second, and related to the first point, I don’t think one has to believe that halakha as codified in the Shulchan Arukh is dvar Hashem in order to be a God-fearing Orthodox Jew. One can approach halakha as what political philsophers might call a weak ontology–in the words of Stephen White, “Strong beliefs, weakly held.” The idea here is that halakha can be something we feel quite committed to, while still having a modern’s awareness that it may well not be the word of God, that it is the work of human beings. The community of people who live their lives in deep dialogue with halakha–the community of shomrei mitzvot throughout time–evolves and grows as an organism. We can argue about the pace of that change and whether the organism is healthy (I think it generally is), but the key point is that our relationship with the organism is paramount, not whether we believe that halakha comes from the mouth of God. In this respect, my approach has resonance with the idea of second naivete found in writers like Paul Ricouer–that is, we can approach our lives with a modern, self-critical, modest point of view, and yet still have deep commitments and a deep relationship with the Creator, which comes about through the awe and wonder we experience as briot, creations in the world, and in Torah, the ritual and ethical discipline we practice that connects us with God and one another in past, present and future.

What I am describing is essentially the project of modern or open Orthodoxy today, in my view. It is the attempt to live a life fully in dialogue with the enduring story of the people of Israel–Torah in its fullest understanding–in a post-modern age. It is a big project, and one that I myself am not sure I’m up to. I do not always rise to the level of these aspirations. But I try.

So finally, in answer to your question about writing on Shabbat, I would say that I think–I know–that God wants you to be struck with awe and wonder and gratitude at the world, and your life in it. I know God wants you to express that. And I also know that not writing on Shabbat is a discipline with ancient roots, that there have been spiritual seekers in every generation who have wrestled with how best to elaborate the memories of a Shabbat afternoon. My strong guess is that there are some deep spritual souls in the Holy City who can help you to find ways of remembering, rearticulating, and recreating your spiritual journey, and that those methods will be even more lasting and significant than writing. Before you take on the yoke of making your own halakha, I think you should explore all of the wisdom within it.

B’vracha,

Josh

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