I study with a number of students in a variety of settings: one-on-one, in small groups, formally and informally. Today I had my weekly meeting with one such student. We’ve been studying Mishnah together this year, and we’ve studied other texts before. But today’s meeting illustrated how you never know when and were a deep conversation might happen.

We were studying the second chapter of the Tractate Brachot, which deals with the laws and ethics of prayer. In the second Mishnah of the chapter, Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha teaches why the paragraphs of the Shema come in the order that they do. The first paragraph comes before the second so that you will accept the yoke of heaven before the yoke of the commandments. The second comes before the third because, while the second is said during both daytime and nighttime, the third is only said at night. This is because the third paragraph is about the tzitzit, the ritual fringes, which are meant to be seen, and which cannot naturally be seen at night. (Incidentally, this is not the law today: we say the third paragraph at both daytime and nighttime.)

We started to unpack this last phrase, going into the halakhic principle of tadir v’eino tadir tadir kodem: When one has a regular activity and a special one, one does the regular one first. Since we always say the second paragraph, but we only say the third paragraph at night, we do the second one first. Or, since we put on our tallit, our prayer shawl, every day, but we only put on our tefillin on weekdays, we put on the tallit first.

Innocuous enough. But then my student observed that in our general culture, the emphasis seems to be precisely the opposite: do the special thing first, leave the routine for second. I responded that one could map onto that dichotomy a philosophical-ethical framework: the Mishnah’s ethics reflect an Aristotelian ideal, that the individual achieves fulfillment through behaving according to the ethical dictates of the law; the modern Western ideal, by contrast, is Kantian, and states that the individual’s expression of his/her will is what is most authentic. For the Mishnah, and for traditional Judaism in general, individual fulfillment comes through surrender to the law, from doing the routines of the everyday precisely because the law commands them. For the Westerner, individual fulfillment comes through “finding your best self” and “living your best life,” which leads to an ethics of the unique and special, often at the expense of the mundane. (Caveat for the scholars: I don’t mean to imply that Aristotle and Kant are so widely apart, or that one is better than the other. One can certainly be a good person living according to both approaches. But the community-individual dichotomy is useful, and Aristotle and Kant are perhaps the two great protagonists in the story.)

From here the discussion opened up into a conversation about prayer, and the tension within Jewish prayer of spontenaity and liturgy. On Friday nights, my student said, he often feels nothing as he sits through the Shabbat prayers. He either wants it to be much longer or much shorter–longer and lingering on one or two prayers and doing them really well, or shorter and thereby getting to the good company and conversation of dinner. What happens now, he said, is the worst of both worlds: you get to discharge your obligations, and you feel nothing whatsoever. Let it be one or the other.

I responded by fast-forwarding two chapters in the Mishnah, to Rabbi Eliezer, who says that one who makes his prayer fixed and rote has failed to make his prayer a true outpouring of feeling, and to Rabbi Joshua, who states what one should pray if one is in a dangerous place or moment. I remarked that I thought the juxtaposition of these two remarks was instructive: taken together, they signal that prayer is supposed to be a bit dangerous, it should involve risk. The Mishnah following Rabbi Joshua further states that one who is unable to turn his body to face Jerusalem while praying should direct his heart towards the Holy of Holies. This would seem to be a further confirmation of the same idea: the Holy of Holies is the site of greatest ritual, precisely because it is the site of the greatest instability and power. Prayer is supposed to be an encounter between God, the individual and the community, all in that space.

Yet my student wasn’t quite satisfied. “How do you do both at once–the ritual and the spontaneous? How do you do the Kantian and the Aristotelian? How do you find individual fulfillment and surrender to the law?” I think there are at least three approaches, I said. One is to try to live in the middle, in the tension. This is generally an attractive idea to idealistic folks in their twenties. It was certainly attractive to me at that stage of my life. It was the same kind of third way impulse that a lot of us admired in the Obama campaign. But of course we’ve seen that it’s a lot easier to say that than to do it. The center cannot truly hold in the long run. You can’t build an institution out of the unstable middle. To do so is to live a life forever betwixt and between.

So you then have two other options. The first is to make your home inside traditional Judaism, and venture out into the world of secular life, but return home at the end of the day or the week. The second is to make your home in the secular world, and venture out into the world of traditional life, returning to your secular home when the day is done. Good, rich, ethical, and moral lives are possible according to both approaches. I don’t think it’s simply an issue of taste, though neither of the options is going to be right for everyone. It’s a real choice.

Home looks different in each case. And what my student described in this conversation was nothing so much as the struggle to figure out where home is, what home looks like, who is in home, who or what can be a guest, and where do our journeys outside of home take us. As I have come to see from so many conversations with Jews in their twenties in recent years, those are really the questions that tug at their hearts, that keep them up at night.

What I love most about my work is that I am privileged to have these conversations, to help these extraordinary people explore these questions, not just in reference to their own lives, but through the framework of Torah. This entire conversation happened because of a line about which paragraph of the Shema gets said first. How fantastic is that?