We read the Eser Dibrot (the Ten Commandments) this week. In congregations throughout the world, people will rise to hear them read. The Eser Dibrot were also recited in the Temple in Jerusalem, in early synagogues, and in some synagogues in the modern period, as well. In reality, the Eser Dibrot do not stand alone in Jewish tradition; they are a gateway to the rest of halakhah. But just what is halakhah? Usually translated “Jewish law,” I would argue that this is an unfortunate misunderstand with wide-ranging repercussions.
Two questions arise: Is the purpose of Torah to convey law? Is law the essence of Judaism? I would answer “no” to both questions.
We live today in a secular society tinged with antinomianism. We object to externally imposed behavioral restraints, moral standards, and what we consider unnecessary rules. At the same time, there is a movement in the Jewish world toward Judaism-through-law, as if living Jewishly is all about intense focus on what is permitted and what is forbidden – a pushback against secular distaste for rules? Increasingly restrictive and absurd kashrut standards are a prime example of this movement.
Torah is about our people’s experience of, and relationship with, God. It is about life immersed in the Divine. Therefore, it speaks to our individual, and collective, relationship with God. Every deep and abiding relationship obligates. My relationships with my husband, children, friends, congregants, and colleagues all impose obligations on me. That is the nature of a committed relationship. It is the nature of the specific relationship that determines the parameters of those obligations.
In our tradition, commitment is expressed as halakhah, which as I mentioned is incorrectly understood as “Jewish law” and more accurately translated “a path one walks.” Torah is not “Law” but “Guide.” There is a world of difference between “Law” that begets “Jewish law” and “Guide” that gives rise to “a path one walks.” The latter is active, dynamic, evolving, because it reflects an active, dynamic, and evolving relationship with God. To calcify halakhah or use it as a battleground for establishing the authority of one group over another, is to miss the beauty, love, and spiritual nature of our tradition, and to bury opportunities for experiencing holiness beneath a mountain of permitted-and-prohibited regulations. Jewish practice should be an opening to experience holiness in our lives, not a matter of holier-than-thou.
There is an allegory: The doves complaint to God that they are defenseless because their beaks are weak and they cannot run. God provides them with wings so they can fly, but they then complain that with wings they are even more burdened. “Fools!” God says, “If you use them correctly, you’ll take flight and command the skies.”
So it is with us. If we use our tradition correctly, we too can soar spiritually. Shabbat can free us from work and the pressures of daily life to enjoy our families, reconnect with God, and consider what is most meaningful to us. Regular prayer can help us gain control over our lives, directing our efforts toward that which is purposeful and monitoring the relationships in our lives that are so important. Kashrut can help us attune our lives to the environment and world beyond our homes and workplaces, a way to connect at the most elemental level to God’s universe. Closing shabbat with Havdalah can help us recognize and appreciate that not all time is the same qualitatively and that holiness is something we bring to the times, events, and relationships in our lives.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman