On Halachah and Jewish Renewal

In each one of the following excerpts, Reb Zalman uses the same analogy:  How a spine grows in endo-skeletal vertebrates.  The analogy is used to illustrate Reb Zalman’s sense of how the essential structures of both Halachah / the way to be a Jew and Jewish Renewal are to be understood.  The essential structures are inside and they stay constant in a basic way while at the same time there is growth and change. 

Respectively, the excerpts are from Reb Zalman’s book, Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including, available from Aleph and an edited transcription of a video you can see by clicking here, posted on Rabbi Ayla Grafstein’s Youtube site.  Please share your comments on either or both excerpts and happy HanukkahGabbai Seth Fishman (BLOG Editor)

From Integral Halachah:

“Here is a wonderful, organic way of looking at the anchors of halachah / observance, what I’d call ‘the non-negotiables,’ ‘the absolutes:’   They are like the bones of an organism.   

“Look at the etymology for the Hebrew word atzmut / essence and atzmiut identity:  They both come from etzem / bone. 

“The essence of halachah is bone-like.  That feels right to me.  I see some present-day halachists as trying to protect themselves around with bones, as if the anchors were exo-skeletal. 

“We have to bring halachah inside so that we live with and have our skeleton on the inside and we have flesh, skin, etc., around it. 

“Deep inside are our absolutes, but around that we have to be able to grow, develop and change, which is like what is known as the chanoch la-na’ar / the education of the child. 

“Imagine that we decide to throw away the Maxwell House Haggadah so it speaks more to the concerns of the adults from our time.  How do we do this in such a way that it still speaks to the children and the adults, in such a way that as events change in the world from year to year it remains constant while it grows at the same time?  How do we give the children their connection and give each person his/her connection according to his/her phase in life so all can tune into it, yet it remains constant and recognizable? This is the genius of the seder, the genius in the way in which we have our edut, in the celebrative ways that we have.

“The issue is dealt with in the Tanya.  The passuk from mishle / Proverbs is  ‘Chanoch lanaar al pi darko, gam ki yazkin lo yassur mimenu‘ / ‘educate the youth according to his path, and even when he grows up, he will not veer from it.’  So Reb Schneur Zalman asks the question, ‘What kind of a thing is that?  Teach the kid in such a way that when he gets older, he shouldn’t go away from it?’  In other words, he should be fixated at the early state, before he’s learned the difference between right and wrong?  That wouldn’t  be so good. 

“‘So,’ he says, ‘No!  That’s not what it means.’ 

“It means, teach him so in the beginning, that the yiddishkeit has such a power of renewing itself from the inside, so that the child doesn’t have to break it and throw it away as the child grows old.  As the child grows old it can grow with him/her.  So that it’ll stay with him/her as s/he continues to grow.  And this is like the way the skeleton grows on the inside.”

From Rabbi Ayla Grafstein’s Youtube site:

“My feelings are that when Jewish Renewal becomes a denomination, it creates a  problem for itself; it has boundaries that it shouldn’t have.  Because, imagine a group of people, both men and women, who want to have a retreat at elat chayyim, and who are not able, according to the practice of their community, to davven without a mechitzah / a divider between men and women.  And imagine that we at elat chayyim would say that we have a policy that we will not allow anything to go on with a mechitzah.  

“This would make me sad, because these people, just like people of every denomination, need to learn the things in davenology / prayer and trans-personal psychology, trans-personal sociology.  And they need to learn about an understanding of Paradigm Shift.  The kinds of people who teach at elat chayyim would be able to help them in their education, in their development.  And furthermore, what if they need an eruv / demarkation of shabbos space and hechsher / certification of kashrut and all kinds of other things which is part of the halachah of this group, then I say, let’s give it to them. 

“In the same way that we open to gays, lesbians, transsexuals, inter-marrieds, people on the left, etc., I think we need to be open to the people on the right.  And denomination doesn’t allow for this.  So, that’s why I am not for denomination.

“At the same, what do I like about denomination?  It has some good aspects to it too. 

“First of all, denomination is quality control.  It’s sharing resources.  It is networking. 

“If you come and you ask, ‘I’m going to go to Osh Kosh; is there a Jewish Renewal service in Oshkosh?  I’m going to be there for shabbos.”  In this case, I’d like to be able to tell you if there is going to be such a service.  Perhaps it is going to be in the Reform congregation that week which will be having a Jewish Renewal service.  It would be nice to be able to know about it.  Or maybe, there’s a regular Jewish Renewal minyan, or it is hosted at a Conservative or  Orthodox shul, or a chavurah

“So what I’m saying here is that an advantage of denomination is name recognition and therefore an understanding of expectations. If I’m going to go to a Jewish Renewal service I’m going to go with certain expectations that are likely to be met which won’t necessarily be met when I go somewhere else, e.g. when I go to a non-Renewal service. 

“So if you ask, is it necessary to have a structure, i.e. a denomination, I would say, ‘Yes.’ 

“But there are different kinds of structures.  And here I want to make a distinction, because I want to be really clear about the kind of structure I am saying is useful regarding the Jewish Renewal denomination and the kind of structure that is not as useful. 

“There are some people who want to define everything by the outer form that it has.  And the model for that is insects.  Their skeleton is on the outside.  Also, a lobster:  Skeleton is on the outside.  The other kind are vertebrates with the skeleton on the inside. 

And I want to say that the structure for the denomination of Jewish Renewal needs to be like vertebrates with the skeleton on the inside.  So when people say, ‘Define yourself.  What is Jewish Renewal?  What limits?  What boundaries?’  I will say, ‘You’re asking me to be like a cockroach, i.e. to put my structures outside of me; to put, as it were, my skeleton outside.’  I would much rather compare myself to the vertebrates with the skeleton on the inside, e.g. a snake.  To be able to move around with my structure inside.  To be able to do things.  To have my skeleton located in this way.  I’d rather be soft on the outside, not hard.  I want my spine on the inside.  If people think that we of Jewish Renewal are like worms, with no skeleton on the inside, that’s also not true. 

“We have a Jewish Renewal spine.  That’s why I don’t like it when people say, ‘Renewal is Judaism-lite,’ because it’s not true.  We have principals.  We care about our principals.  When I come to our Renewal shul and Kiddush is offered, and little stainless metal cups so we don’t have to use Styrofoam and throw things away, I’m very glad.  That is how we are doing eco-kosher

“So I think these are the kinds of things in which I want to be very strong and say whatever we can give each other in mutual assistance and protection, we should do so; and if that looks like a denomination because it has structure, I don’t care.  The structure is important.  And I have a feeling that when I look at ohalah / The Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal and I see that there are some people who come from other ‘denominations,’ and that they are quite happy in the chevrusa / the fellowship that we have, I think that’s wonderful.  So I would like us to have a membrane but it should be semi-permeable.”

2 Responses to “On Halachah and Jewish Renewal”

  1. Kosher Holiday Says:

    Halakha is developed and applied by various halakhic authorities, rather than one sole “official voice”, different individuals and communities may well have different answers to halakhic questions. Controversies lend rabbinic literature much of its creative and intellectual appeal. With few exceptions, controversies are not settled through authoritative structures because during the age of exile Jews have lacked a single judicial hierarchy or appellate review process for Halakha. Instead, Jews interested in observing Halakha typically choose to follow specific rabbis or affiliate with a more tightly-structured community.

  2. Gabbai Seth Fishman (Blog Editor) Says:

    You are correct, but I feel sad when I read this. It reminds me of the brokenness and of the galut aspect. Reb Zalman’s book, Integral Halachah, touches on the halakhic authorities themselves and tries to unravel some of the criteria that an authority would use for a ruling. For me, halakha is much more than “intellectual appeal.” It is our responsibility as Jews, our side of the covenant between the Jewish people and God, our part of the agreement. It is foremost on our minds whenever we recite the shema. I would say that we Jews are very splintered right now and this is unfortunate. I would like to see more consensus. I think that on some level that is possible, but it feels very difficult.

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