On Halachah / Jewish Practice

At a recent Aleph (Alliance for Jewish Renewal) gathering in commemoration of Reb Zalman’s eighth Yorzeit, I shared a few words based on a public talk Reb Zalman gave titled: Reb Zalman on Psycho-Halakhah (March 13, 2005). Barukh Hashem, the talk and many more of his shmoozes were recorded by Michael Kosakoff, (a’h) and are available on the Yesod Foundation’s Youtube site. Gabbai Seth Fishman

Halachah refers to Jewish law and it has been something to guide the day-to-day life of a Jew.

The Halachic basis that we inherit from the past took its underpinnings from the book of Deuteronomy. Moses gave us the law the second time, sending, at the same time, a message:

You shmegegs! You backsliders! I’ve had tsures for so many years shlepping you around! I’m telling you: Don’t you move to the right; don’t move to the left; it has to be exactly as I tell you. Don’t mess with it.

But just a little bit later, with King Solomon we find something more dynamic:

A time for everything! A time to do! A time to not do! A time to do this! A time to not do that!

Things shift and change, no longer absolute.

So we were dealing with one kind of a frame in the book of Deuteronomy and, later on, a different frame when King Solomon said in Proverbs 1:8:

שְׁמַע בְּנִי מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְאַל־תִּטֹּשׁ תּוֹרַת אִמֶּֽךָ / Listen, my child to the reproof of your father and do not forsake the Torah (teaching) of your mother.

So the same Torah will appear to some people as mussar avicha / reproof of your father, (i.e., you must always do like Deuteronomy says), but sometimes, it will appear like Torat imecha / teaching of your mother which wants,  (again, Solomon speaking in Proverbs 3:17), dracheha darchey no’am / the Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness. E.g., so many things in the Torah have to do with Shalom Ba’yit / peace of the home and all the books in the Bible speak about taking care of the poor. So one gets a different attitude from looking at mussar avicha than looking at Torat imecha, the mother teaching.

In the present Age, there have come big shifts in our cosmology, our zeitgeist, our weltanshauung, our root metaphors. And the Torah speaks in the language of Human Beings which means that the Torah has shifted as well.

So right away there’s a question about shifting and whether shifts really have happened.

Some People ask:

What is the difference between this time and other times such that you say a Paradigm Shift in Yiddishkeit? Is there a change before Hashem, Yitbarach, Chas v’shalom? Isn’t it written, (Malachi 3:6)

אני הוי’ לא שניתי / I am Hashem, I have not changed; I do not change?

But the answer is:

 While it’s true that Scripture states, (Deuteronomy 32:7)

זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם / Remember the days of antiquity,

and that those days have an aspect of permanence and continuance, it is also written, (ibid)

בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דּוֹר־וָדוֹר / consider the years of generation upon generation. שְׁנוֹת = years and the word is etymologically related to the word השתנות / change. For there is change that occurs in the arrangement of the spirit of the times both previously and at present.

If we take it for granted that there are big changes that have occurred on the level of Paradigm Shift, does that also mean that there can be changes in Halachah? The answer is yes.

Even in what we consider traditional Halachah, there were changes as, e.g. when candlelighting on Friday night became a Mitzvah some two thousand years ago despite the injunction in the Torah against having a fire in your habitations on Shabbat.

We are responsible for our consciousness and our behavior and ultimately, we are responsible for establishing the details of our covenant with God. It’s our right to do so and it’s a Mitzvah. And with the advent of feminism and its mind there is the sense that if Jewish Renewal is to do something in this coming time, it will have to go more along the road of Torat imecha than going along the mussar avicha.

But there always seems to be a question hanging around regarding authority. Who says a person can be creative with Halachah. Who says we can use our sechel in ways that our ancestors did not. Doesn’t that mean we’re not being Orthodox? And doesn’t that mean that we’re departing from the Jewish Heritage and casting off in some new direction? How do we know that what we’re doing is Jewish, is Kosher, is something which will lead to greater blessing for our descendants?

These are big questions.

So Reb Zalman lays out for us ways we must go about the changes in Halachah.

He emphasizes conserving the transformation embedded in a Mitzvah. Regarding traditional Halachah, including those practices that are no longer done, ask what it was supposed to do for them in their time. Although it turns out that the detailed practice no longer does for us what it did for them in their time, we ask how we are to achieve the transformation in ours.

If we didn’t figure that piece out, that would be a very sad situation and a loss to us…

He gives many examples. Here’s one:

Putting on a seat belt: Reb Zalman says:

Putting on a seat belt was just a secular thing. Until one day, as I’m reading in the chumash that if you build a house and it has a flat roof, you have to have a fence around it so nobody should fall down: It’s a safety mechanism.

So I’m getting into the car, I put on the seat belt and say:

asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al mitzvat ma’akeh.

See? I’m following the same mitzvah. The mitzvah in its literal form is no longer relevant, i.e., it’s not my issue on the roof. But as it says in the Torah: pen yippol hannofel / lest the person will fall, lest the person will be injured.

And you get to see that we want to be able to plant whatever new thing that we’re doing, that it should have a connection. That’s so important.

Try it the next time you get in the car and see what kind of transformation happens.

If you follow along with his thesis you will see that he is not just speaking for Jewish Renewal; he is laying out an approach which, if followed, is transformative and will provide needed updates to traditional Yiddishkeit and beyond. Because ultimately he is looking at healing the planet and as we know, this is more than just a Jewish issue.

I just want to end with two different statements he gave us:

1) In 2005 after his visit to the Ukraine, Reb Zalman stated that he realized that he was a good successor in our time in line with what the Baal Shem Tov started in his. On that occasion, he felt himself getting S’michah from the Baal Shem Tov. And he said to us that:

All of you who have ever received Semikhah through Ohalah, can count this as part of your chain transmission from now on.

So just like Bobov, Satmar, Lubavitch, Bratslav, etc., Jewish Renewal is a branch on the tree of Hasidut.

2) And In 2011, he stated

I am Orthodox as one is Orthodox in 2011.

So if it works for you, keep in mind that your Jewish Renewal has the same weight as Orthodoxy; as THE tradition.

IYH it will begin with your insight.

Then others will follow it after concluding it was a good thing to do; and that will create what we call Minhag, the way in which we conduct ourselves.

After a while what may happen is that the Minhag will become a law, a means for traffic control, the best way for us to avoid bumping into one another and helping us to all zig and zag together.

What starts as a soft insight becomes more hardened when it turns into a custom and later evolves into something stronger and more solid which is a law. So this also involves reaching outside of yourself to your community and engaging in the process of the Consensus of the Committed, the Consensus of the Pious, as he has described in his book Integral Halakhah, Transcending and Including.

May the memory of Reb Meshulam Zalman Hiyya z’tzvkl be blessed! Amein v’amein!

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