Friday, 7 October 2011

Kol Nidrei - The Ethics of Halachah

It’s night-time.

This is the sort of story you can only tell once the kids are in bed.


The Talmud[1] tells of a Yeshivah student who particularly loved the Mitzvah of tzitzit – the command that a person should wear a four cornered garment with fringes.

And he becomes fascinated with a prostitute who charges 400 gold coins for her services. He hands over the money and the woman invites him in. He’s confronted by a cascade of beds, each higher than the next – six beds of silver and a bed of pure gold. The woman climbs to the golden bed and strips naked. He’s climbing up after her, pulling off his clothes as goes, when, all of a sudden, his tzitzit slap him across the face, and he slips down and scurries away.

It gets better. The woman, so startled by the way in which this man has resisted her siren charms, performs teshuvah, leaves her former life, and it all ends happily ever after.


A man, saved from his prostitute by a four cornered garment with fringes.

A prostitute saved from her life of harlotry by a strange Biblical ordinance.

A person saved from misdeed by a Mitzvah.


This is the third in my series of sermons this Rosh Hashanah season. I’m trying to articulate a Jewish ethic – a Jewish way to live better lives. My point has been not that we are wilfully sinful – most of the time – but rather that we don’t see things sufficiently clearly, and that failing to recognise what we should recognise, we lapse into patterns of behaviour that lessen us and lessen our ability to reach our potential.


On First Day Rosh Hashanah I spoke about how we should see other people, on Second Day I spoke about how we should see God – both those sermons are now up on the web if you have missed them – there will be a quiz. J

And tonight, I want to talk about how we should see Mitzvot – the commands that make up the ritual ebb and flow of our faith. To be a Jew means to be part of a covenant which mandates we observe a body of practices some obvious, some strange. This body of practice is the Halachah and these mandated actions are the Mitzvot.


Actually I’m not going to address all the Mitzvot tonight. For tonight I’m going to ignore all the nice friendly non-sectarian commands like not killing people or loving your fellow – as important as they are. I’m going to focus exclusively on the odd stuff – Tzitzit, Shabbat, prayerthe things that make Jews unique and strange. I’ve been universal in my last two sermons. Tonight I’m going to be particular. I’m going to try and make the case that – seen correctly – these particularistic observances make us ethical, make us better. My point is that without working out this piece of our identities we are not only fail as Jews, we fail as humans.


I’m not saying that people who aren’t Jewish can’t be ethical – of course not. Rather I’m with Anton Chekhov who said that it is only when we are most local that we can be most universal.

I’m a Jew. To work out how to live a better, fuller life, I need to work out what to do with the specifically Jewish piece. If I get that right and if my Sikh friends work out how to live well as a Sikh, and my if my Muslim friends work out how to live well as a Muslim and so on – we’ll all do fine.


I’m also not saying performing Mitzvot guarantees ethical decency, I’m not suggesting that no one wearing tzitzit has ever visited a prostitute, al avay – a fine dream that would be. The Rabbis have long known that a person can be an observant scoundrel.[2] But I am suggesting Mitzvot help. Not only do they hold us back from the bad they also propel us towards the good.


Judaism’s pre-occupation, and some have called it an obsession, with Mitzvot and Halachah is easily misunderstood. From Paul’s accusation that Judaism is a religion only of law, while Christianity is a religion of love, to Spinoza’s suggestion that Judaism is not a religion at all, rather, purely a legal system the nature of Halachah has been traduced. That’s an error and a shame. And particularly shameful because so many of us, as Jews, have accepted Paul’s cosy critique; cosy because it gets us off the hook of having to be so odd, take so many days off work, bother so much with menus and the rest of it. I want to interrupt this cosy consensus. I want us to take Mitzvot a lot more seriously.


Halachah is not mechanistic; it’s not about externalities. Halachah demands the fusing of external action with the internal emotion. When the internal compass is out of kilter with the external action the action is rendered meaningless.

The Codes of Jewish law state a Torah scroll written by a faithful scribe must never be destroyed, but a Torah scroll written by a non-believer can be burnt like so many scribbles on a piece of paper.

The Codes of Jewish law state a shofar note blown by a person practicing achieves nothing. The same note blown to fulfil the commands of Rosh Hashanah does just that.[3]

The internal and the external must be aligned.

It is not enough simply to perform a Mitzvah, we are called to live the thing we do[4]  - we are called to become our actions.


Let me try an analogy from the world of music. A pianist is not a musician because they play the right notes in the right order, but rather they become a musician when the notes become music; there is a point at which their own self ends and the music begins and that point must become reached. So too a Jew is not holy because they get the right ticks in the right boxes, rather they become holy at the point their engagement with Mitzvah touches the beyond – at the point the person stretches beyond their physical span and up towards the heavens.


Let me try and explain the same idea by talking about Jewish observance.


When my wife was pregnant with our first child I made a decision to say the night-time Shema to the growing bump and feeling rather foolish leaned over and started mumbling familiar words in the direction of my wife stomach. ‘And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart …’ and so on. And then I got to the phrase ‘vshinatam levanecha’ – you shall teach them to your children – and I suddenly realised what I was saying – you shall teach them to your children. I realised this growing bump was indeed that very thing – and in that moment I felt stunned. I suspect it was the same sense of stunning shattering possibility the Yeshivah student must have felt when he found himself being smacked around the face by his own Tzitzit. I suddenly realised something of the beyond. I felt bound by a connection to a past and a future that had probably existed in some theoretical way in my mind, but was – at that very moment – exploding all around me. For the first time in my life, having said the words vshinantam levanecha goodness knows how many thousand times, I got it. Suddenly the very enormity of becoming a father, a Jewish father, opened up for me and transformed me. It changed me not only as a Jew, but as a human being, not only in my relationship with our own, still unborn, child, but in my relationship with my own parents, other parents, other children – a web of interconnected humanity. I suddenly understood something about the sheer astounding possibility of life and its creation and its Creator.


That is what Halacha aspires to be, it’s a way – it’s the Jewish way, to respond to the incredibly surprising fact of our existence in ways that connect us more intimately to the rest of humanity and God.

That’s the goal of lighting a Shabbat candle, of coming to Shul, of eating Kosher. It’s not about getting the notes in the right order, it’s about becoming a person who builds their relationship with the source of goodness and creation in the Universe through their observance of Jewish practice.


The big picture isn’t something we are going to be able to handle, or recognise on a day-to-day basis. So on a day-to-day basis we concentrate on the micro; say the Shema, eat kosher food, come to Shul.

Halacha is not always going to explode our sense of who we are every time we engage with it, it’s a practice. It’s a discipline that sharpens our senses to the nature of our existence and gives us the possibility of elevating a humdrum mundane encounter into a moment of beauty.

And when it is not elevating our souls, Halachah is holding us on the straight path. When the Halacha compels us to switch off the television on Shabbat it’s not always going to give us a transcendental experience, but it will always give us the space to enter into conversations that are far harder to eke out when the one-eyed monster is droning on in the corner of the room.


Being good is fine.

But Judaism doesn’t believe that simply telling a person to be good is enough, naked of a structure, without a training, without a context in Halachah.

I suspect that is largely because, left to our own devices, we will define ‘good’ in terms of what makes us comfortable rather than push us to reach beyond what our own eyes are prepared to see.

I believe we need a way to reflect our lives back at us in a way that is not entirely dependent on our own internal vagaries and fallibility.

We need an external practice peculiar to our own lives and our own challenges and fragilities – as Chekhov would have put it – we need to be local, particular and parochial in order to reach the Universal. And for a Jew that means Halachah and Mitzvot.

The Jewish way is to respond to the gift of a Jewish life is to adopt practices that alert us to the food we eat, the resources we consume and the rise and fall of the sun. We keep Kosher, keep Shabbat and pray and in so doing partner with a God who is the source of ethics, the source of goodness and justice. These peculiarities are the ladder we can ascend in search of what is beyond. And we can’t just leap.


Enough theory, what do we do?

This is the difficult part.

My fear is that there aren’t so many of us here today who have anything like the relationship with Halachah I’ve been describing.

My fear is that so many of us are so used to sloughing off the entire Halachic system as a dusty legalistic museum piece that we no longer have the bedrock of practice that allows Halachah to prove its worth.

My fear is that we are so out of practice that the internal resonances that are supposed to echo in our souls when we perform Mitzvot just don’t have a chance.

I wonder if an analogy would be a person at their first yoga class, so stiff that the notion of relaxing into a posture that requires touching our toes is intimidating rather than relaxing. We’re more likely to pour scorn than feel energised. We’ve become spectators to our own faith.

Even when we do perform Mitzvot, unless we are comfortable doing them, we pretend to do them, rather than be immersed in the performance in a way that our actions can truly be said to be a part of us. That’s terribly sad.

Perhaps particularly sad because where there are truly committed practices left they tend to be deeply held – Friday night candles, the Seder night, the Bar Mitzvah, the Shivah. All dramatically peculiar, all beloved, all doing their work of making us feel more connected and more engaged with our lives as Jews and as humans.

But outside these few bedrock commitments my sense is that we have lost track of what it means to be able to turn to Halachah to lift us and heal us.


Where now?

Two thoughts, and I’ll return to this topic at Neilah.

The first is to do some learning, become more familiar. I’m running a class on the First Ten Things a Jew Should Know, beginning on Monday nights in November. It’s a guide to Shabbat, Kashrut, and also Israel, Prayer, Theology and more. It’s designed to give smart, capable adults who, in yoga terms, can’t touch their toes, enough of a sense of what a relationship with Kashrut is really about that the synapses and the resonances can fire.


The second is practice.

The analogy of the musician is good. If you want to be able to feel the music, you have to work at it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers,[5] suggests that it takes 10,000 hours practice to become expert at something, to reach the point where the edge of the person and the beginning of the skill begin to blur.

My sense is that, as a Jew we can reach that point in less than a single hour.

Pick something you don’t yet do – lighting candles on a Friday night, saying a blessing before you eat anything, saying the Shema before you fall asleep.

Something that could take no longer than a minute – if done with some fluency and familiarity.

And start practicing.

I’m asking for an hour, sixty times until it starts to feel comfortable. Give it a chance. Let me know how you get on.


Again, I’ll be sharing some more specific thoughts on this at Neilah. For tonight, I wanted to share what, I think, is at stake.

Halachah is the climbing frame of a Jewish identity. We can climb it and we can rise above the ground using it. We might need to re-learn how to climb, but if there is that hunger, then we are already on the right track.


Gemar Chatimah Tovah,

May we all be sealed for a good year and a Tzom Kal – a good fast.

[1] Menahot 4

[2] BM 30a

[3] MT Yesodei HaTorah 6:8, MT Hil Shofar 2:4

[4] A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man p.315. Much of this sermon is shaped by Heschel’s approach.


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