Our fall school season is now fully under way here in Arizona—for some reason we start school in early August here, and all of our educational systems for adults and kids begin again while its 108 degrees outside, with a high probability of nightly monsoons and lightning storms and power outages; slightly insane...
Anyway, as our fall school year begins I've been thinking about the complexity of trying to explain the influence of Jewish law in our entire tradition. We Jews, whether we are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or something else, come originally from a religious culture largely shaped by its process of applying divine law to a very human, fallible, changeable earthbound population. That means that our heritage is based on the kind of thinking that takes great, idealistic proclamations designed to further morality and tries to apply them to mundane daily life with fascinating results.
One core ideal of Judaism is to create a society based on justice, which will lead, ultimately, to peace and goodness. But it is justice that is always the focus, which is embodied in a Torah portion we'll read Saturday called Shoftim—which means judges, and is filled with the concept of justice.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof, we are commanded: pursue true justice! It is a powerful and remarkable ideal. Our societies must strive for absolute fairness, must be just in every way.
Importantly for all of us, the practical result of trying to apply high principles to basic, common practices is a very intriguing and sometimes bizarre way of thinking about things. When you are Orthodox and believe yourself bound to follow Jewish law, Halakhah, the way of living that requires adherence to all the many rules about diet, clothing, regular prayers and ritual observances and study, you sometimes find yourself doing things that don't make much sense—but you do them anyway, because they are part and parcel of the elaborate system of Jewish law that you believe will bring about holiness in this world. For example, Orthodox Jewish law forbids work on the day of rest by prohibiting a variety of actions on the Shabbat, the Sabbath: lighting a fire, carrying a heavy object more than a few feet, writing, tearing, elaborate cooking or cleaning, and so on.
These laws, quite complex in their interactions with actual daily life, mean that observant Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath or turn on electric lights or watch TV or a variety of other normal daily actions. However, lest the rules become too restrictive and make life impossible to enjoy on Shabbat, which is supposed to be the happiest of days, there are all kinds of ways of making it possible to do what we need to do to make the Sabbath pleasurable. For example, if you are not supposed to carry anything on Shabbat, how do you manage to bring your tallit, your tallis or prayershawl with you to Temple on Saturday morning? The answer is you wear it over your shoulders, and then it's no longer an item you are carrying but a garment you are wearing! Problem solved.
Which leads to one of my favorite Jewish jokes, which is directly related to this issue. It goes like this:
Question: Is one permitted to ride in an airplane on the Sabbath?
Answer: Yes, as long as your seat belt remains fastened. In this case, it is considered that you are not riding, you are wearing the airplane.
Please understand that these complex rules are primarily only observed by Orthodox and very traditional Conservative Jews. But the thinking that went into creating a system that normal human beings could live with, the pragmatic idealism of Jewish law, has actually come to influence the ways all Jews think. While we are Reform Jews and don't follow all the strictures of the Sabbath that our Orthodox family and friends do, we make it a point not to go to the mall or just randomly shopping on Shabbat. Of course, we also keep a kosher home—every non-Orthodox Jew chooses which practices to maintain and how to do them. And the reasoning, like my own family's choices about Shabbat observance—we go to temple, but will go out afterwards to a restaurant for dinner sometimes; we study Torah but also watch sports on TV in the afternoon; we will go on a Shabbat morning hike and have a service and Torah reading during the hike; and so on—these are also influenced by a kind of Talmudic thinking that adapts ideals to pragmatic situations.
Maybe that's why Jews of every denomination are so good at law—four Jews are currently on the 9-member United States Supreme Court—which is also applying rules to new situations to make things work out. It's a kind of intellectual flexibility that seeks to keep in mind and heart the highest principles—while also making it possible for all of us function in society without losing our integrity.
All Jews, in one way or another, are engaged in a variation of this process when we seek to live ethically, and even when we decide which rituals we choose to celebrate and observe. What Shoftim insists is that we seek to apply these high ideals to our own lives in a practical way. It's tricky, but tremendously worthwhile—whether or not we think an airplane is really a garment...