A personal approach to Halakhah

We are pleased to feature this contribution to our OJC Rabbis’ blog by Lindsay Goldman, this year’s rabbinic intern:

In my first year of rabbinical school my classmates and I all tried to prove  to one another how frum (Yiddish: פֿרום‎, lit. ‘religious’, ‘pious’) we were. Someone told us they waited six hours between meat and milk, another classmate shared that they put on two different kinds of tefillin every day, and someone else said that they would not say amen to the blessing in the amidah if it included the matriarchs. We were trying to prove how much we belonged here at the Jewish Theological Seminary. However by second year, third year, and now in fourth year, we know that what it means to belong in this community looks different. We show that we belong by talking about our journey to and with our practice and our struggle along the way.

Every Wednesday at JTS is “Rabbinical School community time,” where we gather to discuss pressing issues in our future rabbinates over lunch. Last Wednesday we were each given a few minutes to fill out a survey about our ideas of halakhah. The survey was guided by the question: “Which of the following most closely aligns with what you think halakhah is?” This is not a question we are asked before being admitted to the institution, nor is this a question the answer to which we know about our rabbis or classmates, but it is a question that is essential to the way we live our lives. Does it matter what the halacha says if we don’t know how it impacts our lives?

The four multiple choice options that followed were: 

  1. Halakhah is a direct expression of God’s will.
  2. Halakhah is a humanly-influenced approximation of God’s “will”.
  3. Halakhah is a human attempt to live in God’s presence.
  4. Halakhah is a collection of humanly created consensual norms.

Someone who believes that halakhah is God’s will approaches Jewish law drastically differently than one who assumes it is a compiled set of human norms. Students shared what it felt like when their idea of God’s will was conflicting with humanly created norms. And I added what it felt like when God’s divine will conflicts with the self compassion with which I want to treat myself.

I believe this conversation to figure out how we believe halakhah has a claim on us matters significantly more than the actual practice of Jewish law itself, or at the very least needs to be considered primarily. I am proud of how the dialogue has changed both within the institution and within myself over the last couple of years. I recall the flexibility of my Shabbat practice during the peak of Covid when I was keeping Shabbat without a community, differently than it was intended to be kept. I chose to consider my needs first and the needs of my relationship with God second because of what I believe about halakhah. I don’t know what God’s will is but I believe that being in relationship with human beings is God’s mission in the world. My life is built around trying to be in relationship with God, what I choose to put in my body, when I work and when I rest, as well as learning and teaching Torah. But if I do not have a relationship with myself, I do not feel I can connect as deeply to God. 

I won’t spoil which answer students chose overwhelmingly because I want you to consider for yourself which of these options is true for you without any undue influences (but email me at lindsayjgoldman@gmail.com if you want to talk more about the results!). I encourage you to explore your practice and why you do what you do; I personally and strongly believe that the first step is to articulate what halakhah means to you.

Lindsay Goldman, OJC Rabbinic Intern

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One response to “A personal approach to Halakhah”

  1. Lydia Katz says :

    I truly appreciated this week’s article. It once again brought to light some of the difficulties I went through as a child attending a Yeshivah. (They weren’t called Day Schools then) My parents worked on Shabbat because they had to. There was no choice and I was never allowed to forget it for a moment. My brother and I were raised to recognize Shabbat and we did. But we were never “forgiven” by the powers that be at school. We couldn’t attend Shabbat services because we were too young to go alone and we were “reported” every Sunday. So, I believe God understood far more than the faculty and I believe God still does. I feel a very strong connection to God even though my Halacha might be a little different than yours and I appreciate your “allowing” for the little differences.

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