Culture, Identity, Religion

Grappling with Halakhah in a postmodern world

“We are all mediators, translators.” -Jacques Derrida
There have been three distinct moments since I began learning in the Jewish legal tradition that have significantly altered my perspective on the goals and intent of what we apply the blanket term, Halakhah. It is something that I struggle with on a daily basis and has a direct effect on my faith, my practice and my identity.
The first involved reading an article from Jewschool’s own Aryeh Cohen, on the “Talmud as translation.” Cohen sets out a fascinating take on the role of the Talmud as a means to understand and process the currents of time and the experience of exile, in other words, more accurately than a “commentary” on the Mishnah, the Talmud seeks to understand, integrate and translate the customs and norms of past generations. It is this approach to understanding our contemporary relationship with the Jewish legal tradition that inspired me to bring the quote above from one of the most influential postmodern thinkers, the Jewish French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida. Cohen and Derrida alike demand of us to rethink our current role in our tradition not just in light of its self and its wisdom and obligations, but in light of history and our own personal experience and perspective.
The second occurred upon completing reading the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Karo’s 16th century masterpiece commentary on the Arba’ah Turim, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher’s 14th century masterpiece legal code, on kibbud av v’eim, honoring one’s parents. After a long discourse on the various legal and social ramifications of not fulfilling the obligation of honoring one’s parents, Rabbi Karo informs his readers that “none of these things are punishable by an earthly court because the reward of the commandment is mentioned in the Torah.” There is a principle in the Jewish legal tradition that a ritual commandment for which the benefit or reason is stipulated explicitly, a court of human judges cannot adjudicate on the matter, rather it is left to the Divine court. However, if one were to look in Rabbi Karo’s own legal code which he based off of his commentary, the Beit Yosef, you will find reference to the inability to implement legal punishment at the beginning. What can we learn from this? The Shulhan Arukh was written for the practical application of the legal tradition where applicable. However, while there is practical law and legal theory in the tradition, there is a perhaps blurry distinction between the practical and the theoretical.
The third was during a recent teaching with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, author of You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism and a blog on faith at Any attempt to rehash or describe what was taught would fall miserably short of doing remote justice to what Rabbi Hirschfield imparted. Rabbi Hirschfield advocates inclusiveness through what he refers to as “postmodern halakhah.” Without getting into the merits and faults of the term, how I understood what he was saying is this, if one intentionally and consciously adheres to a praxis and feels it to be Jewish as they identify it to be, then they have a halakhah. It may not be my understanding, it may not be yours; but each individual, to use Derrida and Cohen’s metaphor, will be their own mediator or translator.
The journey of my own faith has been a pendulum-like adventure which, hopefully, is slowing down and settling in the middle. This is the struggle of the questions, does shabbos start when the sun goes down or when I light candles? What if I light candles one day before, or two hours after, the sun goes down? “Jewish law” interpreted by many says one thing, maybe it says something different for you. The question is, how do we as individuals constantly integrate our own knowledge and experience into our practice and identity. How do we continue to develop and grow our faith, while accepting others approaches and opinions? How do we learn from others, adapt and adopt belief and custom, and honor our differences while staying integral to ourselves and our traditions? All of these questions and more are at the crux of struggling with Jewish observance in the 21st century.
In my own opinion, and in my own experience, I have found that when I seek answers to questions of faith and observance, I end up in dark places. When I seek to give a definitive reason, or a definitive ruling, or a definitive justification, I darken and extend my blinders. And yet, when I seek only for more questions and only to expand boundaries, I sometimes find I may have nothing left at all. To use an overgeneralized metaphor presented by Rabbi Hirschfield, pure absolutists pull the trigger while pure relativists stand by and watch someone get murdered; or if you prefer a less graphic approach, he also presented that absolutists drive the bus with their eyes closed tight and by the time relativists figure out which bus to get on it has already pulled away. I do not feel comfortable telling anyone else how to understand their own identity and approach to the Jewish tradition, but for myself I am left with this struggle of understanding my obligation to the tradition in light of personal autonomy and the reality of a world that no longer supports, believes in or truly understands what it means to intersect law, ritual and magic (which means nothing more than the recognition that the laws of nature are permeable and able to be manipulated, a common held belief worldwide until VERY recently, in relative terms).
At this point I am forced to resign myself to say, like the Talmud, teiku, let it stand unresolved, or as others have ‘translated’ it as an acronynm, tishbi yitareitz kushiot u‘bayiot, Tishbi (Elijah the Prophet) will answer [unresolved] difficulties and problems. And others translated it even still, in modern Hebrew, to ‘a tie.’ Or, like Rabbi Hirschfield says, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right. Teiku.

2 thoughts on “Grappling with Halakhah in a postmodern world

  1. Hi there,
    Stumbled onto your interesting post thanks to a Google alert.
    I think part of the uncertainty that plagues the consideration of one’s religious practice, identity, etc., especially when seen through the light of Derrida’s “We are all mediators, translators,” is the problem of “limits”:
    The translation does not stop, in my opinion, at the point at which, say, you settle on an appropriate time to light your candles, for example, but rather continues to–and perhaps even beyond–the extent of the translation being necessary such that your practice be “intelligible” as halakhah…
    Judaism and Islam (the tradition in which I was raised) are similar in this regard, though their process of “translation” makes it seem like they are worlds apart.
    Perhaps the unresolved is not necessarily a bad thing, rather a motivating force for a continuing translation…
    Kol tuv.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.