Recently, I sat with a group of very bright people of all backgrounds and ages in the Jerusalem office Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. We were there to discuss ways of easing the tension that can arise between halakhah and the secular world. But before we got into the discussion, our group coordinator asked each of us to describe our own relationship to halakhah. “What does halakhah mean to you personally?” she asked.
Below is my rather whimsical reply.
Halakhah is a huge house—a mansion—with rooms within rooms, mysterious hallways, and whimsical staircases; with renovations and additions made by past and future generations. I feel comfortable living here, even though there are some rooms I prefer not to enter. I know where the most comfortable furniture is and, more importantly, how to reach the dining halls.
I enjoy exploring, although the place is too vast for anyone to ever see it all. I have found hidden hallways with windows looking out onto the formation of galaxies, the cosmic background radiation red-shifted into the microwave. Other windows have been boarded up, perhaps because the view from them was too disturbing.
One of my favorite places is the common room several floors down, where the Rishonim sit around discussing plans and renovations. Rashi passes around his latest vintage of dry red, while Rambam explains his project to map out the entire edifice. The Ravad shakes his head in disapproval. I notice that his pocket is bulging with red markers….
The floors below that are even more fascinating, but there are “under construction signs” all over the place, and one risks falling through holes in the floor onto the heads of the Nevii’m below. I’ve learned to wear a hard hat when visiting there, as the discussions can get a bit raucous. Occasionally one of the Nevi’m will poke his head up from below and yell for quiet. “No wonder they can’t hear the Ruah HaKodesh up there…” he mutters.
But I also know that the mansion of halakhah is not perfect; there are places where the roof leaks, letting in the winter rains. There are missing boards on the staircases that one must leap over. I’ve found whole wings boarded up and deserted. Other wings are still unfinished. And there is one whole floor recently ravaged by fire, causing the floor above it to be unstable and prone to abrupt shifts.
But even with all its faults, one has only to make the journey down to the earliest floors to see how solid is the foundation. The central pillars are massive and seem to have been extruded out of the earth’s core by some ancient cataclysm. This part of the edifice doesn’t look like the work of human hands at all. Eerie. And once when I was poking around down here, I came upon the perfectly-preserved fossilized imprint of my own footprints. I looked around and there were thousands and thousands of footprints scattered around, like so many signatures on a document. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I beat a hasty retreat back up to where things are built on a human scale.
Now where is the dining room on this floor….?