We often internalize Jewish tradition to such an extent that we act on it without conscious awareness, much the way we speak a language without consciously being aware of grammar. Is this a good thing? Is it better to perform an act in full awareness of what we’re doing and why? Or, is it better to internalize right actions to such an extent that we never even consider an alternative?
It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
This week’s parasha includes the celebrated “law of the birds nest”, the observance of which is associated in the Torah with long life. But what kind of long life is meant here? A case can be made that what is at stake is not the life of the individual but of the society as a whole.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
Jewish Law represents the accumulation of our national wisdom and the repository for our experience as a people. We are unique in our identity as a people with a particular relationship with God and with history. Whether any particular halakhic decision is made by a rav in response to circumstance or goes all the way back to Moshe and Sinai is irrelevant; all are part of our cultural DNA and are no less God-given than our physical DNA. It is quite literally a part of us. And we are a part of it. We all have an input to the halakhic process just by doing or not doing.
Rav Elli Fischer recently “came out” as an orthodox rabbi willing to perform weddings outside of the official Israeli rabbanut. He joins a number of other rabbis who are taking steps to bypass a rabbanut that is seen by most Israelis as corrupt and detached from the needs of the people. This clash is an unfortunate result of the political reality at the foundation of the modern State of Israel. While Halakhah and the State of Israel are both expressions of the Jewish drive for self improvement, they are built on a opposing organizational structures.