Fight Club and the Ten Commandments

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 9, 2024 / 30 Shevat 5784

Summary: This week’s article discusses a rabbinic decision that ended an emergency pandemic permission, one which temporarily suspended the need for an in-person minyan. It also explains how Jewish law remains sensitive to contemporary human needs while maintaining a set of communal standards that the larger American society has struggled to develop.

Reading Time: Ten minutes

In 1996, a novel was published that touched the country’s nerve. It was brought to the big screen three years later, and despite initially tepid box office earnings, was destined to become a peculiar cult classic. That movie was Fight Club, starring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. It is a dark, morbid study of the hollowness of consumer culture and white-collar corporate jobs while highlighting the loss of meaningful human connection. The noir satirical answer to these problems was the creation of a Fight Club, in which men found a new sense of purpose and connection with one another by engaging in no-holds-barred, fist-to-fist combat.

While this film does not directly explore female experience or needs, twenty-five years later many of the themes that the movie investigated in relation to masculinity remain as active a set of problems in contemporary society for people of any gender as they did then. Additionally, our current global flirtation with authoritarianism, violence, chaos, terrorism, intellectual repression, and group think forms a powerful backdrop that tests whether the solutions proposed by Fight Club offer an answer to cultural malaise, listlessness, and despair. I think the clear answer is that they do not, for ultimately the solution that Fight Club offers is violence and the rise of anarchic individuals who refuse to abide by any sort of social contract.

As a consequence, our society feels lost and rudderless; much of our global culture seems incapable of providing people with a pathway to a meaningful life in which people can live contentedly with purpose while caring both for themselves and those around them. It is why, despite a strong American economy, continued job growth, and other indicators of health, a vast swath of America views this moment in the most abject of terms. Ours is a deeply dissatisfied age in which people feel this powerful urge to tear things apart.

The reason that mentioning Fight Club today seems relevant is on account of a strange coincidence, for the novel was written by a Portland native, Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk, who has penned many novels, also wrote a much less ambitious travelogue, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon. Published in 2003, the book was a peculiar and idiosyncratic guidebook to Portland’s weirdness. I probably read the book in the first year after my family moved here; lo and behold, turning one page in particular was quite startling because Congregation Neveh Shalom had made the cut. More specifically, our set of Ten Commandments was featured; according to Palahniuk, not only are our Ten Commandments the largest set in the world, but for a long time, airline pilots navigated by them, calling into air traffic control once the twin tablets came into view.
That interesting bit of trivia gave rise to a bit of a quip: airline pilots use the Ten Commandments to navigate: if only we Jews could do the same!

This past Shabbat, we heard the Ten Commandments recited. Given that, I want to make a plea that not only do the Ten Commandments remain a more productive guide for navigating life than the solutions proposed by Fight Club or society at large, but that more than ever, we Jews need to find our way back to halakhah, or Jewish law, as a source of meaning. The Ten Commandments is a synecdoche, which is the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part of something represents the whole. For example, if someone holds up an automobile key fob and tells you with a big smile that they just got a new set of wheels, that is a synecdoche; you readily understand that the person purchased a car, not new tires or rims.

In the same way, our sages ensured that all Jews would understand that Moses did not descend from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, but with the entire written Torah. The Ten Commandments is a synecdoche for the entire halachic system that defines and preserves Jewish identity.

This distinction is essential for what I want to argue because some people turn to the Ten Commandments and other sets of traditional values with a somewhat nostalgic gaze. Struggling with today’s relativism, as well as the rapid pace of change, they seek the clarity of certain truth by looking backwards.

While that impulse is understandable, that is not what makes the Ten Commandments and halakhah so important. Moreover, the past only looks simpler and more certain with the gift of hindsight. All people and eras are faced with dilemmas. Deciding what to do has never been easy; even if some previous periods may have shared a larger baseline set of values than today, moral decision-making is never simple.

It’s also important to emphasize that many contemporary Jews don’t feel a connection to halakhah. If one hasn’t studied how the halakhic system works, Jewish law can seem like a set of arbitrary rules designed for a previous era that doesn’t address our needs in the moment. Such a perspective can only arise from a lack of familiarity with the deep sensitivity to human need that halakhah repeatedly demonstrates.

Additionally, lots of us just want to do what we want to do; we get resistant whenever someone or something curtails or limits our actions. We are pretty good at rationalizing why that is okay, but what we normally do is pick and choose from a set of values that matches the outcome we desire. In fact, when contemporary Jews speak about Jewish values, they often forget the history behind that concept.

It was with the rise of the Reform and Reconstructionist Movements that Jewish values were stripped out of the halakhic container in which they were grown. What this resulted in was a bit of a cafeteria-style approach to ethics. We take a bit here and there but leave what we don’t like. And I am not talking about essential changes, such as the inclusion of women, homosexuals, or non-binary individuals, which the Conservative Movement changed through the halakhic system; I mean if we don’t feel like giving at least 10% in tzedakah, we don’t. If we like bacon, we eat it. If we don’t want to take a Jewish class or read a Jewish book, we don’t. If we decide it is too difficult to honor our parents, well, why bother? How often do each of us choose convenience over the right thing?

Please don’t hear this as me lashing out at our humanity. None of us is perfect; we all stumble or find it difficult to live up to our own aspirational values. I know that I do. But what is understandable for each of us as individuals, and what may not even be an issue when all we are discussing is individual choices, is especially harmful when an entire community embraces it. That’s why the Reform Movement, in which I grew up, has restored so many forms of practice that they previously abandoned.
Given this, it’s worth noting how the halakhic system works, why it is superior to our contemporary cafeteria approach to values,1 and how it creates the sort of social cohesion and glue that we so desperately need to address the social ills that have only accelerated since Fight Club was first screened.

What the traditional halakhic process does is carefully pit our values against one another to determine the most appropriate path in a given situation. It tries to get as granular as it can, concerned more with the specifics of a given situation than forming a generalized theory. A question is asked, and a rabbi brings to bear a careful analysis of our sources, as well as when and how they may be applied. In this manner, Judaism has been able to provide answers about the status of lab-grown meat, organ transplants, appropriate forms of green burial that have arisen with new technology, how to call non-binary individuals to the Torah, the ethics of urban warfare, and even the permissibility of recreational marijuana.

Jewish law, in other words, is neither dry nor static. It is a practice of love, even as it is bound by processes, precedents, and an understanding of which past authorities are most authoritative on account of the depth and breadth of their learning and analysis. It checks us, keeping us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually honest.

Very often, as the range of above topics indicates, Jewish law finds ways to give permission to many new phenomena. But it does place demands on us, and, at times, it limits our actions and desires. That is a good thing. As most parents know, children who are raised without clear boundaries struggle to maintain healthy relationships; they exhibit behavioral problems, often acting out with aggression or defiance. They may struggle in school or otherwise have difficulties with self-discipline and self-regulation, and they may even struggle with respecting authority.

What is true for children is true for adults, communities, and societies as a whole. While we may chafe at limitations, we should also recognize how necessary they are to our well-being. Indeed, our daily minyan recently came face to face with both the flexibility and limits of the halakhic process. Our daily minyan has been the last part of the synagogue that was still operating on special pandemic rules, although we opened our building again two years ago.

The specifics of this case are interesting, and it’s valuable for the entire community to understand a recent decision. Here’s the background. One of the most sacred parts of Jewish tradition is the concept of a minyan. Minyan can refer to a given prayer service, the people who attend that service, or more specifically, to the ten adult Jews who must be present to perform certain ritual actions, such as reading from the Torah scroll, reciting the barkhu, chanting the kedushah section of the Amidah, or reading the four types of kaddish prayers that are part of a normal service.

The requirement to have ten Jewish adults is ancient; it is derived from a Torah verse about how many people constitute a particular sort of group. Without bogging us down in those details, the concept and requirements of a minyan of ten teaches us about the power of personal presence, group dynamics, and the proper respect to be accorded to matters of sanctity, known in Hebrew as devarim shebekedushah. Throughout history, Jews have chosen to live close to one another to fulfill that obligation so that the power of this tradition and law extended far beyond the prayer service, creating permanent, local communities. The requirement of minyan, in other words, is the foundational reason that we have Jewish communities. You can’t do Judaism alone.

During the pandemic, however, when state mandates prevented us from gathering, when we were forced to do Judaism alone, the Conservative Movement utilized another, temporary provision of Jewish law, known as sha’at hadahak, or an “emergency situation,” to temporarily allow us to fulfill our ancient heritage of a minyan online. This permission, of necessity, was only meant to last so long as we were not permitted to gather physically; moreover, if the right to gather in a given area within synagogues was granted during the pandemic, as happened when municipalities opened and closed repeatedly, even this special permission was rescinded.

We at CNS have been slow to acknowledge that this change has occurred, and I must claim full responsibility for that. Many of our minyan regulars enjoyed the convenience of a Zoom minyan, some of our folks have mobility challenges, and others live far away. People who previously couldn’t participate now could; the attraction and value of that meant that I was intentionally slow to address that the timing of the emergency was behind us. In other words, we were happy to follow the special rule of halakhah that allowed us to meet online but unhappy to follow that same rule when it told us we couldn’t.

After a very long period of study and deliberation, two things became clear: first, the opportunity to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish was extremely important to our community, both for those in Zidell Chapel and those online; second, I could find no coherent way to permit this using the normal modes of halakhah, in which a teshuvah, or answer, is provided to a sheilah, or question. That mode requires that we follow the weight of antecedents and legal rules that define who we are—the same set of rules that immediately began to be developed once Moses descended from Mt. Sinai; Yitro’s advice to have different types of courts, for instance, is implemented in last week’s reading.

Had we continued to hold by the emergency pandemic rules, it would have meant that our community was no longer bound by the synecdoche of the Ten Commandments. Indeed, because of how important the opportunity to form an online minyan was to our daily “minyanaires,” I seriously toyed with the idea that perhaps we should no longer affiliate with the Conservative Movement. Marlene Edenzon, Liza Milliner, and I had numerous discussions about that.

But we are a Conservative congregation. In the end, I took a personally uncomfortable path by issuing a one-year takkanah, or decree, which allows us to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish with an online minyan for the next year, but that doesn’t extend to the other matters of sanctity which were permitted during the emergency of the pandemic.

It is uncomfortable, because historically, a takkanah was only issued in times of extreme need, and then only by the most prominent halakhic decisors (poskim or rabbis who decide Jewish law), who would never make such a change for any but the most dire of circumstances. While I possess a bit of Jewish knowledge, I am most certainly not one of this generation’s prominent poskim. Yet I did so in order that our community would not slide into a form of cafeteria-style Judaism, picking and choosing from what is convenient or looks tastiest. The anarchy of Fight Club ultimately serves no one.

This seemed especially important after October 7th, when we were all reminded how precious our tradition is, the bonds that unite Jews wherever we live, and how countless generations preserved this spiritual heritage for us, even at great personal sacrifice. They knew something. After October 7th, we know it too.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What was the last moral dilemma with which you were faced? How did you reach a decision? Did you have any “brakes” that slowed you down from making the most convenient decision?
  2. In a connected vein, what do you think are areas of shared values in today’s America? Where do you identify the “social glue” that can unite us as a nation?

1 In a discussion with my older son, he heard this as a statement that it is not good to adopt practices or beliefs from other traditions. To clarify, that is not the point being made here. Indeed, not only has Judaism been open to syncretism, but Maimonides also explicitly said we should learn wisdom wherever we find it.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.