Tools or Rules: Two Ways to Think About Judaism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 5, 2021 / 1 Kislev 5782

Summary: There are different ways to think about Jewish practice. How can we reclaim some of the beautiful possibilities of Judaism without feeling guilty, disinterested, or fearful?

Reading Time: Four minutes

The year was 1978. It had sat on the counter for three months and two days, shortly after my sister left for college. The object was a microwave oven and while the technology had been around for a while, this was the beginning of home use. My father, the scientist, had used microwaves at the university and purchased it as a gift for Mom, who had meal responsibilities for dinner. He thought it would speed things up for her. The thing was that the darned device made my mother anxious. It was still all a bit mysterious back then, the way short wavelengths could heat water inside food, almost magical, and even dangerous. To this day, there are many people who still refuse to use microwaves because they are convinced that they do something malicious and unhealthful to their food. Eventually, though, we plugged the microwave in, and Mom stepped outside of her comfort zone. During her final years in the house, before moving into assisted living, a microwave was one of her major kitchen tools and well-suited to cooking solo.

It would take years before I would understand my mother’s reluctance. That occurred when I purchased my first miter saw. My classmates and I had learned the basics in a woodshop class, but that was decades before. Once the new saw was on the garage floor, all I could see was danger. It took a couple of weeks for me to overcome my trepidation. Now I can’t imagine not having a miter saw since it makes short shift of tasks around the house.

Many of us have similar stories. The fact is that as valuable as tools are, they also present us with change, freedom, and a touch of danger.

There’s a way we can think about Judaism as either a collection of rules or a collection of tools, and that difference matters. Serving as a congregational rabbi offers the opportunity to be an up-close sociologist of American Jewry. For example, at some point every rabbi has been told by a congregant who doesn’t attend services often or eats unkosher food, “Rabbi, I’m not a good Jew.” Sometimes that is accompanied by a sense of shame because, well, Jews do guilt so well. There are other Jews who also don’t attend services or enjoy lobster, yet don’t experience shame. Instead, they say, “Well, I am not Orthodox.” What they implicitly are saying is, “Because I am not Orthodox, those Jewish rules don’t apply to me.”

Without a doubt, Jewish law or halakhah has been a central organizing force for our religion, people, and communities. It has ensured continuity between Jews in different countries and at different times, which all allows us to know and feel that we are part of something much larger than ourselves. Halakhah also remains an essential source of Jewish wisdom. It is virtually impossible to speak of Jewish values without referring to our legal tradition, for within it we find ways to balance competing interests. No value is absolute; it always exists in relationship to other concerns, and the halakhic process ensures that robust discussion, vigorous debate, and intellectual honesty inform our statements of Jewish values in an impartial manner.

Jewish law is therefore unavoidable. Our celebrations, services, social action, and communal structures are all shaped by it, even if individuals are unaware of this crucial role. Despite that, thinking about Jewish practice as a series of rules or laws isn’t compelling to most Jews anymore. Maybe it’s because we chafe at rules in the land of the free, or maybe we feel so bound up by the laws and expectations of civil society that we can’t handle more “shoulds.”

That said, we leave tremendous value on the table by neglecting these possibilities for holiness. Thinking about halakhah as a series of tools is one way to reclaim our tradition without resorting to guilt or neglect. Tools extend our capabilities, and Jewish practice is meant to do the same. Our tradition can help us be more considerate, providing tzedekah to those in need, or standing and offering a chair to an elderly person. It can teach us how to speak in a more considered way by avoiding or minimizing gossip so that we don’t harm ourselves or others. Prayer can create time and pathways to seek connection either with God or ourselves. Observing some sort of shivah forces us to confront our grief head on so that we can move through the process of loss. Kashrut can focus us on the role of food and animals in our lives and society at large. Offering blessings to one another teaches us how to make our lives a blessing and allows us to experience the flow of divine energy or shefa. Heck, using halakhah as a tool even encourages us to discover deeper forms of justice than whatever is popular in the moment.

The Jewish spiritual toolbox has sustained us in all times and places. More than ever, it can provide an antidote to the impoverishment of spirit that plagues modernity. But like my mother’s first microwave or my first miter saw, many of us face some reluctance or resistance to take these tools out, even though they can make our lives better. As the darker days of autumn and winter arrive, I’d like to invite you to embrace a new Jewish tool and see where it leads you. Like any new tool, allow some time to learn how to properly operate it. Remember also, if it ends up not being a good fit, you can always set it back on the work bench. You might need it some other time.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What are some of the first tools you learned to use? How did you feel as you were learning to use them, and how did you feel after you gained some mastery?
  2. Have you had frightening encounters with tools? How did you address your fear?
  3. Is there some new tool or technology that you would like to learn? What do you hope to gain from it?
  4. When is the last time you picked up a new “Jewish tool?” What led you to do so?

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