My Trouble With Shabbat

My problem with Shabbat sometimes (and this isn’t going to make a lot of sense at first, so bear with me) is that I like to have rules — clear, unambiguous rules. I don’t like to have to fall back on feelings, on “I’ll know it when I see it.” On the contrary, I like to have a concrete understanding of what I am doing or not doing in a given situation.

On the other hand, I am starting (slowly) to come to terms with the fact that some aspects of the traditional set of rules for Shabbat really don’t work that well for me, at least not if we accept the notion that the overarching purpose of Shabbat is to give us a chance to recharge, reconnect and deepen our spiritual lives.

To take just one example, I personally have a lot of trouble with the traditional injunction against writing on Shabbat. I am by nature a writer. I always have been, ever since I learned to read and write. Writing comes easily to me — much more easily than speaking, actually — and it’s one of the primary ways in which I relax, process the world around me, and connect with myself and others. It therefore comes as a natural impulse to me that on a day in which I’m supposed to be resting and recharging my batteries, I would want to spend some part of that day scribbling in one of the notebooks that serve me more or less as a second brain. This is something that I do throughout the week in the little snippets of time between other things I have to do, but I never feel like I get “enough” time to write, and several hours of uninterrupted writing time without any pressing concerns is about the closest thing I can imagine to heaven.

All the same, I can definitely sympathize with the tradition that includes writing in the category of “work” prohibited on Shabbat. Writing is a creative endeavor, and it can certainly be a labor-intensive activity. Whether there is a difference between writing that would be “work” and writing that would be “not work,” and how we would distinguish between the two, is an open question. The same thing goes, I suppose, for any kind of creative activity that falls within the 39 kinds of forbidden labor but which might be either relaxing or tiring, depending on when one is doing it and how it is being approached. 

Because of this, the rabbinic approach — to avoid the issue altogether by focusing on the type of labor and prohibiting them categorically — makes a certain kind of sense. What I worry about sometimes is that the way in which they identified the list of activities to be prohibited was deeply embedded in the social, economic and technological conditions of their own times and makes less sense in our own.

As for myself, I must admit that during this summer I have developed the habit (I won’t dignify it with the term practice) of writing in my notebook on Shabbat. This probably has as much to do with where I am at the moment than anything deeper — spending the summer by myself in Chicago has made it rather difficult to fill up the long summer Shabbats in ways that feel enriching and spiritually rewarding. All the same, I am somewhat bothered sometimes by how disconnected my Shabbat practice sometimes seems. A large part of this feeling must be because any Jewish practice cannot be completely personal. Ours is a tradition that thrives off of community, and what seems to be missing much of the time in my Shabbat practice , whatever it may be, is the sense that it is developing in relation to others besides myself.

The idea that has been floating around in my head lately in response to these feelings is the development of small, discrete “circles of practice” –groups of three or four individuals, or a few families — that would come together to work toward the development of shared approaches to Jewish practice. This need not be oriented toward any traditionalist understanding of halachah (though it certainly could be, and halachah would probably form one of the sources of inspiration for any such group in some way), and the goal of the group need not be a uniform set of practices. The idea, rather, would be to have a small community in which people could work out their approach toward various aspects of living Jewishly together, get feedback, share ideas. Such a group might exist within a synagogue community, or consist of members of different synagogues, or outside the developed communal structure of institutional Judaism altogether. The important part would be the indiviudal members’ commitment to work together to help expand their collective understanding of practical Judaism, in whatever form that might take.

Reprogramming the Gender Binary

Now that the increasingly misnamed Fall Semester is starting to wind down at last, I’ve finally got a little time to address some ideas I’ve had on the back burner. One of these is something that came up during a program on gender here at RRC this fall. We had been discussing the gender binary as a rigid structure that causes problems for people who don’t fit within its either/or classification. Someone spoke up at this point and voiced their confusion about what to do with the fact that many of the people who don’t fit into the binary still tend to describe different aspects of their gendered experience in terms of male/female. Wouldn’t getting rid of the binary entirely invalidate those people’s identities to some extent?

This discussion quickly turned to the question of what to do with non binary gender within a religious framework like Judaism, which relies heavily on oppositions to do a lot of its conceptual heavy lifting:

“Blessed are you, Ha Shem, ruler of the universe, who separates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are you Ha Shem, who separates the holy from the ordinary.” (Havdalah blessing)

It was at this point that a faculty member (go, go Vivi Mayer!) brought up the passage in the Mishnah (in the oddly tacked on fourth chapter of Bikkurim) that deals with the halachic status of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), i.e. a person born with ambiguous genetailia. According to the Mishnah, when it comes to the the androgynos, “there are ways in which he (sic) is equivalent to men, and there are ways in which he is equivalent to women, and there are ways he is equivalent to both men and women, and there are ways in which he is not equivalent to men or to women.”

What is fascinating about this passage is the way in which it uses a binary distinction (man/woman) as a tool with which to define a more complex and ambiguous identity (the androgynos) by means of a carefully articulated set of similarities and differences. As it turns out, this framework (like X in some ways, like Y in some ways, like both X and Y in some ways, like neither X nor Y in some ways) is used more than once in the Mishnah to work out how an ambiguous edge case fits into the overwhelmingly binary structure of halachah. In adopting this framework, the ancient rabbis were able to acknowledge the existence of subjects that don’t fit into that binary structure without thereby expelling them to some undefined space “outside” the boundaries of the halachah (which for them would have been basically indistinguishable from erasing them altogether).

And what occurs to me in this context is that there’s another area in which an apparently simple binary is used in increasingly complex combinations to create something more subtle and interesting, and that’s the binary code that underlies the functioning of computers. When you drill down to the most elemental level, all computer code is ultimately made up of ones and zeroes. A single bit, a single position, can only ever be either/or: 1 or 0, this or that.* But at that level of simplicity, very little can be accomplished. One bit doesn’t give you very much information at all. But once you start stringing positions together, more complexity can be achieved. With two bits, you now have four possibilities rather than two: 00, 01, 10 and 11. String together four bits and you have enough for the numbers 0-9 and you can now do math with decimal numbers. Once you string seven bits together you’ve got enough for the full range of alphanumeric characters and you can write a book, all with nothing but ones and zeroes.

But here’s the thing: Just because a long string of ones and zeroes is a useful tool for encoding a text file of, say, Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that Moby Dick is itself a one or a zero. The ones and zeroes are the material it is made up of, but the book transcends these materials to do something new, something much more complex and interesting. If I were to decide that the ones and zeroes were the most important part of Moby Dick and go around dividing it, and other books, into two big piles based on whether there were more ones or more zeroes in each one, as if that actually said anything significant about the book, you’d call me crazy. The same might be said about gender.

When we say that we want to challenge the gender binary, we aren’t necessarily saying we want to (or even feel like we can) live in a world where we have to make do without reference to gendered language. What we’re saying is that our culture is heavily invested in the idea that all books are either ones or zeroes, and that this creates serious problems for books that feel like they’ve been miscategorized, or that the category into which they’ve been assigned doesn’t say everything (or even anything) important about them. We’re saying that using the gender binary as a set of rigid categories in the first place is possibly the least useful and least interesting thing we could do with it, like fixating on the ones and zeroes stored in a computer instead of combining them in interesting ways to do math, or write books, or create software that allows us to launch a simulated bird at a tower of evil pigs.

With this in mind, I think the helpful answer to the person who spoke up in the discussion would be that we need to get to the point where we think of the binary as a language for programming in and not a set of rigid and sterile containers. As an exercise, I invite you (if you aren’t the kind of person who’s in the habit of thinking this way), to look at the following list of things that we habitually lump into the single, all-encompassing container of “gender” and consider them as individual, discrete “bits” in a string of gendered information, with regard to each of which individually a person might be “equivalent to male, equivalent to female, equivalent to male and female, or equivalent to neither male nor female.”**

Gendered bits:

  • Biological sex
  • Genetic sex (chromosomes)
  • Anatomic sex (genetailia)
  • Physiological sex (reproductive function)
  • Assigned gender (what the doctors put on your birth certificate)
  • Legal gender
  • Gender expectations (how others expect me to behave, present and identify)
  • Pronouns people call me by
  • Pronouns I prefer to be called by
  • Behavior patterns of others toward me (personal space, language, communication style, assumptions about preferred social groups, etc.)
  • Gender identity (how I think of myself)
  • Gender presentation
    • Clothing
    • Appearance
    • Behavior

* At some level the analogy doesn’t hold, because beyond “1” and “0” the rabbinical formulation from the midrash has access to the additional (and very useful) positions of “both 1 and 0” and “neither 1 or 0.” This makes the system even more flexible, and I hope the general similarity is apparent.

** It’s important to note that this list is in no way comprehensive, and that each item on the list is itself a complex construction possibly made up of a network of other, more subtle “bits.”

The Role of Halachah in Liberal Judaism

The following is a few notes that I jotted down recently about the role of halachah in liberal Judaism, heavily inspired by Rachel Adler’s amazing book, Engendering Judaism. Reconstructionists often identify our movment as a “post-halachic” movement, but personally I don’t think we should be so quick to give up the term “halachah,” or the fundamental approach to religious life that it represents.

One of the things I’ve always apprciated about Judaism is that as a religion it sets itself the task of teaching us how to be human–that is, not to transcend our fundamental humanity, but to live as human beings in community with other humans and with God. As someone whose neurological makeup often makes it difficult to navigate a social world made up of nonverbal cues and unarticulated empathetic identification, it felt intensely liberating to immerse myself in a tradition in which the “rules” for interacting with and taking care of your fellow beings are articulated clearly in terms of concrete behaviors. The primary framework within which Judaism has historically pursued this project is halachah, and it is this framework which I see as valuable and worth preserving alongside more vaguely-framed “values-based” ways of understanding ethical obligation.

At the same time, liberal Judaism has brought a number of extremely important critiques to traditional halachah as it has come down to us, among which are:

  • That traditional halachah is overly rigid, having calcified to the point where it lacks the flexibility required to adequately adapt to changing social conditions.
  • That the framework of traditional halachah is fundamentally sexist, prioritizing male perogatives and experience and relegating women to the status of second-class citizens.
  • That the range of gender and sexual roles provided for in traditional halachah does violence to those who do not fit within those boundaries, forcing them to either painfully repress themselves to live within the roles that the system forces upon them or to leave the community altogether.
  • The power differential whereby halachic decisions are made by an educated elite of rabbis, invalidating and downplaying the contributions of Jews who are not part part of those elites (i.e. “Jewish folk religion”)
  • etc.

My thoughts on reconstructing halachah in light of these critiques are as follows:

  • First, it is important to point out that “Law,” or even “religious Law,” is a very poor translation of the word “halachah.” A much better translation (and much more in keeping with the word’s etymology) would be “procedure.”
  • In this framework, there would be no such thing as “halachah” in the sense of an overarching, internally consistent framework. To reconstruct halachah for a postmodern world, we have to abandon the project of “codes” which halachists have been engaged in since Maimonides and go back to the looser and more polyvocal world of the Talmud and Midrash. In place of Halachah we have halachot, “procedures,” which are related to each other and to the texts on which they are based but in a way that acknowledges multiple possible constellations rather than a sigle all-inclusive system.
  • What therefore is a halachah within this framework? One possible procedure for actualizing a mitzvah.
  • The Torah contains mitzvot, some of whicha re like case law, some of which are like values, many of which are mixtures of both. Each of these mitzvot reflect a certain aspect of the Jewish historical exprience and a certain aspect of the Jewish encounter with God, but to give them a voice within our own lives they need to be actualized in halachah, i.e. concrete procedures reflecting the values and experience contained within a mitzvah.
  • For any given mitzvah, there is the “what” of the mitzvah and its “how”: What are the values contained within the mitvah? What is the historical experience it expresses? How are we going to actualize the mitzvah in our own communities in a way that makes sense and in such a way as to forge a link between ourselves, our history, and God?

What I’m posting here isn’t anything close to well researched or thought out, but I thought it might be worth putting up here just the same. As always, comments and critiques are highly encouraged.

Why Reconstructionism?

I get asked this one a lot, particularly in the context of my having chosen to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College here in Philly as opposed to someplace else. We belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Tulsa, so either the Jewish Theological Seminary or Ziegler might have seemed like a natural choice. I sometimes jokingly refer to a series of magazine advertisements featuring the slogan “Be Historically Significant!” as my reason for not applying to the JTS, but in fact at the time Emily and I were actually making the decision to take the plunge and have me apply to rabbinical school it was close enough to the application deadline that I only felt confident of putting together a single good application package, and by that time the RRC was at the top of my list by a significant margin.

Ironically, Reconstructionist Judaism wasn’t really on my radar until I spent a month in Jerusalem the previous summer studying at the Conservative Yeshiva. Words cannot express how much I love that place. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it’s the best thing to come out of the Conservative Movement, and I wish there were more places like it in the US where Jews of all genders, denominational affiliations and levels of Jewish education can come together for serious text study with a top-rate faculty. While I was there I got a chance to be exposed to a much broader cross-section of the liberal Jewish community than I’d been able to before, and among the awesome folks I met there were several RRC students doing their year abroad in Israel.

What really got me thinking about Reconstructionism, however, was the discussion that sprang up at the CY during my time there around a series of talks that Rabbi Joel Roth gave  on the ideological foundations of Conservative Judaism. I was tremendously impressed by Rabbi Roth’s clear articulation of his interpretation of the Conservative movement, but to some extent it was the clarity of this articulation that made me seriously re-evaluate some of my positions when it came to the role of halachah and the nature of religious authority in Judaism.

Rabbi Roth’s thesis, as I understood it at the time, was that Conservative Judaism is based on two fundamental pillars:

  1. A commitment to taking seriously the best and most up-to-date academic research in our understanding of the origins and authorship of the Torah, according to which the Hebrew Bible is a compilation of sources with various authors composed at different times and edited together at a later date and not, as tradition would have it, a single, unified text handed down by G-d to Moses at Sinai.
  2. A firmly traditionalist stance toward halachah, according to which the articulated structure of Jewish law as transmitted from antiquity, whatever its historical origins, must be regarded as fundamentally binding and subject to interpretation and adjustment solely by qualified and adequately trained rabbis in accordance with established principles of halachic decision making.

What I found was that no matter how I tried I was basically unable to make these two pillars fit together in a way that worked for me. It seemed to me then (and to an even greater extent now) that a strict adherence to rules of precedence and rabbinic authority was basically incompatible with a worldview that takes seriously the very human origins of the Torah. Once we begin to take seriously the fairly convincing textual and historical evidence that the configuration of the text as it has come down to us is determined as much by contemporary political concerns in ancient Israel as by divine inspiration, it becomes difficult to accept as absolute the authority of a rabbinic elite to serve as the sole gatekeepers of the tradition. If our political models have moved from the strictly authoritarian, top-down structures of ancient monarchies to the more equal citizen-based systems of modern democracies, why should the decision-making apparatus of Jewish communities not follow suit?

As it happened, one of the chief proponents of such a democratic model of Jewish citizenship was Mordecai Kaplan, and the movement he helped to found, Reconstructionism, has been heavily involved in the project of creating Jewish communities in which decisions regarding religious practice are arrived at collectively in dialogue with the Jewish tradition rather than by the rabbi alone as mara d’atra or sole halachic authority of the community.

This was one of the windows through which I began to explore Reconstructionist Judaism. The other was my experience visiting the school itself, which I’ll save for another post.

Shiluach ha-Ken

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. (Deut. 22:6-7)

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

How often do you actually come upon a mother bird in its nest?

I was looking out the sliding door to our porch the other day and found that a mourning dove had built a nest in the basket of Emily’s bike and was sitting there on top of her rather scruffy-looking offspring. This probably says something troubling about the extent to which we make use of our bicycles, or our porch for that matter. That said, it made me think of this passage from the Torah and the mitzvah of shiluach ha-ken, or sending away the mother bird.

What I find noteworthy about this passage, and about similar commandments throughout the Torah (such as the mitzvah of not yoking an ox alongside an ass, or sacrificing a mother animal and her offspring on the same day) is the way they seem to to give us grounds for questioning the somewhat simplistic criticism of Judaism and its sister faiths that they presume a worldview in which humans are essentially cut off from nature, existing in a completely separate ethical sphere from the rest of God’s creations.

The criticism stems at least in part from the famous passage in the first chapter of Genesis in which God commands the humans to “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Gen. 1:28) The argument is that the biblical mindset regards humans as different in kind from the rest of created nature, set over and apart from the natural world. Where other faith traditions (the animistic practices of indigenous peoples are often mentioned in this context, as, for different reasons, is Buddhism) emphasize a continuity between humanity and the rest of the natural world, the overarching tendency within the Abrahamic faiths has been to establish a radical discontinuity between human beings and the rest of creation, grounded in a transcendent spiritual order in which animals, plants etc. do not participate.

I will not go so far as to argue that this point of view is entirely without basis in the tradition. Certainly Biblical Male and Female commanded by God to “fill the earth and master it” have a different attitude toward nature from that of the animist who looks to plants, animals and the earth itself as sources of spiritual insight. Nevertheless, I would argue that biblical commandments such as shiluach ha-ken and the rabbinical discourse concerning the ethical treatment of animals that develops out of them point to a sense in which humans and animals are seen to share certain important qualities in common which open up the possibility of an ethical responsibility grounded in our shared susceptibility to pain, disease, fear and all the host of other manifestations of the pathos of living as an embodied, sentient being in a world haunted by the specter of death.

Articulating a consistent, authentically Jewish theory of the relationship between humans and nature is the work of an entire book (or several). Nevertheless, I think it’s important to at least acknowledge that a worldview that sees the natural world as essentially the responsibility of humankind (and I feel like I’m in good company arguing that this is an interpretation consistent with the biblical understanding of possession) is not necessarily inconsistent with a recognition of important bonds of commonality between us and our fellow creatures that create a shared ethical space within which it is possible to talk about our obligations toward other species.

As for the mourning dove and her offspring in the bicycle basket, I’m afraid that when I opened up the door the next day to bring outside a mint plant which I’d received as a present, they both got nervous and fluttered away. I’m left feeling a little bad for having bothered them, and hoping that the mother, at least, turned out alright.