March 8, 2013

I was amused that a number of people replied to a comment I posted to David Brooks’s column about orthodox Jewish community.  I had questioned why, if the law is found to be so helpful and is so welcomed, as the column celebrates, work-arounds to particular provisions are developed, as the column also celebrates.

Most of the replies explaining to me the lack of contradiction assume I am concerned about whether the work-arounds are consistent with the law and the idea of adhering to one.  That assumption to me is evidence of the problem:  legalism.  That’s what I think is actually being celebrated (legalism), not the embracing of a particular set of rules.  There’s a difference between loving a set of rules and having a relationship with them that requires their adjustment.  That was my point.

And I think it’s a difference that makes a difference.  The attitude with which a person relates to a set of rules makes a difference to the internal development of the person, regardless of whether it makes a difference to their behavior.

I worry that the focus on adherence to Jewish law distances too many people from the main events of spiritual life.  In Judaism, those main events, I think, are to be found in Jewish mysticism, which I am also under the impression is off-limits until people have mastered the law business.

I’m all for making sure people don’t take on more spiritual challenge than they are ready for at the time, but keeping people at bay from mysticism through keeping them occupied with laws and codes reminds me of insisting on mediation through others to access one’s spiritual life — an obstacle and a barrier.

I think learning to think legalistically is interesting.  It allows for a certain lens through which to filter and translate inchoate ideas that I might understand through other forms of mental activity.  But I don’t think it’s the main event, and I think getting caught up in it as if it is keeps us from realizing our potential.

In this life I’ve certainly learned to think legalistically, so I can’t dismiss it as irrelevant to my own perspective, but if it was necessary for my spiritual development, it certainly wasn’t sufficient.

Another response (other than legalism) to coming up against a law that one wishes to gloss is to think about why one wishes the gloss and then to adjust the self, not the externalities of law or facts (milk-free “cheese” products, for example).  That would, I think result in a different development in thinking, a kind shift in perspective towards acceptance, perhaps.

But I am thrilled that in responding to my reply, which was in its own way dualistic, people used the kind of mental process that finds harmony in seemingly opposing concepts — that, I think, is good practice for spiritual growth.


3 Responses to “Work-arounds”

  1. Judah Himmelstein Says:

    imagining Lanza shooting screaming toddlers one by one in a locked room without mercy, and your measure of sympathy for him is quite mystical.

  2. Judah Himmelstein Says:

    The talmudic tractate ‘Megilla’ and the associated Midrash tell us that Esther’s father died when she was conceived and her mother died at childbirth. She was raised by her first cousin Mordechai, who began lactating and nursed her himself. Furthermore, when the Megilla tells us that he took her “l’bas”– “for a daughter”, the commentaries tell us don’t say “l’bas”‘ but rather “l’BAYIS”– “for a wife’. Just one of thosands of examples so that we know that the Talmud is not merely legalisms. It is history, biograph,y moral instruction, Kabbalah and much, much more.

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