The Grammar of Jewish Living
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So, the next morning I woke up . . . and nearly decapitated myself with one of his circa 1950 shavers. I tried another with the same result and another and another, until eventually, fed up, I took out my Gillette to shave as I normally did. I’ll never forget Uncle Yiddle greeting me that morning as I came down to breakfast: “Wow, look at that great shave,” he beamed. “A shave like that – only from an electric razor!” I smiled warmly, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor. That summer, Uncle Yiddle and I developed a very close relationship. As for his shaving rule, every morning I took out an electric shaver and let it run on the sink countertop for a few minutes, all the while enjoying a peaceful shave with my Gillette. Uncle Yiddle, may he rest in peace, never knew the full story – a story which now, decades after his passing, I confess to you, my congregation.
This morning, I want to speak to you about mitzvot – the rituals, observances, and commandments that bind us as a people – the spiritual architecture, the vocabulary of deeds, by which the Jewish people are connected to each other, to God, and across the generations. There are many entry points to a discussion of mitzvot – the reasons for them, the differences between them, the methods by which the rabbis derived them, and the degree to which that interpretive method continues today. Today I want to ask a very specific question: the question of whether it matters. For us, for God, and for the relationship between, does it matter if we are punctilious, precise, and exacting in our observance of mitzvot? If we are medakdek, vigilant, in following the dikduk, literally, the grammar of the commandments? Does God care, do we care if we are medakdek in mitzvot? Or is it OK to cut corners, literally and figuratively, depending on our mood and inclination?
If there is any Torah reading to have this discussion, this week’s is the one. It is the heart of Leviticus, the Torat Kohanim – the laws of the priesthood, the limitations and restrictions, the pure and impure, the sacred and profane, the fixed times and offerings by which the ancient Israelites constituted their community and calendar, differentiated themselves from others, and stood in relation to each other and God. Our Torah reading is filled with all sorts of laws, but more than any particular commandment – be it the grooming of facial hair or the specific observance of a festival – there is an ethic, implicit and explicit, that is stated throughout. Details matter. Precision matters. Timing matters. It is an ethic that sits not just at the core of our Torah reading, but of Judaism itself. The dietary regulations during Passover; what makes a lulav or etrog kosher; the precise dimensions of a sukkah and how much light should or shouldn’t filter in. We don’t live in a biblical world of sacrifices, but be it how we pray, how we count the Omer, or how we prepare and consume food, the exacting nature of Jewish observance has been passed down through the ages. With attention to the minutiae, with emphasis on every detail – from our very beginnings, Judaism has held fast to the belief that there are particular ways to perform particular rituals. It is a posture that is not self-evident: Not every religion operates by the same principle. I remember being forwarded a funny email a few years ago about what Christmas would look like if it were a Jewish holiday, including debates over whether the size of a tree or color of a pine needle can render a tree unkosher, the precise placement of the ornaments, and, of course, what to do if Christmas falls on Shabbat. To be a Jew is to be about the details, one must lean into, or perhaps more precisely, “leap into” a cultural form of OCD. Not just that there is a right way and wrong way, but that it matters, it really, really matters that a mitzvah is performed in the right way.
The observation that Judaism calls on us to be medakdek, precise, in our performance of mitzvot is not new, but it is a mindset that runs contrary to the spirit of our age. How often do we say to each other and to ourselves that it is really “just the thought that counts.” Spiritual uplift, we say, is not a top-down affair; it comes from within. and hairsplitting debates over observance are obstacles, not enablers of spiritual living. What really matters, we say, is that we light Shabbat candles, not that they are lit at this or that time. Who actually cares if we say this word and not that one, bow here and not there, shave this way and not that way? I got the basic gist of it, and frankly, I cannot bring myself to believe that the good Lord above is counting the minutes between my eating meat and milk. A few years ago, a friend told me that her children’s spring vacations fell in such a way that their long-anticipated spring break trip to Italy – pizza, pasta, and all – fell during Passover. She went on to share, with great pride, how she resolved the difficulty. She decided to shift their entire observance of Passover, seders included, to a week earlier! By the time she got to Italy, Passover would be over. Problem solved! She could have her matzah and eat pasta too! And while we may giggle at my friend, we all know that each one of us, in our own ways, makes accommodations and justifies shortcuts by way of our own internal sensibilities. We are, we tell ourselves, the good guys. We are doing our best. We try to live ethically, responsibly, and charitably, and to mend the world. God knows, there are plenty of observant Jews who don’t do that. Isn’t that what God really wants from us? To do justice, seek kindness, and walk humbly before the Lord.
The answer to the question of whether Judaism is about exacting observance or just good intentions is not a simple one. Judaism cannot be reduced to one or the other, law or spirit; it is a dialectic between the two – a tension between commandment and autonomy, between tradition and innovation. Years ago, when I would teach the subject in Hebrew school, I would adopt the metaphor of basketball. I began the discussion by asking the kids to share the specifications of basketball: the diameter of a basketball, the ten-foot rim, five players per team, and so on and so forth. Then I would ask the kids if the game could still be called basketball if we dropped the basket to seven feet. Would it, I asked, still be basketball if played three-on-three instead of five-on-five? What if the game was played on half a court instead of a full court? What if we threw a football through the hoop instead of a basketball? You get the idea. At what point, be it basketball or Judaism, does something stop being the very thing we claim it to be? You don’t have to be Orthodox or even Jewish to recognize the importance of attention to detail when it comes to the spiritual substance of our lives. We sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh inning and not the fifth; we eat turkey and not chicken on Thanksgiving; college graduates move their tassels from the right to the left, but not left to right. It will be different for each of us, but I have no doubt that everyone can think of some sphere of our lives in which we believe there is a way for something to be done, a power and purpose to the precision, even when – perhaps especially when – the precise meaning lies beyond the realm of words and reason. My question for you is whether you are willing to let Judaism be one of those spheres.
And yes, while there is always a risk that excessive attention to ritual detail will result in us losing the forest for the trees, that our Judaism will devolve into rote religious behaviorism, you and I all know that the challenge for our community is how to take Jewish observance more seriously, not less. Our challenge, in the words of Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, is to see Jewish law “as a musical symphony in which all students see opportunities to discover their inner selves.” (Jewish Law as Rebellion, p. 321) For some, the observance of mitzvot provides a cosmic orientation, the lens by which a Jew sees the extraordinary in the ordinary and stands in covenant with God. For others, mitzvot must be observed with great care because they are the sacred vessels, the delicate cultural heirlooms, by which traditions are pristinely passed from one generation to the next. For some, mitzvot are the tools by which an individual connects to their community and Jewish communities around the world; for others, mitzvot are a deeply personal and private spiritual regimen. For some, the power of mitzvot lies in submitting one’s will to the will of God; for others, the power of mitzvot lies in the bold assertion of one’s will in the face of a world seeking conformity. There are all sorts of reasons why one might see power in the careful observance of mitzvot. My reasons may be different than yours, and all our reasons may be different today than they will be tomorrow. It takes time; it takes curiosity; it takes patience; and it takes faith to live a life of mitzvot – the combination of inspiration and perspiration by which life, as Heschel wrote, can be lived as a work of art.
Friends, now is a sacred time of the Jewish calendar. The freedoms of Passover are behind us, and the receiving of the law remains yet on the horizon. Each one of us, myself included, must see ourself on a forward spiritual journey. We are all capable of spiritual growth; tomorrow can be different than today; our “not yets” need not linger any longer; the grammar of Jewish living awaits being spoken. Day by day, step by step, mitzvah by mitzvah, let’s journey together, learn together, and do together, drawing closer and closer to the covenant of our people, the covenant of Sinai.
Cardozo, Nathan Lopes. Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2018.