Rabbi Max Chaiken

Forging new paths – on accepting untraditional ‘halakha‘

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Forging new paths – on accepting untraditional ‘halakha‘

Rabbi Max Chaiken

As I meet people who connect with our Temple Emanuel of Andover community, I often hear a refrain in their stories. While the specifics vary, it basically goes something like this: “My family was very traditional, they/we were Orthodox. But we’re not such good Jews anymore. I mean, I know it makes me a bad Jew, but my kid’s favorite breakfast is a bacon, egg, and cheese!”

You’ve probably heard a story like this before. Maybe this narrative even resonates with you.

The challenge about this narrative, however, is the implicit assumption that there was only one way to “do” Judaism in the first place. As I approach this season of reflection, I have been thinking of this kind of Jewish guilt that I hear people describe, and I want to encourage us to reject it outright. Instead of cringing when I hear somebody describe their “lobster rolls in the summer, only out of the house” style of kashrut, I smile. I think to myself “what an interesting Jewish eating practice!”

You see, when those of us living generally liberal Jewish lives in the United States today feel this kind of guilt – the guilt of how we aren’t “Jewish enough” or the guilt that we don’t do XYZ – we are implicitly accepting that “proper” Jewishness only looks like the way our Orthodox friends, family, or neighbors practice. We are implicitly accepting that the Traditional Halakha™ as the Orthodox understand it, is the one true and proper way to practice Judaism. The reality could not be further from the truth.

Yes, there are texts and codes of law that have created Traditional Halakha™ which many measure their Jewish practice against. But all forms of Judaism have halakhah.

In “Engendering Judaism,” Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler puts it like this: “Halakhah comes from the root H-L-Kh, to walk or to go. Halakhah is the act of going forward, of making one’s way. A halakhah, a path-making, translates the stories and values of Judaism into ongoing action. That makes it an integral component not merely of Orthodoxy, but of any kind of Judaism. Such a definition of halakhah breaks the traditionalist monopoly.”

The reality is that many have fashioned a new halakhah around eating as Jews in 21st century America, and as it turns out, bacon and lobster rolls may in fact be in it. No matter how some streams of Judaism feel about the reality, liberal American Jews’ autonomy is one of our greatest values. We are proud to have individual agency and control of our actions in the world, including around question of diet, Shabbat practice, prayer, and every other way that that we “do” Judaism. Our way is not Traditional Halakhah™ but is most certainly a halakha, a path-making. Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf writes about this beautifully in Mishkan HaNefesh:

“I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked “Sabbath” and one “Civil Rights” and one “Kashrut” and one “Honor Your Parents” and one “You Shall be Holy.” There are at least 613 of them and they are of different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy … some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least … Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments.”

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, I hope that this season of cheshbon hanefesh – accounting for our souls – will be a season of renewal and return for all of us as we walk our paths in Judaism. May our tradition continue to bring meaning to our lives because we interpret it and apply it to the paths we walk in this life. As we study Torah, and as we connect with one another, as we pray, or break bread together, mourn or celebrate, may we live our lives in pursuit of holiness and fulfilling as best each of us can the covenant made with our Creator. Θ

Rabbi Max Chaiken leads Temple Emanuel of Andover.

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