“What Does God Want of Us?”: An Exploration of Shabbat and Halakhah.

Some years ago, someone in my synagogue community posed the question to our group:  “If you could pass on one thing to your children as part of an ethical will, what would it be?” As I listened to the beautiful responses that focused on action – acts of kindness, being a mensch, all things that I aspire to, I also thought about my own imperfections and how I don’t always live up to the ways I want to be in my personal life and in the wide world. For me, my success in being able to live up to my best vision of myself is due to observing Shabbat. Not just Shabbat in the 24 hour time that we come together as families and in community, but Shabbat in the sense of taking time out of the busyness and stress of life to create some reflective time to focus on the present and what is truly important to me- whether that’s 20 minutes of meditation, a walk in a natural environment, or just undistracted time to be with my children or Ilana.

Observing Shabbat in this way is essential to not only my own well being, but my ability to make wise choices and be present for others in the way I want to be. In that conversation last week, it occurred to me that fundamental to my ethical will to my children is the observance of Shabbat – the commitment to take time out to be and to deepen in whatever ways are right for them. I want to convey that Shabbat is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Jewish law or Halakhah is my guide in how to create the space for depth and God’s presence that we call Shabbat.  Many of us are familiar with the idea of Halakhah as rules of living imposed from the outside that suggest forcing us in a box that doesn’t match our 21st century lives or how we authentically want to interact with the world. While we may or may not see the value in a “religious” lifestyle, many of us don’t identify this way or feel drawn to the images of religiosity that have been passed down to us. And yet, the word halakhah does not translate literally as “law.” It is closer related to halikhah, meaning “the way” or “journey” along the sacred path – how we can truly walk in God’s ways. Not in some idea of God, but the most fulfilling and personally meaningful life that we can live. From this perspective, Halakhah is neither a collection of popular “folkways” nor the accumulated wisdom of our ancient tradition. The fulfillment of the halakhah across the generations is the perpetual human answer to the divine call, “Where are You.” When we ask ourselves the question, “What does God want of me in this moment,” we are engaging a question of halakhah. 

If my answer to that question of What God wants of me was only based on my own personal thoughts or feelings, I run the risk of trying to shape the world in my own image. If my guide to choices was only what was comfortable or what I thought was right, I wouldn’t have the opportunity for my perspective to be broadened or to grow beyond my limited comfort zone.

To respond to this possibility, Jewish tradition has created a body of ever-evolving Jewish halakhic literature that is Israel’s endless response in every generation to the Divine question: What does God want of me? From the thunderous revelation on Sinai in that radical moment of Divine unveiling, God’s word came into human language, and established a covenant and bond in which all of us were invited to take an active role in shaping the revelation and the halakhah, or the path, throughout time.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches:

If you wish to walk along the paths of Teshuvah, you must become an expert in halakhah. For this you need two types of mastery: expertise in drawing near (ratzo) and expertises in return (shov). This is a kind of entering and exiting, as in “If I ascend up into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in the netherworld, behold You are there. (Ps. 139:8)…Even if you attain a kind of uplift, rising to some higher rung great or small, you must not remain there and become complacent. You must become an expert in the quest, knowing and believing that you must always ascend higher and higher. This is called “drawing near.” The opposite is true as well. If you fall, God forbid, to a very low place, even into the lowest netherworld, even there you must never give up hope, whatever it might be. Search out and seek God and strengthen yourself, wherever you are, serving God in whatever manner.

In this vein, Halakhah is construed as the disciplined, constant journey of striving for the One. This path holds a multitude of opposites: ascents and falls, inward voyages and external deeds, intimate nearness and heart-wrenching distance. Over time, unique halakhic answers have arisen for different life situations, but God’s beckoning and our response are not matters of whimsical subjectivity. In effect the precepts and principles of halakhah must touch and respond to everyone aspect of human experience – how we conduct business ethically, how to practice ritual events and holidays in the most meaningful ways, personal conduct, communal worship in ways that uplift us and bring us together, and the most sensitive and private moments of life and death. In all of these moments, the call of the Divine is eternally inviting us to embody His Presence, calling us to reply through deed and devotion.

From the perspective of Reform or Conservative Judaism, we are invited into a relationship with Halakhah. From a Reform perspective, the study of our Halakhic tradition and our choice to let these forms guide our practice is one of personal autonomy. The question of  “What does God want of me in this moment” is a uniquely personal one. Our tradition can provide guidance, but around issues of ritual and spirituality which includes Shabbat, we are not obligated to follow halakhah. While a Conservative perspective acknowledges that halakhah changes to fit each generation, the Conservative perspective obligates us to live in relationship with our rich traditions’ responses of “What God wants of me” in ritual as well as ethical dimensions. 

Observing Shabbat was first outlined by our Sages in the 1st century as defining and refraining from what they deemed creative work. They defined this creative work through 39 categories of work that was used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. These categories of work included making fire, writing, and other creative activities. Their interpretation of the Torah’s mitzvah of Shabbat was that we can best embody our reflective nature and presence when we “stop creating”,  as wonderful as being part of the creative process is. In my 30+ years of traditionally observing Shabbat in this way, I have experienced first hand how holding to these boundaries have allowed deep moments of being to inform my life in a regular and consistent way. When people have asked me over the years if all of these strictures on Shabbat feel oppressive, I share the words of my teacher Rabbi David Zeller of blessed memory, who liked to say – “The purpose of Halakhah is not to cut us off from the world outside, it’s to keep us from getting cut off from the world inside.”

Now, it’s important to realize that in order for the spiritual practices and guidance that we call halakhah to be relevant in every generation and every community, it has to change and evolve. For example, regarding Shabbat, the Conservative movement discovered in the 1950’s that electricity was not produced in our homes through the lighting of a spark, following under the creative category of lighting a fire. As a result, refraining from electricity was not mandated as a boundary of Shabbat observance, like it was in the late 19th century when electricity first came on the scene.

Also, with the great expansion from cities into suburbs in the late 1950’s, many Jews no longer lived in walking distance to a synagogue. The Conservative movement saw the value of communal Shabbat observance for the Jewish people and made the decision that even though driving was a violation of Shabbat as determined by the rabbis because driving involves the ignition of flame, Jews could drive to shul as part of their Shabbat observance. While the permission of once prohibited electricity was faithful to original rabbinic standards because of the scientific discovery of how electricity operates, driving on Shabbat crossed a clear boundary of previous rabbinic practice, because of a greater communal need.

In this day and age, I believe there is no greater boundary to preserve Shabbat than to put our devices aside and be present. For many of us, certainly for myself, my smart devices are my Pharoah that keeps my attention coming back again and again to it’s constant notifications, constant desire for new information, constant demand to respond. And Shabbat is liberation from this enslavement..

For those of us who see the value of halachah in creating boundaries to preserve our spiritual connection, how do we orient ourselves to it in a way that meets us in the moment we find ourselves to bring more freedom and connection? The approach of the Hasidic spiritual master, R. Mordechai Lanier of Izhbitz was able to frame the situation in a way that honored what was happening inside me. He writes:

The unique quality that God invested in the tribe of Efraim is the ability to determine without fail the correct legal ruling and halakhah in every contingency they face and not deviate from it.

The Izhbitzer imagined that it was possible to determine what God wants without having it imposed from the outside. He goes on:

The unique quality of Yehuda however is to look directly toward God in every instance. Even though he may know which way the law tends to lean, nonetheless he turns to God to instruct him regarding the hidden truth in this particular situation. He does not want to rely on himself [his interpretation of the law]; rather, he seeks God’s renewed enlightenment to comprehend His will. At times this approach may necessitate taking action contrary to the halakhah, since it is a “time to act for the Lord.”

For some people, this perspective is a no brainer. We trust our own intuition and the values we hold  as the answer to what God wants of us and act accordingly. For others, we know that the boundary between intuition and personal desire can be murky waters. While a particular direction seems right in the moment, we don’t know the implications or consequences of that direction further down the road. A time-tested and ever evolving Jewish tradition of halakhah can provide guidance and wisdom in how we walk the path.

However, the Ishbitzer is imploring us to have the courage and openness to hear the voice of God from among all the other voices inside us and “act for the Lord” even as it might go against the traditional halakhah. And if the voice truly is voice of God, then our direction will become part of the ever-evolving nature of halakhah.

In my case, my connection and understanding of Shabbat and the reasons for it’s traditional boundaries have been an essential confirmation that this is what God wants of me.

In our 21st century world and our experience of West Coast Jewish life and practice expressed here in our community at Temple Beth El of South Orange County, most all of us – even those who prefer Conservative styles of worship adopt a Reform perspective of halakhah. We don’t feel obligated to observe Shabbat in fully traditional ways or to align our lives to observe the multitude of Jewish holy days in the cycle of the year in the way that the rabbis invite us to. However, many of us, whether we identify as Reform or Conservative, when having to observe a lifecycle event, like a marriage or a funeral, want to do it according to tradition. We want the wise guidance from the tradition to shepherd us through this meaningful moment in our lives. From a place of personal autonomy, we choose to engage the tradition because it provides meaning and connection to something greater than ourselves.

Regardless of whatever the choices that we make as individuals and as a community, I hope we will engage with the serious question of  “What God wants of us?” In all aspects of our lives. And that question will be engaged in relationship with our wise tradition, not as something that dictates our choices and behavior from the outside, but as something that points us deeper into the still small voice that guides us from the inside.

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