Friday, May 09, 2008

Fences and Fields - A Mother's Day Drasha

Bad Cohen is currently working on the Tefillah u'Minhag committee of our synagogue to make our policies, expectations, etc., more congruent with our Reconstructionist affiliation - namely, to follow through on Kaplan's proposition that a community needs rules which are accepted as obligatory.

In a Reconstructionist Jewish community, this halacha does not look the same as Orthodox or Conservative halacha, since it takes into account communal decision-making, interpretation, etc.

But we're having trouble getting the older generations (40s to 80s) to accept the idea that the community should accept any community-wide, binding obligations on itself at all. The closest we come is requiring a minimum dues pledge from each member unit (families, individuals, etc.), although we allow for reductions - but not abrogations - in cases of need. We cannot even get the Board to agree that a minimum volunteering commitment is appropriate - how then can we get them to accept a minimum halachic commitment!!?

I've been looking at Rambam's list of the big 613, trying to get a handle on which of these elemental mitzvot (not their Orthodox elucidations) would actually be problematic for our community.

It strikes me that the more "traditional" (ie., Orthodox) the interpretation of halacha, the more the tendency is to expand the parameters of NEGATIVE commandments beyond what is explicit in the Torah, while restricting the positive commandments to literal interpretations. The more liberal the denomination/interpretation, the more likely one is to expand the POSITIVE mitzvot, while restricting the negative ones to a literal reading.

What we get are fences and fields: fences (gezeirot) which protect us from accidentally violating a negative commandment, but also fencing us off from other positive, Hashem-serving ways of life; and fields of ever-expanding possibilities for "Jewish" lives, which open up vistas so far-off it's hard to keep the flock together.

Somehow, both of these approaches seem out of whack.

The most concrete objection to the liberal trend always inevitably comes back to Nadab and Abihu, and the problems of bringing "strange fire" as an offering to G-d. This story, like that of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6), seems to show that good intentions do not outweigh wrong actions, and also that Hashem discourages certain innovations that directly affect how we serve G-d.

The typical objection to the most stringent Orthodox fences (including personal chumras which take on communal force) is that they are "adding to the words of Torah," which is prohibited by Hashem, Hashem's self. To the liberal denominations, these types of restrictions often seem no more than displays of piety, or attempts to keep out any outside influence, whether beneficial or not.

"The Ramban (Shemos 20:8) comments that all the negative commandments of the Torah are rooted in yiras Hashem. In contrast to the positive commandments which serve to express our ahavas Hashem, one expresses one’s fear and awe of Hashem by refraining from what He prohibits."
--Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky

The liberal interpretations produce Jewish communities so good at "loving" Hashem that they start to take the Divine for granted; the traditional interpretations, especially in their current modalities, are producing Jews so in awe (or afraid) of Hashem that they are approaching idolatry - replacing the image of the Divine revealed in the Torah with their projected fears about a vengeful G-d.

What does all this have to do with Mother's Day?

I've just been thinking about the two extremes - love and awe/fear - as modeled on the way we relate to our parents. The ideal, of course, is to both love, and have awe for your parents; especially for your mother, of course. ;)

Yet too often, we fall into one extreme or the other, or relate one side of that coin more to one parent than the other - love your mother but take her for granted; have awe for your father but don't really see him for who he is.

If these are problems in relating well to our parents, with whom we can talk, eat, laugh, etc., how much more so are they problematic in our relationships with the Divine, where all our best interactions are intangible?


Blogger The Rebbetzin's Husband said...

A thought-provoking post; thanks.

5/10/2008 11:04 PM  
Blogger come running said...

Just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed this post. I have a lot of issues with chumras and chumras on top of chumras. Where do you draw the line?

5/11/2008 1:19 AM  

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