Jan 11, 2012

Halachic Virtuosity
(c) 2012 Rabbi Menachem Creditor
with thanks to the Jewish Theological Seminary, for loving and supporting rabbis

Everything changes. The incredible suggestions of string-theory, that everything we think of as solid is precisely not, that matter is made up of very, very small moving parts ("strings"), that the "rock" upon which I rely is unstable - these truths point beyond a wished-for constancy toward a dynamic reality. So too with Jewish tradition. Halacha, Jewish Law, has been codified over and over, but what can surprise even the most seasoned student of Halacha are the differences between various halachic codes over time, the sometimes radical shifts in halachic language and norms within tradition, and the rare but present explicit rejection of one Rabbi's ruling by another. 

We must remember that Halacha, however solid it may seem, is made up from strands of tradition, vibrating slowly enough to give the semblance of stability. And, given that even fervent advocates of halachic change themselves crave constancy and order, preserving the harmonic togetherness of "halachic strings" matters. It is of vital concern that, before any change would be made to the halachic orchestra, that the individual musician stop to consider the symphony of which she is but one intentional part.

Can this metaphor live when the role of conductor is indefinable? Speaking plainly: since rabbis' notions of God are radically different one from the next, is it possible to see the interplay of local communal norms as essentially interdependent with those of other communities? Or is one community's musical expression sufficient without that of its neighbors?

The basic human need to not be alone is useful here. Yes, I can live alone. But I'd choose not to. After all, life is with people. So too am I convinced that one community's norms does not the fullness of tradition make. The interplay between communities is crucial if one's tradition is to remain connected with Tradition. Self-sufficiency is not a traditional Jewish communal (nor individual) ideal. Jumping back into the musical metaphor, consider the power of a skilled clarinetist playing alone. The grace and resonance may be unquestionable, but when he plays alone, his expression has no counterpoint, no context, no opportunity to be challenged, no chance for "play." Said simply: two horns are better than one.

So, though tradition is made up more of motion (Teshuvot/Rabbinic Responses) than anything else, with moving parts deeply sensitive to ever-changing realities, it is essential for every community - members and leaders - to care about the impact of any decision upon others. Again, re-entering the musical framework, a violinist who cares not for the musical score is also not truly part of the orchestra, and through their disregard for the whole functions as an agent of destruction. But the opposite is also true: the violinist who, steeped in the music, catches the eye of the clarinetist, can spark a process of grounded virtuosity, increasing the excitement and capacity of the other musicians, can thereby more dynamically engage the assemblage of audience members, the collective enthusiastic energy reaching even to the conductor.

This is a demanding model. We must, if we hope to embody a halachic virtuosity that makes people and God sing, master halachic musicianship. But music is not the score. Music is a living, beautiful thing with countless facets. The experience of music is not the same as its complicated theory, and similarly, the experience of Halacha is not its complicated theory. An orchestra exists not to bear testimony to its history but for the purpose of being a living generative power, charged with a specific way of resonating within the world and within the human community, of transmitting the passion and skill of passed masters, and of being the inspiring masters of today's music.

So too, today's rabbis are charged with being engaged and creative leaders, bearers of a specific resonant tradition, of being halachic virtuosos, interconnected with a network of similarly purposeful rabbis and religious communities. 

The possibilities of the spiritual symphony ahead are unlimited. Imagine the music!