During the first couple of years that I was becoming religious, all three of my local reform rabbis back in Dixie made times to meet with me personally to bring me back to the fold, since I had gone/was going “off the derech,” to the dark side of orthodoxy.
It was a bemusing experience for young, intractable me, and I know it was a frustrating experience for them. (I’m changing names to protect identities.) First was Rabbi Sol Friedman, the head rabbi of our nearly 1000 family Temple. After our discussion, he commented to me that he was disappointed that someone as intelligent as myself would waste my potential in orthodoxy. I later met with the assistant rabbi, Rabbi Barbara Dawson. She couldn’t believe that I was using the sexist Artscroll Siddur and the Ashkenazi pronunciation, which she felt constituted being poreish min haTzibur, separating myself from the majority of the Jewish people who use the Americanized Israeli pronunciation. Last was Rabbi Ralph Feldman, rabbi emeritus. After our conversation, he was convinced that my contention that women and men are equal in orthodoxy was the product of brainwashing.
One claim that all three made, along with many others, however, was that choosing orthodoxy is choosing “the easy way out.” The theory goes something like this: One of a weaker moral and intellectual character needs and wants the structure of a lifestyle that allows an outside authority to dictate every detail of life and every moral decision. These types of people are fearful of the personal responsibility involved in making moral choices and therefore choose orthodoxy to allow the rabbis and the law books make the tough moral choices so they do not have to. In contrast, reform Jews are braver and of a stronger moral character and therefore do not require the moral crutch of the detailed laws of orthodoxy to make their moral choices for them. They are not afraid of individuality and making informed moral choices.
Is this argument valid? I would illustrate the wilful blindness inherent in the above claim with an analogy: Is a person weak-minded if he follows doctors’ and nutritionists’ instructions on how to live a physically lifestyle? An exercise or diet regimen will include, for argument’s sake, a certain maximum calorie count that one is allowed to consume in a given day, and, let’s say, 30 minutes of exercise three times per week. Those are very specific instructions. Although one might claim that letting doctors and nutritionists make one’s health decisions for him is depriving him of his G-d given right to make his own health decisions, this argument would obviously be also false. Why?
Even if one is following the guidance of a nutritionist that he should eat, let’s say, a maximum of 2000 calories on a given day, there is a great level of personal input and creativity in how one meets that standard. He could cook French, Indian, Mexican, Japanese, or Italian style cuisine. He can eat a 100 calorie breakfast, a 100 calorie lunch, and then splurge on an 1800 calorie dinner. There is so much leeway within fulfilling that standard that one cannot say, with a straight face, that one is giving up personal choice by limiting himself to the recommended 2000 calories per day.
In regard to exercise, one can fulfill his weekly exercise regimen by jogging, taking Tae Kwan Do, lifting weights, going to the gym, playing any sport he chooses, or running on the treadmill. The fact that one must exercise does not take away his individual personal choice. There are many ways to carry out the doctors’ advice, and following their guidance is not an abdication of personal choice.
Similarly, there are laws in halacha for every aspect of life but a variety of ways that we carry out those laws, as an expression of individuality. Those aspects of halachic decision-making that individuals are not capable of making on their own because the lack the knowledge and information to do so, are up to the Shulchan Aruch and Poskim to decide, just as the general guidelines for exercise and nutrition are decided by doctors and nutritionists, since they are trained and schooled to be knowledgeable in those areas.
For example, halacha says that one must daven 3 times per day. A man can decide in what Shul to daven, in which paragraphs of Shemoneh Esreh to insert personal tefillos, in what part of the day to be misboded and speak to Hashem in his own words, and in which word, out of the hundreds in Shemoneh Esreh, to place extra kavannah, depending on his own personal nature. And a woman has even more leeway and discretion in when, where, and how she davens.
As another example, people must learn Torah. Aside from learning enough halacha to live a lifestyle in accordance with halacha, the gemara says, l’olam yilmod adam ma shelibo chafeitz , a person should learn that which his his heart desires. Some learn 100% gemara. Others may learn 80% and 10% Mussar. Others might mix it up with Tanach, Halacha, Gemara, and Chassidus.
There is a vast space in halacha that is given to us in which to choose how to serve Hashem . This means that not only does adherence to halacha not take away choice, it actually lends greater meaning to the choices we make. Just as one who makes medical choices without consulting any doctor or expert will end up wasting his efforts on his own ignorant ideas, so too will one who tries to make moral choices without any true authority or expert, will find himself clamoring around in the dark. However, if one allows the light of halacha to illuminate his path, then the choices that he makes within that system will have meaning and direction, rather than a random shot in the dark.
First Published Nov 6, 2007