Talk about greatest hits - our reading in the Torah this week includes both the Decalogue (the 'Ten Commandments,' Deuteronomy 5:6-21) and the essential creedal statement of our tradition, "Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One our God, the Eternal One is One." (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Let's think about that for a moment - about the fact that our scriptures so closely couple the most prominent precepts of practice with the deepest article of faith.
In Jewish tradition, that pairing is so natural - after millennia, so habitual - that it can be difficult to appreciate it as remarkable at all, or to imagine a religious tradition without this combination. Our heritage is founded on the idea that the way we walk in the world is of ultimate spiritual importance and consequence, and therefore is to be charted with paramount and even religious care.
Actually, though, this emphasis on action was an issue of hot controversy as Judaism and nascent Christianity differentiated from one another in Late Antiquity. Take, for example, the following argument in the Epistle to the Galatians by the apostle Paul, himself a convert from rabbinic tradition to the then-new Jesus movement: "Knowing that man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified." (Galatians 2:16)
Let me hasten to say that characterizing Judaism and Christianity simplistically in terms of "Works vs. Faith" runs a high risk of caricature. Early fathers of the Church saw urgent need for righteousness in practice, and early rabbinic teachers were urgently concerned about particulars of belief. Still, it is fair to say that, by contrast to a way of thought that came to regard absorption with the minutiae of earthly life, often derisively, as something like an off-ramp from the highway to divinity, our own tradition came to conceive of well-considered behavior as the highway itself.
Now let me say why all of this strikes me as especially relevant in the week just before our marvelously diverse Jewish community gathers back at Harvard for the start of a new year.
For a start, and for example, I am always dismayed when someone says to me at Friday evening services or over a Sabbath day meal, "I don't really keep Shabbat." It happens remarkably often; and remarkably often the person saying such a thing is either a stalwart of participation in Shabbat at Harvard Hillel, or someone who has come out of a deeply felt thirst for the oasis of Shabbat, or both. And I feel like saying - and sometimes do - "If you're not someone who 'remembers the Sabbath day to keep it holy' (Exodus 20:8), I don't know who is; after all, here you are."
What I mean is that all too often many of our people sell themselves short when it comes to their own actual part in constituting our people and our ways. And what those who do that mean, I suppose, is that, in some way, they consider Jewish authenticity, at least insofar as the religious heritage is concerned, as residing elsewhere, not in themselves - and I just don't think that's true.
So long as we are searching - drawn and motivated by our inheritance - for a way to be, and are taking steps accordingly - however tentative or celebratory - we are participating in the ages-old quest of our tradition to take part with the Blessed Holy One in the very creation of this world.
Action that is motivated by that quest, in our legacy, is called halakhah - often translated as 'Jewish Law,' but really meaning 'the way one walks' in the world, the way in which one deliberately and mindfully puts each foot in front of the other. It is understandable that, over the centuries, and especially in modern times, this way of talking about a way of walking has accrued a definite article and (in English) a capital letter, so that some now speak of 'the Halakhah,' as if one definite Way were spelled out unambiguously somewhere.
But I've got news for you -
The closer you look at the sources and teachings of our heritage - and I am happy to take this walk with anyone who wants a close-up view - the more you come to realize that each and every picture of each and every moment along the vast timeline of our beautiful tradition is actually composed of multiple and distinct brush-strokes of differing opinion. In each and every century, almost in each and every decade, it is true, there are efforts to pull the whole together into comprehensive codifications and definitive statements of The Way. And so we have, for instance, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah ('Recapitulation of the Teaching') of the 12th century, and Rabbi Ya'akov bar Asher's Arba'ah Turim ('Four Rows') of the 13th-14th centuries, and Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulkhan Arukh ('Laid Table') of the 1500s, and many more, to this day - the titles notably tending to suggest order and certainty, in the face of an actuality tending notably to be more of a tumult.
I respect that there are those who consider that the enterprise of way-making should be primarily a matter of carefully placing one's feet in the footsteps of the great ones who have gone before. Some bristle and balk at the apprehension of a 'free-for-all,' or, stated much more positively, find tranquility, inspiration, and motivation in modeling one's own steps upon the ways of one's illustrious forebears. I acknowledge there are aspects and parts of my own thought and praxis that are like that.
Reacting against that tendency - and against the perceived authority of masters of halakhah - some others have come to speak of 'post-halakhic Judaism.' But that makes about as much sense to me as would, say, 'post-dharmic Buddhism.' I do not mean that I believe everyone should walk in one particular Jewish way. I mean that many, many more take part in the authentic Jewish way-making of our times than realize that they do.
So let me suggest to you the following spiritual and practical exercise for this new year, for yourself, and in community together with one another:
As you contemplate the mystery of Oneness, how does our tradition inspire you toward a path in action? Or, put differently, what is your halakhah?
I can hardly wait to hear and see!