Halacha: The Chok’s On You

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015 at 3:13 am
by Sam Glaser

Joanne Atkinson was everything a young piano student could want in a teacher.  She was humble, upbeat and encouraging.  Never harsh, never demanding.  If there was a piece to which I didn’t relate or which was too intricate, she allowed me to move on, no problem.  She also instituted a separate music theory class for her more advanced students, allowing me to grasp such concepts as classical harmony, counterpoint and transcription. Then my Bar Mitzvah tutor, Aryell Cohen intervened. He told my mom, “Sammy has something special and he needs a REAL teacher.”  Immediately thereafter my five-year love affair with Joanne ceased and I now was faced with the tyranny of Aryell’s German teacher (she-who-must-not-be-named) who lived with a pair of Dobermans and Bosendorfers in the Hollywood Hills.  Now I was chastised if I didn’t perfect my repertoire or scolded if I flubbed my dexterity exercises.  She didn’t really believe in my ability to “make it” as a pianist and regularly reminded me.  The creaky turn-of-the-century wooden home felt eerily haunted and it reeked of the food she cooked for her pampered pets.  I had to wash my hands before stroking her beloved 88’s and God Forbid I ever touch my shoes and then touch the keyboard!  She even denied my mother entry, making her shiver in the dark in our family station wagon waiting for me to finish each lesson.  Talk about dedication…thanks mom!

In spite of the horrors of enduring this caustic spinster, I did learn to take my art more seriously.  I developed practice techniques that I utilize to this day.  Yes, it was shocking not to be praised and coddled, but thanks to her unremitting tutelage, I tackled pieces that I likely would not have entertained had I remained with the effervescent Mrs. Atkinson.  After about a year of this torture I rebelled, telling my parents that now that I was a man (of 13!) I had decided to quit the piano and take up guitar.  Of course I still used the piano for songwriting and it wasn’t long before I was back, having found great teachers in David Kaminer who taught me how to rock, and then in my senior year, Dick Fister, who enlightened me on the finer points of jazz.  While it was liberating to learn to jam and improvise, I can safely say that I never again worked on my craft with that same degree of discipline as my year with the tyrant.
In hindsight I realize that what the cantankerous teacher truly gave me was the gift of appreciating how to harness my creative energy.  My innate ability was meaningless without the imposed structure. This insight helped me understand the value of the “harness” that the Jewish People has used to thrive through the millennia.  We call it Halacha (the path one walks,) or Jewish law and the multitude of constraints on our supposed freedom actually serve to give us direction and purpose, to coordinate our human efforts towards a greater goal.  Trying on the “yoke of heaven” sounds like a burden that no one would want.  Save that stuff for the religious fanatics or masochists! Surely no one wants a yoke around his or her neck.  Especially this beach loving, quasi-hippie California kid. But a yoke allows oxen to plow and thereby bring sustenance and hopefully abundance into the world. These rules and regulations are really our freedom, the secret of true success, a wellspring of pleasure and joy.  Mastering halacha seems like a dry, empty endeavor, but incorporating it into one’s life turns the most mundane acts like getting dressed, eating and interacting with others into profound moments of spiritual significance. I want to dedicate this month’s newsletter to developing an appreciation for the finer points of Jewish law and it’s various subdivisions. Bear with me…this overview requires a bit of vocabulary.
We begin with a primary distinction, the Written and the Oral law.  The written law is based on the legal sections of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the oral is based on the teaching of Moses and subsequent commentators.  Although there is disagreement on the exact numbering, all of our sages agree that there are 613 official mitzvot in the written text.  These are divided into 248 positive (Thou Shalt) and 365 (Shalt Not) commandments.  The “Oral Torah” elaborates on how we do these 613.  Clearly there is more to the divinely inspired script than one can find in print; several passages of the Torah indicate that Moses perceived celestial diagrams and was not just taking dictation.  Around the year 217 CE Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi committed this orally transmitted tradition to writing in order to preserve it for posterity.  His work is a terse six-book set called the Mishnah.  Over the next 400 years the commentaries on the Mishnah were compiled in the expansive 63-volume Gemara.  Together the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud.  Got it?  As an example, let’s assume that you want the rules to build a sukkah. The written law succinctly states that all citizens of Israel have to dwell in booths for seven days. The oral law elucidates exactly what the parameters of such a booth should look like, who exactly is obligated, what to do if it rains, what activities comprise “dwelling” in the sukkah, etc.  Yes, every last detail has been covered!  Our sages maintain that both written and oral law are binding, and that the inspiration for all of the legalese as espoused by the commentators stems from the original revelation at Mt. Sinai.
Next we have a further distinction in our legal code: these biblical written and oral laws are called D’oraita, and laws introduced by the sages are called rabbinic or D’rabbanan.  Examples of rabbinic laws are the mitzvot to light Shabbat candles or to celebrate Purim.  These are not part of the original 613 mitzvot but we refer to them as mitzvot nonetheless.  The fact is that we live in a rabbinic world in that most of the laws that we observe in our daily lives are from the rabbis.  Just like the logo on the side of the LA Police cruisers states, “To protect and serve,” our concerned rabbis have instituted multifarious gezerot (fences) to keep us from trampling on the D’oraita commandments and takanot (decrees) for the public welfare.  Even though we may feel that we already have plenty, these “extra” laws are for our own good. Furthermore, each community has minhagim (customs) that can acquire the force of law when the majority adopts them.  Wearing a kippah is an example of one of these.  Without a Temple, priests and sacrifices these days, there are only 369 of the original 613 that we can do.  Not to worry: the rabbis have given us plenty more mitzvot to keep us busy!
Within the Written Law there are three categories.  The first is Mishpatim, from the word mishpat (judgment.)  These are the rational laws, the social ordinances that are intuitive, those that any functioning society might require.  Just remember that word mishpat: these are the laws that you could figure out using your own “judgment.”  Do not murder or steal are two of the mishpatim, for example.  The next category is called Chukim, or Chok in singular.  A chok is a superrational law, one that cannot be understood using human reason.  The laws of kashrut and family purity are in this class of chukim.  Yes, we can analyze why certain foods are off limits, but the fact is we are left with a best guess and never truly know.  That’s right, even though quality USDA pork chops will not give us trichinosis at this juncture of history, they are still verboten.  Assuming that we know better than the Master of the Universe is naïve and even foolhardy. Observing chukim is simply an act of love, a deep connecting with a Creator Who has the ultimate perspective, Who gave these laws for a reason that we may not ever grasp. In spite of the fact that we don’t understand, we observe chukim because we love and trust the Lawgiver.  This is the secret of that powerful formula “Na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will do and then we will understand) that we collectively uttered at Sinai.  Clearly we intuited that only performing mitzvot we understand would undermine the relationship, signifying a lack of trust by second guessing God’s ability to nurture us.
Finally there is a category called Edut, or those mitzvot that are testimonial in nature, declaring God’s power and guidance of history.  These are the laws like the observance of Shabbat and our major holidays.  The details of performing Mishpatim, Chukim and Edut are bandied about in animated conversations recorded in the Talmud, an intimidating Aramaic text that requires seven and a half years to complete by reading one complicated page at a time.  Thankfully we have a number of compilations that summarize the tachlis (bottom line) of Jewish law so that we don’t have to spend a decade looking up the proper blessing for a banana.  The primary text that enjoys universal hegemony is the Shulchan Aruch (set table) compiled by Talmudic genius Yosef Caro while he lived in Tsfat in 1555.  Caro had the misfortune of being born in Toledo, Spain in 1488; he and his family were victims of the expulsion in 1492.  They immigrated to Portugal only to be sent packing in the Portugese expulsion of 1497.  Like Maimonides he had to study while on the run.  Remarkably, his exposition of Jewish law still stands to this day; there is scarcely a home without a copy of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged version of his code.  Ashkenazim get their specific angle on observance through Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s (the Chofetz Chaim) Mishna B’rura (the clarified teaching,) a text that I have taken great joy in studying over the years.  Sephardim get their unique insights from kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s halachic masterpiece, Ben Ish Chai (the son of the man who lives.)  Both of these texts appeared in the 1800’s and remain the trusted references in the Jewish world.
With the advent of the Internet and quality English books like Artscroll’s new Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (that includes the clarification of the Mishna B’rura) it’s tempting to avoid bothering one’s rabbi with a shyla (question.)  I pity our overburdened rav who gets cornered every time he teaches or during spare moments on Shabbat by earnest congregants with urgent questions.  The fact is, however, that this is why we have a rabbi!  Ideally your rabbi knows you well and can advise you based on your unique circumstances and idiosyncrasies.  Jewish law is not monolithic.  It is highly flexible and your skilled rabbi will know just what you are ready for…or not.  Furthermore, there is far greater leniency in the enforcement of D’rabbanan as opposed to D’oraita.  Any time I ask Rabbi Cohen a shyla I see him pause to reflect on the origin of the commandment in question and guide me accordingly.  The interpretation of halacha is also geographically dependent; a case in point is when my younger brother Aharon moved from our community to the other side of town (the Hancock Park area.) He was told to find another posek (a rabbi who specializes in halachic issues) in his new domain.  Indeed, every locale has its own nuanced framework that only a local rabbi can know.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) details the exacting chain of transmission of Torah law from Sinai to the present day.  You can rest assured that this immense quantity of Jewish “how to’s” is not the invention of some crafty rabbis along the way.  Illustrating the veracity of our canon is beyond the scope of this essay but I assure you that the information is available.  While it seems that there are so many disagreements in the Talmud, there is one important fact that cannot be overlooked: the rabbis of the Talmud agree on nearly all the major precepts handed down in that chain of transmission.  They are just arguing the finer points, the seemingly insignificant “hairsplitting” details that shed light on the ultimate truth of any given matter.  God refers to us in the Torah as a “stiff necked people.”  We get especially stubborn in our search for truth and we do not budge from our time-tested beliefs.  I believe this is also the reason why we have over fifty synagogues within a one-mile radius in our LA-based shtetl.  It’s not that we don’t get along…it’s just that each subset of our multinational nation has a deep love for specific minhagim and whenever possible, prefers not to compromise.
Familiarizing yourself with and observing Jewish law offers access to the highest realms of spirituality.  While it seems like the People of the Book spend too much time reading to impact the world, the fact is that our devotion to the understanding and carrying out of God’s truth as revealed in our Torah profoundly affects reality.  Just like a smile is contagious, so too is there a ripple effect from each mitzvah performed.  In the end, all laws are mysterious chukim.  We will never understand the inner workings of God’s great plans for humanity.  But by studying the “owner’s manual” we can become acquainted with the Creator and align our will with God’s will for the Chosen People.  When we do, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said, we are “dreaming God’s dreams.”  Judaism is a religion of life, of this world.  Yes, there are rewards in the next world beyond our imagination for every mitzvah.  But the real payoff is in the here and now, in the form of living with deep meaning, optimal relationships with all those you encounter, emotional and physical well being and most importantly, a sweet song of joy and holiness accompanying your daily dance with the Almighty.
Halacha seems daunting but only when studied from a distance.  Put that analytical, college-trained logic aside for a while and try on a chok for size.  Go ahead and do the research…but you will never understand the reason for the mitzvot.  You may feel foolish or feel like you are entertaining antiquated superstitions.  But then something clicks inside and you feel a sense of connection with your heritage.  Then you try another mitzvah and that leads to another.  Soon you are using your God-given power of choice to choose God.  Then you realize you want to soak up every mitzvah opportunity and you have a lot to learn.  At last, the chok’s on you!  Early in my life I learned that true art requires the imposition of order upon chaos, shaping a collection of random notes into a masterpiece.  All of us can develop the expertise to master our own instrument, playing our own unique role with diligence and passion, capably contributing to the sublime symphony of creation.

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