July 06

My Journey to Flexidoxy - or, At Home on the Slippery Slope

Jay Michaelson

1. Weaving

When I was in my twenties, I wrote a book on the philosophy of halacha, as I had come to understand it over a half-decade of being a baal tshuva, one who takes on religious observance later in life. Like many a convert, I was zealous about my new faith, but my zeal was accompanied by a combination of intellectual anger and relief -- anger that no one had explained the point of Judaism to me, and relief that I'd finally been given the chance to figure it out.

Periodically I look back on that manuscript, even though the certainty of it, and the prose, now make me cringe. I look at it not so much for its ideas, which I've internalized and taught and repeated and come to largely reject, but for the enthusiasm behind them -- the energy of thought, the sense of urgency. Even though it's not a book I would write today, I still find that I believe no one else has written it: a combination of Soloveitchik and Heschel, a Halachic Man for Dummies -- a decoder of halachic spirituality.

The essential argument of the book was that halacha is a trans-subjective spirituality. Most forms of spiritual practice, Eastern and Western, have the individual as their zone of significance. I meditate, or I pray, or I dance, and I have an experience, in my mind, my subjectivity -- even if the system in which I'm practicing denies that the individual ultimately exists at all. If I choose to evaluate the experience ("that was a really good davening" or "I didn't get much out of that service") it is necessarily in terms of my own subjective experience.

The distinction between trans-subjective halacha and subjective-hasidic spirituality was less about relativism than about the place in which religion transpires. Although it's less familiar to us than the relativist subjectivist (you have your spiritual feeling, and I've got mine)< it's certainly possible to be a fundamentalist subjectivist too: to have an individual religious experience and still believe that it is universally the best, or absolutely true. This is happening all the time, in our community, in the evangelical Christian Right, and elsewhere. (see my article "Fetishizing the Trigger" for more on that). So it's not about relativism and fundamentalism.

Rather, it's between subjective and trans-subjective. Much of traditional religion places individual experience beneath some other good: service to God, societal harmony, whatever. This is where most contemporary seekers get off the bus, because as soon as something else is placed above the individual experience, then all kinds of mischief -- self-abnegation, repression, asceticism -- now is permitted. Come to think of it, maybe many contemporary baalei tshuva get on the bus for the same reason: because now the individual's pleasure and pain is not the most important thing in the universe. What a relief -- especially if you have a lot of pain.

What I found, though, as I wrote my book and went on my religious journey, was that there was a great liberation in not making the self the primary arbiter of value. I felt as if my religious life had gone through stages. At stage one, I did what I was told, lighting the candles when I was supposed to, eating only the right foods. I did this probably out of a desire to "do the right thing" and please authority figures -- mainly I was just following orders. At stage two, I came to see that some of these practices really felt good; now I lit the candles when I was supposed to, but not to impress authority figures -- to have an experience. Lighting candles felt good. But, of course, not always. Sometimes shabbat coming in meant denying myself various pleasures or activities -- what then? At stage three, I placed God ahead of me. Now I lit the candles not because I was told, and not because it felt good, but because it was part of a system in which the "right thing" was larger than "what felt good." And from that system, from the participation in a community and structure that was larger than myself, I derived a sense of value that was far more powerful than my individual pleasure. Even when lighting the candles gave me no subjective feeling at all, it had an objective reality that was outside my own preference -- and that felt like the point.

Ten years later, it's hard to resist the urge to ask why I was so interested in that "sense of value," and to psychoanalyze this supposedly non-subjective religious experience. But at the time, it felt like a deeply healthy reordering of priorities, as well as an authentic reflection of what the Jewish tradition was actually saying. This was avodat hashem, the service of something greater than myself. This was what was meant by commandment. And this was revelation: that value exists, outside the mind, and out there in the material world. Not in some spiritual (read: non-existent) universe, but in the actual, tangible arrangement of reality itself. It matters that the food is this way and not that. It matters that at this time, this is done and this is not. Thus, as Soloveitchik wrote so eloquently (too eloquently, I thought at the time, since few people could understand him), the material world is both sanctified and signified.

But halachic spirituality was very subtle, I thought. It's hard to notice, this trans-subjective value -- after all, it's defining feature is that you might not necessarily feel it. Buberian and Heschelian Hasidism delivered the goods: do this practice, and you'll feel something. Soloveitchik's Misnagdism didn't promise any such reward. But in my practice, and my writing, I felt it was there, and appreciated it, and came, even, to love it.

2. Unraveling

Now, as I look at my life and my practice, it feels like I've lost it. Although my life is still almost orthopractic in its observance, at least in some areas, the theory is gone. And the "almost" undermines any pretension to the "ortho." What happened? And where am I now?

What's happened over the last five years or so has been a slow, gentle unraveling of the halachic tapestry I wove over the previous five. First, I came to see the supposedly trans-subjective values within halacha as, in fact, highly subjective -- just someone else's subjectivity. For me, the most obvious example has been in the area of sexuality, in which ambiguous Biblical verses have been (subjectively) interpreted in excessively broad and oppressive ways, by (subjectively-minded) people with their own particular agendas. But it hasn't only been sexuality. It's clear that the dietary laws, the laws of shabbat, and the laws of prayer all have undergone radical, extensive, and subjectively-oriented revision over the last several hundred years, often along paths that may once have been wise, but don't seem particularly so today. Does it make sense for the daily prayer obligation to swell from five pages in the morning and afternoon, to fifty pages in the morning, ten in the afternoon, and twenty in the evening? Does it make sense for the scientifically-minded halachot of kashrut to (d)evolve into something that resembles voodoo? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I know that the ways these laws have unfolded have been anything but objective.

Second, I've noticed that the predicted catastrophe of pick-and-choose just hasn't happened. Here again, sexuality led. I thought that when I came out, that that would be the end of my religious observance. After all, now the balloon had been punctured, and the whole system compromised. But in fact, the opposite was the case. Not lesser love, but greater. Not less spirituality, but more. Likewise when I began to allow myself small exceptions to the rules. Taking the subway on shabbat, when there was nothing going on nearby but a good invitation somewhere else, made shabbat better, and brought me closer to God. It still doesn't feel good swiping my MetroCard -- but that moment is outweighed by hours of spirit.

Third, as my practice has slowly liberalized over the past five years, I've tried repeatedly to "check in" with why I'm doing it at all. As I wrote last fall, I think that guilt and fear play much larger roles than any of us would care to admit. I'm always interested, and bemused, when someone in the orthodox model refuses to answer the question of "why do it," insisting that it's not up to them, it's a commandment, and don't you see that's the whole point, that it's not up to us. I always want to ask (and sometimes do): well, why not disobey? Some, of course, will respond with an account of reward and punishment -- but these are not the interesting ones. More subtle minds understand that, even if there is s'char v'din, it's got to be so different from any conventional understanding of reward and punishment as to be, essentially, not reward and punishment. One needn't even mention the Holocaust to point to it, and remember that the old worldview only makes sense with extensive redefinition.

Images: Zachary Handler
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