July 06

My Journey to Flexidoxy - or, At Home on the Slippery Slope
by Jay Michaelson
p. 2 of 2

So more intelligent folk rarely have recourse to such concepts. Rather, they'll point to the essence of covenant itself, either in the traditional mythic understanding of Torah mi'Sinai, or in some modified Kantian, or Maimonidean, or even Kaplanian sense. These accounts do hold water -- and there are many more good ones as well -- but I always want to ask why we need them to. Yes, the explanations make sense, but so do contrary ones. So do nihilistic ones. Why choose the righteous? Why choose the good?

Here's where it gets more interesting, because here, unlike within the mythic structures themselves, is the real juice of individual choice, and that, not communitarianism or covenant, is the defining feature of (post-)modern religious life. You can choose to subscribe to a system that says it isn't your choice, and that God has commanded you -- but it's still you're choice to buy into the system. And there are usually interesting reasons: a passion for justice, a yearning for God, a desire for order or for ethics... or in my case, love.

3. Post-weaving

Today, I regard my halachic observance not as the pursuit of a trans-subjective spiritual value, but as a dozen roses I buy for my lover. Why not eleven, instead of twelve? Why roses, instead of dandelions? There's no real reason, other than the fact that, in our shared cultural understanding, a dozen roses means "I love you" in a way that eleven dandelions does not. I find, when I break shabbat or kashrut, that I can feel a little cut off from love -- whether internal or external, I leave to theologians. It doesn't feel good. I concede that some of why it doesn't feel good is pure guilt -- but alongside that guilt is, I think, a genuine desire for intimacy with the universe, which I conceptualize as God. As Buber said, I can't really say much about whether I believe in God in the third person, as an It with these or those properties. But when we are speaking of God in the second person, when I am speaking to You, then of course You exist and have been laughing the whole time at my all-to-clever brain's peregrinations in philosophy.

This perspective also helps me reconcile myself to other religions, and to my co-religionists who make different choices. Other cultures have different cultural understandings -- lilies instead of roses. And so do other individuals. I have my practice, which brings me a sense of closeness and love of Heaven -- and other people do their thing. No need for universality, even as I appreciate connecting with an ancient community in the forms of my own practice. It matters to me that tefillin have been worn for thousands of years, and that they have, I feel, old magic within them, far deeper than anything I could invent. There is still the urge to spread the gospel, to bring to other people these gifts which I feel I've been given -- but thankfully, there's no real impulse to convert them.

This new view, though, stands in stark contrast to my earlier system of belief, and is as anarchic as it is seemingly inoffensive. It seems, on the surface, like an ordinary, unoriginal form of religious practice -- to do what feels good. But it isn't quite that, because if one is attentive, a dozen complications arise. For example, "what feels good" in a deep sense often has little to do with what feels good at the moment. Maybe this week I'm not in the mood to keep shabbos at all, but over time, I know from experience how that lack will come to feel. Which to choose? And how to know in advance -- maybe davening every day will transform me in a way that I couldn't possibly imagine until I do it. And what about deliberately not making an idol out of my own preferences -- as in relationship, sometimes it feels good to deny oneself what feels good. And, conversely, as in relationship, without boundaries that are clear ahead of time, all of life becomes a slippery slope.

I've come to make a home for myself on the slippery slope. It's precarious, but there's more open air than in the dense flatlands of halacha, a geography which never accommodated me as much as I wanted it to. So that's where I am now: honoring these ancient tools for connection, while not buying into their myths of origination; recognizing that sometimes the tools will work and sometimes they won't, but doing them even some of the times they won't; and, at the place which had at one time symbolized all that was wrong with subjective Jewish practice: the salad bar. There are practices I do, and practices I don't do. And there are those I do sometimes but not others. It's inconsistent, and it's not an ideology; indeed, I far prefer those who admit its heresy to those who try to rationalize it into some "evolving" conception of "Jewish law and tradition." That kind of theorizing has a place, since it gives thousands of Jews the sense that they are being good people and not heretics. But for myself, I embrace the apikorsus of the religious salad bar.

Lately, as I've been writing for the Forward, the term "flexidoxy" has begun to gain currency to describe this non-ideological (even anti-ideological) way of Jewish practice and belief. It still sounds a little too Orthodox for me -- as if, well, I'm "Orthodox, but." Which I'm not. But of all the labels I've considered (neo-Karaite, Reconstructionist, Heterodox, postmodern-orthodox), it seems to fit the best. After all, the categories I'm working within are still those defined by the rabbis. And while flexidoxy is a break from the foundational belief that the rabbis are authorized to interpret law for me, it's not a break from the general categories of halacha as a mode of response to the Infinite.

Maybe thousands of other people make this "break" all the time, and think nothing of it. But as you, my readers, know, I don't like to think nothing of it. In my view, thinking nothing of it is disrespectful to truth, even to God. And it's imprudent, because if we think nothing of our heresy, we won't keep it under control. We (or our children) will slip down that slope, into a place devoid of value and connection, and wonder how we ever ended up there. The answer will be simple: like the WalMart and McDonald's consumers who bewail the loss of their small town's center, we will have created our reality through ignorance. So I want to conclude with a few principles of Thoughtful Flexidoxy, based on my last few years of working with them.

The first critical element, for me at least, is taking discernment seriously. At an actual salad bar, I don't think too much about exactly which ingredients to include. But if religious practices are chosen this cavalierly, the only god being served is the self -- the same small ego that is responsible for all of my suffering and alienation. That's, to me, an exact inversion of the priorities of religion. To be sure, many of the so-called pious are practicing just that, making religious rhetoric and symbol the servants of their own egoic desires. But it's an even more obvious danger for those of us on the religious salad bar, picking and choosing. So it has to be not "picking and choosing," but carefully discerning, weighing, experimenting, testing the waters and the ice -- processes which require both literacy with the sources ("Chicken Soup for the Soul" won't cut it) and spiritual attentiveness to the self. If subjectivism is to be the foundation, then it needs to be attended to, nurtured, and improved.

A second critical element of thoughtful flexidoxy is cultivating ahavah as seriously as the pious cultivate yirah. It's no use making love the ground of religious practice if love is left untilled. Just as the pious remind themselves of God's terrible judgment, and of the need to repent, so I need to remind myself -- through meditation, walking in the woods, prayer, and study -- of the abundance of love available in every moment, if I simply surrender my desire for it to be other than what it is. Then I remember, and then I can choose -- not from a place of rationalization, or fear, or convenience, but from as close as I can get to authenticity. All this talk of love may be cliched, intellectually speaking, but who wants to be an intellectual when it comes to love? Once again, the parallel to human relationship is apparent -- since being an intellectual in bed isn't best recipe for romance either.

Third, a subjective anti-system such as flexidoxy is authentic only insofar as it is recognized as being what it is: a heresy. This has two aspects: that of faith, and that of questioning. First, heretics are not unbelievers. After all, if I didn't believe, truly, that the Avinu Sh'ba'shamayim can be accessed by means of the ancient Jewish pathways of halacha and study, then I'd just junk the whole thing, do my Buddhist meditation, and be done with it. That, however, is not my God. No, a heretic is a believer. And just as discernment and love require cultivation, so too does belief: in this case, an endless process of active remembering, with whatever practices work toward that end. Torah study (in its broadest sense), bodily exercise, enlarging the heart, acts of lovingkindness -- these are a few very traditional, and very effective, ways to remember and remind. The alternative, again, is a religion of compromise and convenience that deserves to be rejected by the next generation.

At the same time, flexidoxy, and the other salad bar heresies are not ideologies. I'm not claiming, as the conservative movement does, that what I'm doing is God's will, or what halacha was always meant to be, or part and parcel of a centuries-old Jewish narrative. It is part of a very old Jewish practice, which is to be gentle and flexible in the adaptation of Jewish norms to life. But it won't do as an ideology, or as a practice that can be prescribed to others. I don't even trust it completely for myself, since I know how often even my best-intentioned discernment leads to disaster.

For those coming from a secularist or accommodationist perspective, all this may be much ado about nothing. So what, you eat fish in the treif restaurant -- the rest of us are enjoying the shrimp. Certainly, I'm not making any claim that this "journey" is significant cosmologically, or objectively -- that would be contrary to the pluralistic foundation of flexidoxy itself. But personally, since halacha is one of my core practices, and since it contains within itself a fundamentalist justification, the uprooting of that foundation is both catastrophic within the system's own categories, and of some moment to me beyond them. Frequently, it fills me with doubt and fear. But when I succeed in surrendering and remembering, I see again the laughing, patient face of God.



Top Image: Zachary Handler. Lower image: Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit

Jay Michaelson is chief editor of this magazine. During July, he will be at summer camp teaching about leadership, spirituality, and character. In August, he will be leading a weeklong retreat on "God on Your Body" at Elat Chayyim. Zachary Z. Handler recently received a Masters in Arts Administration from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to that, he graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Arts: Photography from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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