Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Creating Authentic and Relevant Meaning

In re-reading the last two posts, I realized that I never explained my basic point. Here it is.

The (simplistic) Orthodox world view is that God wrote the Torah and commanded the commandments. Our job is simply to decode the text, follow the oral law, and do the mitzvot. We might have some discretion in borderline or ambiguous cases, and there may be some complexity in the particulars of tough cases. But for the most part, the general approach is all very straightforward.

But that is not the way it actually works in practice, or the way is has worked in history. The act of not only figuring out exactly what a mitzvah entails but figuring out how it is meaningful and important involves a lot of judgment and discretion, and often a lot of creativity. We have several thousand years of people creating these idea, acts, interpretations, and discussions, and then reacting to others. It is a rich tradition.

Authenticity involves learning about this tradition, then doing mitzvot (or even sometimes changing mitzvot) in light of this tradition. That type of authenticity is equally available to Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews.

Relevancy involves an evaluation of mitzvot or texts in light of that tradition. This requires some flexibility and even playfulness with the texts, the mitzvot themselves, and even the ideas behind the texts. This is not some wacky left-wing New Age idea --- it is exactly the approach taken by the Talmud, the midrash, the kabbalists, and even contemporary Orthodox rabbis.

So far, I have claimed a lot more than I have proven. But rather than discussing all this in very general terms, I thought I would discuss it in light of a particular mitzvah, counting the omer. So stay tuned ....

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