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Staying Faithful to the Center
(A Guide to Halakhic Observance)

by Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

Just because someone says that something is important does not make it so. Just because you are told that you must act in a certain way, does not mean that you must listen, and obey. Just because someone believes that something is true, and obligatory, does not make it so. Even when you are told in the name of religion that this is the right practice, or that is the correct belief, it does not mean that the practice, or the belief, is indeed right or correct, or all the more so obligatory.

Much of what we are taught, and much of what we are told has a politicized agenda attached to it. If we are blind to hidden, (or not so hidden) agendas, then we remain in the dark, not knowing what it is that is truly expected of us.

When it comes to the observance of religious rituals many take the importance of the rituals at face value. Many believe that the rituals are important, unbending, and demanded. However, one truly learned in the ways of one's religion recognizes that not all holy writ is holy, and not all that is called obligatory is, in fact, really obligatory.

Religions in general, and religious beliefs, and practices in particular are always in a constant state of movement, and change. Religions evolve, even as they stay firmly connected to their original revelations. In Judaism, this chain of evolution, starting at Mt Sinai, and reaching to this very day, is called the Mesorah, or more simply, the Tradition. Mesorah defines for Judaism what is, and what is not, the proper Judaic observances of Torah Law.

Mesorah can be compared to a never-ending high-rise, where each new level is built firmly on top of that which came before it. When the connections between old and new are solid, and firm, then the structure continues to grow and evolve, yet remaining ever faithful and connected to its ancient origins. For Judaism, Mesorah defines Torah law, and Halakhic (religious ritual) practice.

When one wishes to be properly, religiously observant then it is appropriate, wise, and proper for one to clearly, and correctly understand how one's religious practices are to be observed in the here and now, based on practical modern considerations, and not based on antiquated foundations that are no longer applicable. Judaism is always of the here, and the now.

One cannot remain faithful to Torah Mesorah by veering off its well beaten trails, Shifts to either the extreme right, or the extreme left throws the entire foundation off balance. This is why any observances of Torah Mesorah (Halakha) that veer too far to the right in rigid extremism, or to the left with reckless abandon of the Mesorah itself, are both equally unstable, and are incongruent with balanced, and modern Torah Mesorah (Halakha).

Today, there is so much confusion as to what is the proper practices of authentic Torah Mesorah. All too many varying, and even divergent opinions boldly proclaim themselves to be “the right way,” or worse, “the only way.” For the rank and file individual who is not well educated in the entire chain of evolving Torah observances, all these conflicting voices do nothing but create chaos, and confusion.

In order to avoid having to educate oneself, and to discover the truth for oneself, which is what Torah Mesorah actually demands, most will instead, often arbitrarily, pick for themselves a single voice to follow, proclaiming that one as an authority, and then simply play “follow the leader.”

“What the “Rabbi” says is what I do, he defines for me what I believe.” This blind faith is an abrogation of Torah, of Mesorah, and equally of common sense. It is today the single most danger facing the healthy and proper continuing evolution of authentic Torah Mesorah. The Rabbinic directive to listen to the rabbis did not ever mean to place blind faith in individuals whose behavior clearly identifies their lack of leadership skills.

A real rabbi is not just a political “wheeler-dealer.” A real rabbi has to be fully knowledgeable, and well versed in many different educational disciplines. Only a rabbi who is also a fully educated “man-of-the-world” possesses the necessary information about modernity to properly ascertain the right structures for Torah practices in the here and now. If a rabbi is lacking understanding of the world around him, then how can he possibly express balanced views about things of which he has no direct knowledge, or experience.

Since Talmudic times the Sages have spoken about an “oral Torah.” Essentially, oral Torah is an ongoing evolving interpretation of the written Torah, and includes the ever-evolving interpretation of the words of the Sages themselves. Every generation raises it leaders. Every generation faces its struggles and challenges. Every leader of every generation is thus faced with new issues, some of which might be reflections of older problems. The real rabbi then turns to the ever-increasing number of books of Torah to ascertain just what are the underlying ideas, and understandings that motivated previous opinions, and commentaries. Grasping the essence of this is the Mesorah of Torah. Now the rabbi, fully educated about both the Torah precedent, and the reality of the circumstances and needs of modern times, can express a properly balanced, tolerant, and wise opinion as to how the Mesorah should be applied under the new circumstances as they exist at that time, in that place. This is how the oral Torah continues to thrive, and develop even too this day.

When the precedent of forward evolution fails to occur in the world of Halakha (Jewish law), a blockage of oral Torah occurs. This is a very dangerous religious, and psychological situation. When stagnation sets in to religious law and practices, then the religion does not keep up with the times. This essentially breaks the continuity of the Mesorah, and stops the flow of the living waters of oral Torah. When this happens, similar to blocked arteries in the human heart, a life threatening condition occurs. In the human body this can lead to a heart attack. In the greater body of the religion these blockages manifest in the rise of fundamentalism, and extremism. Both of these malevolent forms act as illnesses within the religion in general, and can essentially kill a religion, in the same way as clogged arteries in the human heart can kill an individual. Needless to say, such a stoppage is terribly bad and wrong.

The way to address this problem is for the layman to take matters into his or her own hands. This is accomplished by fulfilling one of the fundamental directives of the rabbinic Sages throughout the centuries. Each individual must take advantage of the technological blessings of our times, and make use of the numerous sources of material that we have today at our disposal. Today, more and more classical religious texts are available in numerous translations. Internet search engines enable one to explore numerous sources of information, and to research issues that were at one time only in the hands of a select few. Smart phones really become smart, when one is used to further one's education, and spiritual growth. Don't let ridiculous extremists tell you otherwise!

With information readily available to so many, the stagnant few can no longer hold such a tight grip on information. It is proper education that enlightens the public, and enables the average person to recognize the stagnation in fundamentalism, and extremism. Education is the classical way of the Mesorah to provide a learner with tools to march forward in the proper expression of religion, and to equally condemn, and then ignore the dangerous stagnation of the extremists. Like the Sages of old have said, “Talmud Torah K'neged Kulam,” (Torah study is valued higher than all other forms of religious practice).

There is one drawback with personal learning, and that is that there is no guarantee that one can learn all there is that one needs to know. One will always have to turn to, and rely on, the experts (in any field) in order to analyze, and discern maters which may be beyond the layman's individual ability. Nevertheless, an educated laymen is in a far better position than an uneducated one. One who is educated can recognize an opinion from a fact, and an a baseless expression of fundamentalism, from a well balanced, well thought out practical approach.

There is no substitute for a thorough learning program, even if it is brief and generalized. One who questions can find answers. One who does not question simply follows, and has no understanding of what one follows, or what one is doing. There is no merit, and no wisdom in this. “Yours is not to question why” may work for Tennyson and the military, but it certainly does not work for the sincere religious seeker who wishes for his or her religious experience to be fulfilling.

The famous medieval rabbi, sage, and philosopher, Maimonides, wrote extensively encouraging his audience to always walk the middle path. Never be too liberal, never be too conservative. Never be too strict, never be too lenient. Never be extreme, ever! Walk the middle path. Be balanced, and in this each individual will find the best path of religious practice and observance. Balance, moderation, and tolerance in religion is what Torah, Mesorah and Halakha are all about. This was the Talmudic way, and the way it needs to be again.

With regards to all aspects of Jewish ritual practices, one should shun the baseless, imposed strictness of the modern extremists. One should seek the rational, natural, and classical understandings underlying all aspects of Halakha (religious law), and seek what is called, “Ikar HaDin,” (the essential foundation upon which all else is built). Once one becomes familiar with the basics, one can them familiarize oneself with the different customs, and traditions that have evolved over many centuries. These traditions (Minhagim) have varying grades of authority, with some being almost the same as law, while others are virtually irrelevant, and ready to be abandoned.

One should first learn the history, and practices of Torah and Halakha from the numerous available resources on the internet, or in books. With this foundation one can approach any rabbi, ask his opinion on a matter, and determine right away, if he is, or is not, in the camp of the extremists. What an individual is to do next remains a personal decision. One can chose to embrace an extremist, or one can chose not to. Do not be intimidated by the apparent authority of such figures. The less valid one is, the more he will try to impress you with his validity.

Stay balanced. Remain in the center. Do not be swayed. Stay normal. Do not allow yourself to become crazy, or to be driven crazy. Torah, Mesorah, and Halakha are all about rational, and sane religion. Do not let your religion become anything less than this.
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The Written Works of Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright (C) 1997 - 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.

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