Overcoming a Rigid Halakhic Stance

Dear Rabbi,

I do believe in certain rules that have to be followed but in a particular circumstance it can be "bent" without "breaking" the overall concept. I remember a story told to me about some biblical rabbi teaching his students a certain lesson when a woman approached him with a question of a chicken she had just purchased with the last of her funds. She explained to the rabbi that she wanted to make sure the chicken was ritually slaughtered so that she could serve it for her Shabbat meal. After looking at the chicken the rabbi pronounced it fit to be eaten and the woman went away happy. After she left, the rabbi's students were all over him because the chicken was not slaughtered in a kosher fashion. The rabbi was quick to point out that maybe that was so, but then the woman and her family would have nothing to eat and how was that proper under Jewish tradition. Sometimes the circumstances make the decision "legal" in a larger sense. 
I also do not believe being "spiritual" and being "religious" are mutually exclusive of each other. Not obeying all of the commandments does not exclude one from being a Jew and thinking of oneself as Jewish because of some inner feeling although it may not conform with halacha should not exclude one from being considered one of the "flock". 

To say that this week’s parshah has many disparate stories is an understatement to say the least. To comment on all of them would take up more space than I care to comment on but one thing in the Third Aliyah really had meaning for me. In Numbers: 9, 6-7, the following is stated:
“There were men who were ritually unclean [because of contact with] a dead person, and therefore could not make the Passover sacrifice on that day. So, they approached Moses and Aaron on that day. 
Those men said to him, “We are ritually unclean [because of contact] with a dead person; [but] why should we be excluded so as not to bring the offering of the Lord in its appointed time, with all the children of Israel?”
Moses then goes to G-d to find out what if anything could be done for those that missed the first anniversary of Passover, and G-d gives the conditions of how those that could not partake of the Passover sacrifice when it was first called for, to have a “second” Passover sacrifice.
Here were Jews that were religious and wanted to take part in something that meant a lot to them, but because of circumstances beyond their control, they could not be a part of.
I believe that under today’s conditions, this request is not necessary, but I have experienced a
similar set of circumstances. My father was a bull of a man that was healthy for most of his
years on this Earth. Unfortunately, time takes its toll on everyone and towards the end of his life,
he had a series of setbacks that sent him to the hospital.   He always seemed to bounce back,
but when I took him home after one of these episodes, he did not seem right. In fact, his blood
pressure would not go down and he was extremely despondent. I knew something was wrong,
but he would not tell me what was bothering him. I kept pressing and he finally revealed to me
that while he was in the hospital, it was his mother’s yahrzeit, but because of where he was, he
could not get ten Jews together for him to say kaddish. He had never missed one before and
this was taking a mental toll on him.
That night I went with him to shul so that he could say his evening prayers but before they
started, I went up to his rabbi and explained what was going on in my father’s mind, which was
taking its toll on him physically as well.  Without any hesitation, the rabbi went over to my father
and told him that it would be okay to say kaddish that evening for his mother, which he did. The
results of that were amazing. As I was taking him home, I could see that he was in a much
better frame of mind. His blood pressure went down and although he died shortly thereafter, it
was not the result of any mental depression he had experienced. Age catches up to us all but I
was extremely grateful to the rabbi for giving him one less thing to worry about.  Whether what
the rabbi said was halachically correct is not the point, it was the right thing to do.
It’s funny what passages of the Torah will remind me of. 


Dear Mordecai,

You have once again brought us into the inner sanctum of the special relationship you had 
with  your father and the admiration you continue to have for him. What struck me in your 
anecdote was the following. You wrote, "Whether what the rabbi said was halachically correct 
is not the point, it was the right thing to do." I find that you do an excellent job of defining how 
religion should be practiced. Of course, I read into this your view of what Conservative 
Judaism is. Clearly, I think that halakha is important, but I also see how living strictly by its 
rules and regulations can remove a human dimension, and every situation demands an 
acknowledgement of the human dimension. 

In some sense, you base the practice of the rabbi that counseled your father on what G-d 
Himself did with respect to the second Passover. This is an interesting link, which I had not 
thought of before. 

I suppose the best challenge I can offer you is the following. Many Jews believe ardently in 
what you have expressed, but they actually apply the thinking you employed to all aspects of 
Jewish life. In short, Jewish practice should be grounded in the particulars of each human 
situation. This is the opposite of law, which speaks to uniformity of practice. We alluded in an 
earlier discussion to the relationship of your profession to the interpretative tradition of 
Judaism. The Jews that I am referring to earlier in this paragraph would define themselves as 
part of Renewal Judaism. They are spiritual, not religious. I get the sense that you are both. 
Are you spiritual, religious, or both, and what's the difference, if  any?



You raise some interesting points in what I expressed and I will try to answer the two questions 
you raised. First as to as far a Jewish practice being grounded in the particulars of each human 
situation and the law being just the opposite because of the need of a "uniformity of practice", is 
in my opinion incorrect. If that were so, the human rights of some that at one point had 
"separate but equal" being okay but later overturned because the concept was never actually 
accomplished and was eventually  found to be in violation of basic human rights. You have used 
the term "evolution" as it applies to Jewish practice and if the argument is persuasive enough, 
there is a change in the law as well.


Dear Mordecai,

That story really captured me - about the woman, the rabbi, and the potentially treif  chicken. That is a good example of the principle you are trying to affirm. I guess ultimately where I stand is that one can be experimental in one's religious practice; that staying true to forms can be an impediment to accessing the content; and that behaviorism is a risk in religious practice. 

Nevertheless, something also makes me uncomfortable about people making up their own practices that suit an idiosyncrasy.  I also wonder how strong a community can be when autonomy is placed above collective. Of course, some claim they don't want to exist in community. I don't know whether they are lonely or not. For me, while I appreciate time by myself, I believe community is critical to well-being and happiness. If law can help form community, then I see law as a positive force.