Sensibilities and Halakhah

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December 1, 2003
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By Dov Lerea

I HAVE WORKED AS A RABBI and educator within liberal, transdenominational sectors of the Jewish community for over two decades, and the term “sensibility” lies at the heart of the tensions and balances with which this community wrestles. Having grown up in an assimilated setting, chosen the Orthodox community as the community within which to live, and decided to work as an Orthodox rabbi within a liberal educational setting, I have years of personal and professional perspective on the ironic similarities and important differences between the many ways Jews have organized their communal lives in America. It is from this eclectic perspective that I appreciate Vanessa Ochs’s introducing the term “Jewish sensibilities” as a central category of communal discourse. The term “sensibility” highlights some of the compelling strengths of a liberal community; it also points to that community’s most unstable, intrinsic weaknesses.

The word “sensibility,” according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, means “responsiveness to stimuli,” in the sense of a “capacity of feeling or emotion as distinguished from intellect and will; awareness of and responsive feeling toward something.”

It is precisely these affective qualities of feeling and awareness that I recognize as salient features of successful liberal Jewish life. Educators in the liberal settings within which I have worked emphasize personal meaning and motivation as benchmarks for assessing the learning and religious growth of students. We talk a great deal about and identify examples of creative and deep thinking, and we reward students for demonstrating connections between texts they study and their own personal questions, thoughts, and experiences. Educators in the liberal community raise concerns regarding sensibilities about the relationship between Jews and non-Jews with tremendously important, interesting, and passionate chesed, works of lovingkindness. They act on sensibilities about the importance of girls’ participation in Jewish ritual and the centrality of their voices in the context of Torah study. Finally, the variety of opportunities for different tefillot and text study in pluralistic settings create opportunities in which students with different commitments to Jewish practice learn from each other, respect each other, and ultimately form friendships with each other. These real relationships, more than any mission statement or declaration of principles, attest to the most concrete expression of the value of klal Yisrael , the interdependence and love of Jews for each other.

These strengths all grow out of the particular sensibilities that characterize liberal communities. However, it is extremely difficult to identify the “glue” that actually binds the community together. In the “non-liberal,” Orthodox sector, halakhah, Jewish law, forms the bond that lends the community its foundation, design, and infrastructure. I believe this is true despite the many disagreements and internecine conflicts between sectors of the Orthodox community.

THE GRAMMAR AND LOGIC of halakhah include the terms “forbidden/permitted,” “now and not later,” and “this way and not that way.” Given these categories, sensibilities are easily ignored, underemphasized, or even misplaced. Nevertheless, these categories guarantee action in the form of clear expectations of consistent behaviors. Take any concrete example, such as visiting the sick. Jewish law requires that one visit the sick under certain conditions, but not under others. It requires that when visiting, a person sit in a certain proximity to the sick person, but not too close. When consoling the mourner, the halakhah requires everyone in the community to pay a visit during shiva, to enter the home and sit without talking, and wait until the mourner turns to the consolers and opens the conversation. A sensibility about consoling the mourner might motivate someone to act — to visit the mourner. But, without the halakhic narrative that accompanies the “law,” it might also allow the shiva call to become more like a social visit rather than a deep responsiveness to the pain of loss. Motivated by sensibilities alone, one might find stimulating, scintillating conversations, but not necessarily consolation.

Law mandates action independent of a sensibility, feeling, or thought. Sensibilities alone do not, necessarily, galvanize action. All the sensibilities in the world about the fragmenting effects of technological society, the psychology of human arrogance, or the historical insights about slave societies will not compel a student of Torah to observe Shabbat. Even in the realm of social justice, the force of halakhic imperative might serve to deepen the person’s awareness of the larger context for this work beyond a sensibility toward compassion. Perhaps the legal framework for social justice is what allowed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to remark that, when marching in Selma, he felt that his feet were praying. Only a Jew whose life was organized in the holistic universe defined by halakhah could make such a poetic statement. Heschel believed that his marching in Selma served to fulfill his obligation to praise the Creator. Beyond the critical domain of human sensibility lies the phenomenological trust in the drama of religious action. That stage is set with the dimensions and specifications that only halakhah can provide.

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Rabbi Dov Lerea is Dean of Judaic Studies at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City and Rosh Hinuch at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire.

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