A Floor and Not a Ceiling: My Religious Practice

December 1, 2011
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Shmuly Yanklowitz

Two moments during my early 20s stand out, each enlivened by religious sensibilities. The first moment occurred in the middle of an African desert, when a tribal chief said that the Israelites serve as a “light in the world.” After that, while I volunteered in small villages around the world by day, I spent my nights reading Jewish books under a lantern. The second moment occurred late one night on a hilltop in Efrat, Israel, where I was studying at a yeshiva: That’s where and when I finally let my soul open to talmudic law. I felt extreme urgency at both moments and in both settings to do more and to be more. Jewish values and community became the foundation of the mission for my public life and personal quest.

These are the values that guide my halakhic reasoning: Judaism is neither a science nor an art; it is neither logical nor perfectly beautiful. Judaism is messy, complicated, and incomplete; it provides more questions than answers; it is more of a yearning than a finding. Halakhah is a floor and not a ceiling. Ironically, Jewish law helps me to fly — frees me rather than confines me, inspires me rather than weighs me down. Rather than restrict me, the laws of Shabbat enable me to carve out time for prayer, meditation, reflection, conversation, and learning like no other time in my week.

I also embrace Jewish values beyond Jewish law in a very serious way. For example, on our wedding day, my wife and I chose to become kosher vegans. The tradition inspired us but didn’t mandate this life choice. Obeying my conscience is a crucial part of my attempt to fear and serve God.

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, explains that it takes more than halakhic observance to live a holy life. He suggests that one could keep every minutiae of halakhah and yet live an unholy life. For example, one could follow the laws governing the relations between husband and wife and yet treat one’s spouse disrespectfully. And while one could observe the laws of kashrut and eat meat, one could still eat unethically. The Ramban explains that we can become an abomination with the permission of the Torah (naval bi’reshut ha’Torah). To live with holiness, then, we must go above the requirements of the Torah (she-ni’hi’yeh perushim min ha-mutarot).

Some things have come easy for me, such as making autonomous moral decisions. My early education and family challenged me to think for myself. While my theology is complex, my faith in God — an early gift from my parents — remains simple. Other aspects of my adopted religious life have been more challenging. Most days, I am more in love with God and Torah than I am with the Jewish people. My struggle with ahavat Yisrael (love for the Jewish people) has been a weight on my heart.

One of my primary religious goals is to strengthen and deepen my internal world in order to address more deeply the messiness of the outer world. For me, this is primarily done through tefillah (prayer), hitbodedut (isolated meditation), Talmud Torah (learning and challenging myself intellectually and personally to think and feel more deeply), and mitzvot (mindful traditional Jewish observance). Deepening my connection to God, my community, and my inner self cultivates my approach to social justice work. This is my “calling” — to help the most vulnerable by making society more just, fair, and holy.

I’ve changed a lot over the last decade. I have taken more ownership of the tradition. While Orthodoxy often poses barriers to taking ownership, the more “Open Orthodoxy” charges us all to learn and encourages us to develop confidence in our own interpretations of texts and tradition. I am inspired by the relevance and urgency of our tradition. I feel called each day to serve, give, and reflect. I’ve been told I have an “intense” and “urgent” personality; this may be the result of the religious choices I have made.

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Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization guided by Torah values and dedicated to combating suffering and oppression (utzedek.org). He is also the director of Jewish life and a senior educator at the University of Los Angeles Hillel, and a sixth-year doctoral student in moral psychology and epistemology at Columbia University. His book, Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century, will be coming out in early 2012.

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