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Notes from Limmud 2015: DIY Judaism - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2016-03-24 22:33
Subject: Notes from Limmud 2015: DIY Judaism
Security: Public
Tags:cool, limmud, meta-halacha

Notes from Limmud 2015

DIY Judaism

R. Chaim Weiner

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Talk blurb: "Many people turn to me, as a rabbi, for inspiration and guidance—but not halachic rulings. Ultimately, they decide for themselves how they will live as Jews. What do rabbis have to say to these people? What would my DIY Judaism look like? A quick introduction to post-halachic Judaism."

[This talk turned out to be ridiculously over-popular for the size of the room it was assigned to:]

[photo of full room]

The speaker feels that at the start of his career, couples getting married, for example, wanted to know what they had to do. Nowadays, one sits with them and it's a negotiation: He has his list of demands, and they have theirs. Even with the wording of the כתובה that is the case. More than 50% of כתובות of couples he marries are non-traditional in one way or another... and this is for a rabbi not known as being particularly liberal.

Something has changed in people's relationship to their Judaism. They are owning it now. They are not asking for halachic decisions, they're asking for the information to make their own decisions, informed by halachic decisions but not dictated by them. There's a change out there, and we need to deal with it.

The Talmud has a principle "If they're not prophets, then they're the children of prophets". If the people are not doing what the rabbis tell them, then the rabbis are [lacuna, sc. being too strict?].

Secondly, the speaker has had a sense of discomfort from people asking questions to which he does not have a good answer, or a good public answer. From the very beginning of his rabbinate, people have asked questions in realms one cannot [as a rabbi] publicly address, for example what they can or can't order in a non-kosher restaurant, or buy in a supermarket. If one wants to be true to one's own principles, there's very little one can order, or buy, because you just don't know what's gone into it, meaning [one can't] give the answers people are looking for.

But on another level just saying there's nothing I can tell you doesn't solve people's problems. It keeps your integrity but labels you as irrelevant to help people with their Jewish lives: If you're not willing to engage people with, for example, where to park on Shabbos, or whether there's a difference between Vegetarian Society stamp in the supermarket and Tesco's "Suitable for vegetarians", it's not good enough to toe the party line. To engage with real people, you need to engage with the issues they're dealing with.

Thirdly, the speaker was speaking at Limmud South Africa, and they put him on a panel on "If you could change or delete one thing from Judaism, what would you change?" Other people didn't take it seriously, and gave answers like: guilt. His list: shacharis, etc.

Eventually he came up with: getting rid of any prayer or service that takes longer than ten minutes.

No one knew him there.

What was interesting was that during the questions afterwards, he was bombarded with questions, and they were so serious and so good conversations, it reinforced his sense that it's not good enough to play it safe.

Going back to that question in more detail: If the speaker had to draw the picture of a kind of reasonable coherent observant Jewish life for people who don't want Jewish observance to be everything in their lives, what would that look like?

Of course, he's not going to address large areas of Judaism here not because they're not important but because they're obvious: Do not murder, for example, or all the מצות בן אדם לחברו.


The speaker still stands by that Jewish prayers should never take longer than ten minutes.

Why? Firstly, the essence of prayer is about כוונה, intention, and he doesn't know anyone who can keep that for more than about ten minutes, or of any prayer service that goes on for longer than that that doesn't turn into mumble mumble mumble amen mumble mumble.

Our prayers have grown too long, the reason for which is because they've been around too long. Many of them date from a time in which people's values of how to do things were very different: you end up with repetitive phrases like האל הגדול הגבור הנורא, or הוא הטיב הוא מטיב הוא יטיב לנו, and that doesn't work for us.

More than that: opportunity costs: if you're spending lots of time praying, there's other bits [of the religion] you should be doing but aren't because you're praying instead. If you do do them, then your whole life is about getting to the minyan for shacharis, mincha and ma`ariv and not doing the other things you should be doing.

As a basic policy, the speaker believes very firmly that we don't live in order to do מִצְוֹת but do מִצְוֹת in order to live. A religious life is not an end in itself. For many people doing the מִצְוֹת has taken over all of our time, and somewhere we've lost the plot. All of these frumkeit things are to enable us to go out and live meaningful lives. The place where the meaningful life takes place isn't in the synagogue or the beit midrash but in the marketplace and the workplace and the roads where we've driving, or the home. It should be informed by Judaism but not displaced by it.

A new Jewish practice would be to push back the boundaries.

Short prayers would be more like Muslim prayers: five services a day, but each only five minutes.

So what would his prayers look like? Three strong components emerge from the sources. The Torah tells us you recite the Shema twice a day, in the morning and evening. The speaker can't think of anything better than saying it first thing when you get up and last before you go to bed.

Second component: the `Amida, three times a day. You can do this with lots of כַּווָנָה in just five minutes.

So, two Shemas and three `Amidos, and do these as they fit into your life: stop at the bus stop to say them.

The third element: the whole world of blessings. As the Talmud says, "A person shouldn't have any enjoyment without blessing and thanking their Creator for the gift that they have." This is part of what it is to live a spiritual life.

This kind of life is what the sociologists call normal mysticism: moments where you acknolwedge we are part of a bigger picture than ourselves. These values radiate and affect how we drive on the road, how we conduct ourselves in the marketplace. This leads to a very Jewish religious lifestyle without turning it into your whole life.

(Audience question about communal prayer, e.g. [the need to pray with a minyan in order to be able to recite] mourner's kaddish. The speaker confesses the most meaningful moments of prayer he has are private prayer, not communal ones. There are even rabbis in the Talmud who hated going to shul. The speaker supports communal prayer, but would still keep the services shorter than they normally are. He davens shacharis during the week quickly by himself, where he needs a quiet space where no one else is around, then gets to shul for the Torah service: the communal part.)


Shabbat is a core value of the Jewish tradition. Shabbat is right there in the speaker's list of the seven central things to Judaism.

In the Friday night `Amida, Shabbat is described as the end-purpose of the creation of the heavens and the earth. In a deep way, Judaism thinks that we don't live in order to go to work or create material possessions, but to have a spiritual life which we build and create for ourselves one day a week, which is מֵעַיִן עוֹלָם הַבָּא, something like the World to Come. That doesn't mean we don't work the other six days of the week, of course! But one day a week we have time for our family, and time to study, etc.

That said, there is no great idea you can't apply enough pilpul to to destroy it and turn it into a form of torture, and a great deal of the rabbinic tradition does that. So what would Shabbat look like to be reasonable for most people?

Here, too, go back to the sources, and understand conceptually how Shabbat is built. The laws of Shabbat revolve around three areas:

Firstly, אִיסוּר מְלָאכָה, the prohibition on working.

The second part is added by the rabbis: שְׁבוּת: additional prohibitions added to the Shabbat law, most importantly עוֹבְדִין דְחוֹל, things which might be permitted based on the above, but which are considered too much of weekday activities. The speaker feels this category will grow and get more important, because our society is changing profoundly, and as time goes by, there's going to be less and less work we actually do, because everything gets automated.

Thirdly, עוֹנֵג שַׁבָּת, the rejoicing of Shabbat: the things we do to make Shabbat pleasurable and meaningful.

Let's go over each of these now in detail.

There's a traditional definition of what מְלָאכָה is, the vast majority of which are not things we do everyday. But this list falls neatly into three categories. There's a description of all the activities that go into baking a loaf of bread. Secondly, all the activities that go into making clothing. And finally, activities about constructing a building.

These three areas—food, clothing, shelter—are the basis of civilisation. For one day a week you step back to enjoy the fruits of your labours.

So, what to include and not include in the speaker's Shabbat:

Firstly, don't go to work, or go shopping. Turn off your technology, because we tend to be obsessed with it, and cook your meals in advance. These four components profoundly will change your life; we can get into further details later.

On the positive side: have three meals, with one's family. Go to shul (despite the first section above; on Shabbat the speaker is willing to cede more than ten minutes... but that's only for the kiddush!). Invite friends around, and allot time for studying Torah.

A few words about electricity. This is interesting, because there is no reference whatsoever in the traditional sources. When it first appeared, the rabbis didn't know what to do with it at all. The first poskim to deal with the issue were permissive: there's nothing wrong with electricity because it doesn't fit into any of the traditional categories.

Over time the instinct of the people of Israel became that electricity is important, and the speaker belongs to that school. All the arguments—is electricity fire, is it not? Over time most of the laws of Shabbat are going to become irrelevant, but we shouldn't be celebrating this, we should be trying to find a way to work it into our lives. Electricity plays the role of fire even if it is not technically fire.

That said, the world is changing in profound ways, and the speaker has no doubt that at Limmud in ten or twenty or fifty years time it will be very different because there is no choice but to use electricity. What do you do in a world where there are no books, but only ebooks, or you don't set a thermostat because the house does it for you, or all doors use key cards? It took the speaker a whole year to figure out how to turn the light off in his latest fridge—it took placing three separate magnets! In future, [he thinks,] the laws of Shabbat will pay less attention to electricity than to the result of using it... though he may be completely wrong.

For him the most profound part of Shabbat is on Friday night when he doesn't just turn away from his computer and 'phone, but power them down and put them away, and breathe a sigh of relief.

(In response to an audience question: the speaker regards his computer as a work tool, and מוּקְצָה, and won't recommend using it even to keep in contact with his family. When people suggest it, he says why don't you use your landline as a שִׁינוּי?)

Audience question about long walks on Shabbat: how far do you have to go before it turns into work?

David Tsvi Hoffman, a C19 German rabbi, was asked about public transport. He couldn't really find good reasons why not to use it except for עוּבְדִין דְחוֹל—the running for buses and so forth. He felt it wasn't in the spirit of Shabbat. That being said, he understands people live in places where they need to drive on Shabbat. He doesn't like the idea that people's observance of Shabbat doesn't keep them from going to Brent Cross and doesn't keep them from going to the cinema, but only keeps them from going to shul.

That said, one should limit one's travelling. And he does advise people to park at a distance from shul, not so they're not seen, but so they get the experience of walking to shul, and of greeting people along the way.

Audience question about cycling on Shabbos: R. Yosef Ḥaim of Baghdad is the only posek who has written in favour of cycling. See the speaker's blog.

Question about Shabbos goys: If you can't keep your religion without requiring something outside of it, something's gone wrong, and it's incumbent upon the rabbis to revisit the system. The concept [of the Shabbos goy] arose in northern Europe where it was literally too cold to make it through Shabbat without someone tending the fire, but nowadays we have other solutions for that.


The speaker had run out of time by this point, so covering this very quickly:

Just as Shabbat is a core principle of judaism, so is kashrut, and there's a value behind it:

Remember that the way you consume is a moral, ethical and religious question. You can't just go out and consume without thinking about what you consume. This has to be a central question in the twenty-first century.

What would his kashrut look like? There's five prohibitions in the Torah, and a million ones added by the rabbis. The Torah's concerns are:

  • Eating non-kosher species
  • Consuming blood
  • Mixing meat and milk—the strongest prohibition of all, the one you get the most lashes for [as punishment in the Biblical code]
  • Ritual slaughter
  • The other stuff—terumot and maaserot, etc

Rabbinical additions to kashrut include the principle of טָעַם כְּעִיקָר, the flavour of something counting as if it's the dish itself; this is where many of the rabbinical laws come from. So the speaker's suggestion is to adopt the main prohibitions in the Torah and טָעַם כְּעִיקָר:

  1. Any meat needs to be kosher meat.
  2. To have a strict separation between anything meat and anything milk.
  3. A strict separation between anything prepared as kosher (or vegetarian if necessary) and anything not so.

Most restaurants do not fulfil those criteria, but where one would be more liberal than one's local Satmar rabbi would be in vegetarian or vegan restaurants, or ones where you can see the food preparation going on.

Jewish learning notes index

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