Thursday, April 03, 2008

On halacha and behavior

Tzvi, sorry for the gap in posts. I suddenly lost interest in blogging for some time. Now, that feeling has passed, but I've been very busy recently. I've effectively been juggling too many balls at once, and once the "blogging" ball fell, I couldn't pick it up without dropping all the other balls. Now live is more sane and I can return to posting, though the rate may not be the same as before.

Last Friday morning I found myself at the northeast corner of Jerusalem, waiting for a ride to a hike in the desert which never arrived. Faced with the loss of my day plans, I decided to visit the nearby Hebrew University humanities library, which has plenty of reading material unavailable where I currently live.

Among the interesting things I found in "BM" (the Jewish Studies Library of Congress catalog code, aka "Beit Midrash") was an article comparing secular court systems to halacha. The example given was the law of adverse possession - that a person who has squatted on another's land can gain possession after a certain amount of time. In secular law, it was argued, the court is instructed by law to determine whether it is "reasonable" for the owner not to have objected. Meanwhile, in halacha a length of time is specified, after which date the squatter automatically has rights.

The article argued that halacha and secular law fundamentally differ in their approach to uncertainty. Secular courts are often instructed to find, through debate and consensus among judge, jury, and lawyers, a "reasonable" understanding of the situation. From this a practical conclusion can be derived. Halacha, on the other hand, is generally directed at individuals, not courtrooms. It is unrealistic to expect individuals with their biases and limitations to decide what is "reasonable" for themselves. So in halacha, many inherently fuzzy concepts are given arbitrary black-and-white boundaries when it comes to practical implementation. The concepts are thereby oversimplified a bit, but there is no alternative when the system relies on personal responsibility.

(In fact, adverse possession seems like a bad example for this distinction, for the following reasons. 1) Looking online, I found that most modern legal systems set a specific number of years, just like halacha. 2) The halachic limit here may well be based on a completely practical consideration. If the owner had traveled to the furthest known point on earth from Israel - Spain, "Ispamia" - it would take the news of the squatter's actions one year to reach him and another year for his reply to arrive. So only in the third year could we presume that the owner's silence means consent. If so, this halacha is not an example of over-defining uncertain situations, but rather reflects the existence or nonexistence of factual certainty.)

Anyway, I found this argument especially interesting, given the halachic situation I happened to be in at the time. According to most opinions, if one has not seen the Old City and Temple Mount in 30 days, one must tear one's clothing as an expression of mourning. However, on joyous occasions such as Shabbat and holidays, or even Friday afternoon and Saturday night, mourning is not appropriate and the tearing is not performed. Since the Hebrew University campus has an incredible view of the Old City, this halacha was very relevant to me.

I did not want to ruin a shirt, and possessed no cutting utensil. Plus, I have never seen anyone actually do this tearing, and for both peer-pressure and real halachic reasons, I'm uneasy about mitzvot which I have never seen performed before. Perhaps there is some detail in halacha or circumstances which I'm missing, which means that the mitzvah doesn't apply? So as I walked onto campus, and even after I got to the library (which had windows), I made extra careful not to look in the direction of the Old City, to avoid possibly being obligated in the tearing. I watched the clock carefully. Once it passed halachic noon, I went to one of the many outstanding lookout points and gazed for a while at the Old City - with my clothing intact.

My behavior was totally in accordance with the letter of the law, yet totally contrary to its purpose. Tearing your clothing is supposed to be a symbol of inner anguish at being confronted by the destroyed Temple. Yet all morning I made myself think nonstop of the Temple, only so that I could avoid the tearing! What I did in the afternoon was scarcely better. At the very moment I was supposed to be overcome by enthusiasm for the approaching Shabbat, I turned for a long look at the Temple Mount, thereby experiencing not entirely ecstatic feelings which were not quite in tune with the joy of Shabbat.

The halacha of clothes tearing presupposes a whole set of emotional responses to different religious situations. The other circumstance under which you tear clothes is when confronted with the news of someone's death. It seem that tearing is an outward expression of what you should feel when suddenly confronted with a situation of loss. There are various possible reasons why you do not tear on happy occasions, such as when Shabbat is near. Perhaps your happiness in these situations outweighs the sadness. Or perhaps your sadness is legitimate, but it is inappropriate to express it openly, when the rest of the world is happy. Or perhaps Shabbat has a sort of inherent mystical holiness on which you must be continually focused, which precludes involving oneself in grief. It would take further investigation to decide which of these possibilities is correct. In any case, it's clear that my emotional responses followed none of them.

The previously mentioned article argued that halacha's overly precise definitions were necessary, since the real complexities of the world are in practice not navigable by individuals with all their flaws and biases. My experience with tearing shows that even the precise definitions can be twisted until any semblance of underlying meaning is lost.

But at the same time I distorted the meaning of halacha, a common-sense appraisal of the halachic boundaries alerted me to the fact that I was distorting it. I, like all human beings, am flawed. I cannot balance all the religious demands of the world in exactly the way they should be balanced. But by comparing my actions to halacha, even if the halacha itself is perhaps an over-simplification, I can learn about my flaws and begin to work on correcting them.

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