When I was in my twenties, I wrote a book on the philosophy of halacha, as I had come to understand it over a half-decade of being a baal tshuva, one who takes on religious observance later in life. Like many a convert, I was zealous about my new faith, but my zeal was accompanied by a combination of intellectual anger and relief — anger that no one had explained the point of Judaism to me, and relief that I’d finally been given the chance to figure it out.
Periodically I look back on that manuscript, even though the certainty of it, and the prose, now make me cringe. I look at it not so much for its ideas, which I’ve internalized and taught and repeated and come to largely reject, but for the enthusiasm behind them — the energy of thought, the sense of urgency. Even though it’s not a book I would write today, I still find that I believe no one else has written it: a combination of Soloveitchik and Heschel, a Halachic Man for Dummies — a decoder of halachic spirituality.
The essential argument of the book was that halacha is a trans-subjective spirituality. Most forms of spiritual practice, Eastern and Western, have the individual as their zone of significance. I meditate, or I pray, or I dance, and I have an experience, in my mind, my subjectivity — even if the system in which I’m practicing denies that the individual ultimately exists at all. If I choose to evaluate the experience ("that was a really good davening" or "I didn’t get much out of that service") it is necessarily in terms of my own subjective experience.
The distinction between trans-subjective halacha and subjective-hasidic spirituality was less about relativism than about the place in which religion transpires. Although it’s less familiar to us than the relativist subjectivist (you have your spiritual feeling, and I’ve got mine)< it’s certainly possible to be a fundamentalist subjectivist too: to have an individual religious experience and still believe that it is universally the best, or absolutely true. This is happening all the time, in our community, in the evangelical Christian Right, and elsewhere. (see my article "Fetishizing the Trigger" for more on that). So it’s not about relativism and fundamentalism.
Rather, it’s between subjective and trans-subjective. Much of traditional religion places individual experience beneath some other good: service to God, societal harmony, whatever. This is where most contemporary seekers get off the bus, because as soon as something else is placed above the individual experience, then all kinds of mischief — self-abnegation, repression, asceticism — now is permitted. Come to think of it, maybe many contemporary baalei tshuva get on the bus for the same reason: because now the individual’s pleasure and pain is not the most important thing in the universe. What a relief — especially if you have a lot of pain.
What I found, though, as I wrote my book and went on my religious journey, was that there was a great liberation in not making the self the primary arbiter of value. I felt as if my religious life had gone through stages. At stage one, I did what I was told, lighting the candles when I was supposed to, eating only the right foods. I did this probably out of a desire to "do the right thing" and please authority figures — mainly I was just following orders. At stage two, I came to see that some of these practices really felt good; now I lit the candles when I was supposed to, but not to impress authority figures — to have an experience. Lighting candles felt good. But, of course, not always. Sometimes shabbat coming in meant denying myself various pleasures or activities — what then? At stage three, I placed God ahead of me. Now I lit the candles not because I was told, and not because it felt good, but because it was part of a system in which the "right thing" was larger than "what felt good." And from that system, from the participation in a community and structure that was larger than myself, I derived a sense of value that was far more powerful than my individual pleasure. Even when lighting the candles gave me no subjective feeling at all, it had an objective reality that was outside my own preference — and that felt like the point.
Ten years later, it’s hard to resist the urge to ask why I was so interested in that "sense of value," and to psychoanalyze this supposedly non-subjective religious experience. But at the time, it felt like a deeply healthy reordering of priorities, as well as an authentic reflection of what the Jewish tradition was actually saying. This was avodat hashem, the service of something greater than myself. This was what was meant by commandment. And this was revelation: that value exists, outside the mind, and out there in the material world. Not in some spiritual (read: non-existent) universe, but in the actual, tangible arrangement of reality itself. It matters that the food is this way and not that. It matters that at this time, this is done and this is not. Thus, as Soloveitchik wrote so eloquently (too eloquently, I thought at the time, since few people could understand him), the material world is both sanctified and signified.
But halachic spirituality was very subtle, I thought. It’s hard to notice, this trans-subjective value — after all, it’s defining feature is that you might not necessarily feel it. Buberian and Heschelian Hasidism delivered the goods: do this practice, and you’ll feel something. Soloveitchik’s Misnagdism didn’t promise any such reward. But in my practice, and my writing, I felt it was there, and appreciated it, and came, even, to love it.
Now, as I look at my life and my practice, it feels like I’ve lost it. Although my life is still almost orthopractic in its observance, at least in some areas, the theory is gone. And the "almost" undermines any pretension to the "ortho." What happened? And where am I now?
What’s happened over the last five years or so has been a slow, gentle unraveling of the halachic tapestry I wove over the previous five. First, I came to see the supposedly trans-subjective values within halacha as, in fact, highly subjective — just someone else’s subjectivity. For me, the most obvious example has been in the area of sexuality, in which ambiguous Biblical verses have been (subjectively) interpreted in excessively broad and oppressive ways, by (subjectively-minded) people with their own particular agendas. But it hasn’t only been sexuality. It’s clear that the dietary laws, the laws of shabbat, and the laws of prayer all have undergone radical, extensive, and subjectively-oriented revision over the last several hundred years, often along paths that may once have been wise, but don’t seem particularly so today. Does it make sense for the daily prayer obligation to swell from five pages in the morning and afternoon, to fifty pages in the morning, ten in the afternoon, and twenty in the evening? Does it make sense for the scientifically-minded halachot of kashrut to (d)evolve into something that resembles voodoo? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I know that the ways these laws have unfolded have been anything but objective.
Second, I’ve noticed that the predicted catastrophe of pick-and-choose just hasn’t happened. Here again, sexuality led. I thought that when I came out, that that would be the end of my religious observance. After all, now the balloon had been punctured, and the whole system compromised. But in fact, the opposite was the case. Not lesser love, but greater. Not less spirituality, but more. Likewise when I began to allow myself small exceptions to the rules. Taking the subway on shabbat, when there was nothing going on nearby but a good invitation somewhere else, made shabbat better, and brought me closer to God. It still doesn’t feel good swiping my MetroCard — but that moment is outweighed by hours of spirit.
Third, as my practice has slowly liberalized over the past five years, I’ve tried repeatedly to "check in" with why I’m doing it at all. As I wrote last fall, I think that guilt and fear play much larger roles than any of us would care to admit. I’m always interested, and bemused, when someone in the orthodox model refuses to answer the question of "why do it," insisting that it’s not up to them, it’s a commandment, and don’t you see that’s the whole point, that it’s not up to us. I always want to ask (and sometimes do): well, why not disobey? Some, of course, will respond with an account of reward and punishment — but these are not the interesting ones. More subtle minds understand that, even if there is s’char v’din, it’s got to be so different from any conventional understanding of reward and punishment as to be, essentially, not reward and punishment. One needn’t even mention the Holocaust to point to it, and remember that the old worldview only makes sense with extensive redefinition.
So more intelligent folk rarely have recourse to such concepts. Rather, they’ll point to the essence of covenant itself, either in the traditional mythic understanding of Torah mi’Sinai, or in some modified Kantian, or Maimonidean, or even Kaplanian sense. These accounts do hold water — and there are many more good ones as well — but I always want to ask why we need them to. Yes, the explanations make sense, but so do contrary ones. So do nihilistic ones. Why choose the righteous? Why choose the good?
Here’s where it gets more interesting, because here, unlike within the mythic structures themselves, is the real juice of individual choice, and that, not communitarianism or covenant, is the defining feature of (post-)modern religious life. You can choose to subscribe to a system that says it isn’t your choice, and that God has commanded you — but it’s still you’re choice to buy into the system. And there are usually interesting reasons: a passion for justice, a yearning for God, a desire for order or for ethics… or in my case, love.
Today, I regard my halachic observance not as the pursuit of a trans-subjective spiritual value, but as a dozen roses I buy for my lover. Why not eleven, instead of twelve? Why roses, instead of dandelions? There’s no real reason, other than the fact that, in our shared cultural understanding, a dozen roses means "I love you" in a way that eleven dandelions does not. I find, when I break shabbat or kashrut, that I can feel a little cut off from love — whether internal or external, I leave to theologians. It doesn’t feel good. I concede that some of why it doesn’t feel good is pure guilt — but alongside that guilt is, I think, a genuine desire for intimacy with the universe, which I conceptualize as God. As Buber said, I can’t really say much about whether I believe in God in the third person, as an It with these or those properties. But when we are speaking of God in the second person, when I am speaking to You, then of course You exist and have been laughing the whole time at my all-to-clever brain’s peregrinations in philosophy.
This perspective also helps me reconcile myself to other religions, and to my co-religionists who make different choices. Other cultures have different cultural understandings — lilies instead of roses. And so do other individuals. I have my practice, which brings me a sense of closeness and love of Heaven — and other people do their thing. No need for universality, even as I appreciate connecting with an ancient community in the forms of my own practice. It matters to me that tefillin have been worn for thousands of years, and that they have, I feel, old magic within them, far deeper than anything I could invent. There is still the urge to spread the gospel, to bring to other people these gifts which I feel I’ve been given — but thankfully, there’s no real impulse to convert them.
This new view, though, stands in stark contrast to my earlier system of belief, and is as anarchic as it is seemingly inoffensive. It seems, on the surface, like an ordinary, unoriginal form of religious practice — to do what feels good. But it isn’t quite that, because if one is attentive, a dozen complications arise. For example, "what feels good" in a deep sense often has little to do with what feels good at the moment. Maybe this week I’m not in the mood to keep shabbos at all, but over time, I know from experience how that lack will come to feel. Which to choose? And how to know in advance — maybe davening every day will transform me in a way that I couldn’t possibly imagine until I do it. And what about deliberately not making an idol out of my own preferences — as in relationship, sometimes it feels good to deny oneself what feels good. And, conversely, as in relationship, without boundaries that are clear ahead of time, all of life becomes a slippery slope.
I’ve come to make a home for myself on the slippery slope. It’s precarious, but there’s more open air than in the dense flatlands of halacha, a geography which never accommodated me as much as I wanted it to. So that’s where I am now: honoring these ancient tools for connection, while not buying into their myths of origination; recognizing that sometimes the tools will work and sometimes they won’t, but doing them even some of the times they won’t; and, at the place which had at one time symbolized all that was wrong with subjective Jewish practice: the salad bar. There are practices I do, and practices I don’t do. And there are those I do sometimes but not others. It’s inconsistent, and it’s not an ideology; indeed, I far prefer those who admit its heresy to those who try to rationalize it into some "evolving" conception of "Jewish law and tradition." That kind of theorizing has a place, since it gives thousands of Jews the sense that they are being good people and not heretics. But for myself, I embrace the apikorsus of the religious salad bar.
Lately, as I’ve been writing for the Forward, the term "flexidoxy" has begun to gain currency to describe this non-ideological (even anti-ideological) way of Jewish practice and belief. It still sounds a little too Orthodox for me — as if, well, I’m "Orthodox, but." Which I’m not. But of all the labels I’ve considered (neo-Karaite, Reconstructionist, Heterodox, postmodern-orthodox), it seems to fit the best. After all, the categories I’m working within are still those defined by the rabbis. And while flexidoxy is a break from the foundational belief that the rabbis are authorized to interpret law for me, it’s not a break from the general categories of halacha as a mode of response to the Infinite.
Maybe thousands of other people make this "break" all the time, and think nothing of it. But as you, my readers, know, I don’t like to think nothing of it. In my view, thinking nothing of it is disrespectful to truth, even to God. And it’s imprudent, because if we think nothing of our heresy, we won’t keep it under control. We (or our children) will slip down that slope, into a place devoid of value and connection, and wonder how we ever ended up there. The answer will be simple: like the WalMart and McDonald’s consumers who bewail the loss of their small town’s center, we will have created our reality through ignorance. So I want to conclude with a few principles of Thoughtful Flexidoxy, based on my last few years of working with them.
The first critical element, for me at least, is taking discernment seriously. At an actual salad bar, I don’t think too much about exactly which ingredients to include. But if religious practices are chosen this cavalierly, the only god being served is the self — the same small ego that is responsible for all of my suffering and alienation. That’s, to me, an exact inversion of the priorities of religion. To be sure, many of the so-called pious are practicing just that, making religious rhetoric and symbol the servants of their own egoic desires. But it’s an even more obvious danger for those of us on the religious salad bar, picking and choosing. So it has to be not "picking and choosing," but carefully discerning, weighing, experimenting, testing the waters and the ice — processes which require both literacy with the sources ("Chicken Soup for the Soul" won’t cut it) and spiritual attentiveness to the self. If subjectivism is to be the foundation, then it needs to be attended to, nurtured, and improved.
A second critical element of thoughtful flexidoxy is cultivating ahavah as seriously as the pious cultivate yirah. It’s no use making love the ground of religious practice if love is left untilled. Just as the pious remind themselves of God’s terrible judgment, and of the need to repent, so I need to remind myself — through meditation, walking in the woods, prayer, and study — of the abundance of love available in every moment, if I simply surrender my desire for it to be other than what it is. Then I remember, and then I can choose — not from a place of rationalization, or fear, or convenience, but from as close as I can get to authenticity. All this talk of love may be cliched, intellectually speaking, but who wants to be an intellectual when it comes to love? Once again, the parallel to human relationship is apparent — since being an intellectual in bed isn’t best recipe for romance either.
Third, a subjective anti-system such as flexidoxy is authentic only insofar as it is recognized as being what it is: a heresy. This has two aspects: that of faith, and that of questioning. First, heretics are not unbelievers. After all, if I didn’t believe, truly, that the Avinu Sh’ba’shamayim can be accessed by means of the ancient Jewish pathways of halacha and study, then I’d just junk the whole thing, do my Buddhist meditation, and be done with it. That, however, is not my God. No, a heretic is a believer. And just as discernment and love require cultivation, so too does belief: in this case, an endless process of active remembering, with whatever practices work toward that end. Torah study (in its broadest sense), bodily exercise, enlarging the heart, acts of lovingkindness — these are a few very traditional, and very effective, ways to remember and remind. The alternative, again, is a religion of compromise and convenience that deserves to be rejected by the next generation.
At the same time, flexidoxy, and the other salad bar heresies are not ideologies. I’m not claiming, as the conservative movement does, that what I’m doing is God’s will, or what halacha was always meant to be, or part and parcel of a centuries-old Jewish narrative. It is part of a very old Jewish practice, which is to be gentle and flexible in the adaptation of Jewish norms to life. But it won’t do as an ideology, or as a practice that can be prescribed to others. I don’t even trust it completely for myself, since I know how often even my best-intentioned discernment leads to disaster.
For those coming from a secularist or accommodationist perspective, all this may be much ado about nothing. So what, you eat fish in the treif restaurant — the rest of us are enjoying the shrimp. Certainly, I’m not making any claim that this "journey" is significant cosmologically, or objectively — that would be contrary to the pluralistic foundation of flexidoxy itself. But personally, since halacha is one of my core practices, and since it contains within itself a fundamentalist justification, the uprooting of that foundation is both catastrophic within the system’s own categories, and of some moment to me beyond them. Frequently, it fills me with doubt and fear. But when I succeed in surrendering and remembering, I see again the laughing, patient face of God.