Thursday, 06 Apr 2017

Written by Daniel Lichman

‘This is the Torah of the burnt offering…’

  • Vayikra 7:37

It’s a good thing that the Torah is discussing rituals at the moment – I have some decisions to make about my own ritual observance because it’s that time of year again: the night of asking questions is soon upon us. The internal questions and responses start now:

‘So how am I going to observe Pesach this year Daniel? You say that eating hechsher-ed stuff is too frum for you – so how are you going to decide what is ok and what is not? What about yoghurt, mayonnaise, vinegar, Daniel, how strict are you going to be? Why don’t you just decide and then I’ll shut up!’

It seems that this year, like every year for as long as I can remember, I will follow the Lichman family Pesach minhag of confusion.

I am not going to resolve this confusion in this short D’var Torah, however, it is worth considering the general approach behind how we make decisions about observance. I want to offer two approaches to consider.

The approach that I learnt in my time in RSY-Netzer was to make a personal informed decision about Jewish observance. This would involve beginning with the principles and moving from them to consider the observance. For example: Pesach celebrates freedom and justice. It reminds us to free ourselves from that which constrains us, to support those around us to become free and to orient ourselves towards awareness of injustice, recognising our responsibility to free others. Pesach observance can then follow in such a way that might enable these teachings. This certainly affirms the seder and matzah eating, yet it does not get stuck into the minutiae of hechshers and covered kitchen tops.

I recently came across a fascinating rabbinic text which offers a perspective counter to this approach:

Ben Zoma said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: ‘Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.’

Ben Nanus said: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Ben Pazi said: ‘I have found a verse that contains the whole of the Torah: ‘You will sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk.’

And Rabbi, their master, stood up and decided: ‘The law is according to Ben Pazi.’1

The first two statements by Ben Zoma and Ben Nanus are similar to the approach that I suggested above – the principles are what is fundamental. We can reason out the rest of Torah from a principle; we can understand what is required from us; the rest of Torah can make sense based on it.

Yet Rabbi, affirms Ben Pazi, who states that Torah is contained in the ritual.

Ben Pazi’s approach offers a different way for us to think about our Pesach observance. Rather than reasoning our observance of the rituals from the principle, he suggests that we travel in the opposite direction: it is the rituals that will make the space for, that will enable, freedom and justice to become known. Thinking about observance this way round acknowledges that our ability to reason our behaviour from principle is only half the story: principles arise too from our behaviour. Religious practice orients us to the details, training us and enabling us to practice the attention to detail which we can learn to apply to freedom and justice.

The internal narrative returns: ‘This is all very well Daniel, but does this mean I can eat something even if ‘modified starch’ is on the ingredients list?’

It seems that the confusion will remain. This voice which questions my observance is not going to quieten after all – if anything it has become louder: knowing how much there is at stake.

Daniel Lichman LBC rabbinic student

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1From En Ya’akov. Quoted in E. Levinas, ‘A Religion for Adults’ in Difficult Freedom, 18 – 19.