Ever since I embarked on studies to become a Reform rabbi, I have been inundated with comments and questions about halakha, or Jewish law. “What about halakha?!” is how the challenge usually goes. “So, you don’t care about halakha at all!” And often it’s followed up with an “I told you so. “You never cared about halakha!” And sometimes that particularly nasty reprimand. “You see, Orthodox feminists don’t care about halakha.” Or as one woman wrote to me this week, “Orthodoxy is the only authentic Judaism because we are the only ones who follow halakha.” Like that.
I’ve been thinking about this topic of halakha, even as I fend off these micro-attacks. Although my decision to become a Reform rabbi is not a reflection of a desire to change my personal observances of halakha, this topic seems to be the centerpiece of challenges to my decision. The (wrong) assumption is that Reform Jews have zero relationship with halakha, and that commitment is not a thing in this world. Despite the fact that I keep pointing out that my Reform rabbi mentors like Rabbi Rachel Adler and Rabbi Alona Lisitsa are deeply engaged in halakhic discourse and practice, the fact is that I want to change this conversation altogether. I am not particularly interested in discussing halakhic practice – mine or anyone else’s. This is exactly the point. I want to stop making law the primary discussion about Judaism. I want to talk about Judaism as a spiritual practice rather than as a collection of rulesand laws.
This holiday of Sukkot that we are currently celebrating strikes me as a particularly clear example of how this constant reading of Judaism as halakha instead of spirituality can be misleading and dangerous.
Sukkot is unique for a variety of reasons – not only the strange branches we carry around and the bamboo-covered huts we sit in, but also the way the Torah says, “v’samachta b’chagecha “And you shall be happy on your festival” My children were reminded that Sukkot is the only time we are told to be happy, when a well-meaning relative called on the holiday eve to say, “Don’t forget to be happy on Sukkot! It’s a commandment!”
Let’s think about this for a moment. What does it mean to command someone – yourself or others – to be happy? Does that even work? Can one be commanded to be happy? And is that even a good idea? Should we really stop everything we feel and be happy – especially times like today, when we are surrounded by mindless massacres, death-inviting hurricanes, and dark clouds of ignorance and bigotry from our so-called leaders? Is happiness-nomatter-what even the right way to live?
Clearly the Torah is saying that at least once a year we should take a moment to stop everything and allow joy. That in itself is a very potent stand. The Torah knows that life can be crappy and hard. And it is telling us that once in a while we should drop all that and allow pure joy. That is not a commandment. It is an interesting piece of advice. It is not meant to be forced upon us. It is meant for us to consider and contemplate and figure out within ourselves.
But I think the way our rabbis have interpreted this text sometimes misses the point. In order to reconcile the difficulty of forcing happiness, the rabbis over the years have translated “joy” into practical, measurable actions. Thus, for example, it is forbidden to mourn on the holiday. Fair enough. The Shulkhan Aruch rules that you can “fulfill the mitzvah” by eating more meat than usual, by dressing up more. And then other halakhists, like the Peninei Halakha, rule that “since there are differences between men and women, men should eat more meat and women should dress up more fancily.” (You can’t make this stuff up.)
Other commentators say that you fulfil the commandment simply by doing all the physical commandments. The ritual objects associated with the holiday will automatically bring joy,” writes Emmanuel Feldman, for example, in his book, “On Judaism”. “If you live Yom Tov [the festival] in the way prescribed by the Torah, you will surely be happy, and you cannot help but be filled with joy and delight and simchah [joy]. This is a spiritual law of nature.” (p. 207)
To his credit, Feldman also suggests that we should not read the words “You shall be happy” as a commandment so much as a promise. But of course, it’s only a promise for those who execute all the other rituals unflinchingly, and with “delight”.
Still, it is clear that the rabbis struggled with this of commanding joy. Many asked the question, how do you legislate joy? But their answers are mostly unsatisfying to the spiritual seeker.
Their struggle, I believe, stems not from the text itself from this rabbinic insistence on seeing the Torah as a book of laws and commandments instead of as a spiritual guide.
If we let go of that insistence for a moment and simply read the text as is, then the text takes on a different tone and function. It’s almost like the Bob Marley song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” This is hardly a commandment. It is more like a powerful suggestion. Try to bring joy into your life, the text (or song) is saying. It is a very quick exhortation, with very little in the way of detail – like so much else in the Torah. The Torah leaves up to us where to take it. But we are so used to taking it to questions of law – “What is the mitzvah here?” – that we have skipped out on an opportunity to figure out what happiness means emotionally and spiritually, and to ask ourselves how do we make our souls actually happy.
Further, I would argue that much of our community is so focused on the minutiae of law that they ignore this actual underlying message. I will never forget the Shabbat Teshuva sermon that the rabbi of my shul made when I was a young adult forging my own religious and spiritual path. His whole talk was about happiness, and his message was simple: The Torah is not here to make us happy. Working to be happy is not the Jewish way, he argued. We are here to do what is right. He said this with his characteristic austerity, and the congregation – myself included – soaked it in.
It resonated with me for a long time, too. Do the right thing. Your own feelings are not important. Focusing on happiness is just hedonistic, a very un-Jewish way.
Still, I eventually came to seriously challenge that world view. If we don’t value the creation of joy, we are missing out on so much of the human experience.
Interestingly, many other spiritual texts also advise us to be happy. I think it is a big mistake to dismiss practicing of creating internal happiness as all hedonistic and anti-Jewish – after all, we have this “v’samachta b’chagecha” passage of our own to contend with. More than that, I think we have a lot to learn from discussions of happiness in a other spiritual settings.
Some spiritual traditions actually spend quite a lot of time teaching practical details of creating genuine internal happiness – and do not necessarily involve waving a frond and citrus fruit, but rather come from examining one’s mind and heart with regularity and learning what it takes to change our emotional responses to life events. These are not “commandments” for which practitioners receive merits and report cards for their obedience. Rather, these are collections of spiritual practices for actually creating joy within ourselves, practices that people choose for themselves based on their needs and where they are in their own spiritual work.
Yoga and meditation practices, for example, are very heavily focused on techniques for clearing our minds and spirits from unhealthy emotions and energies. That is not to say that there isn’t a legitimate place for sadness and mourning. But sometimes we carry around emotions that we do not really want. We are sometimes sad for reasons that we cannot articulate. We sometimes get into bad moods that ruin our days and our relationships, and these emotions may not be worth the cost. So there are ways to practice paying attention to our minds and hearts and making choices about what we want to feel and when. Those are details that are not found in halakha. Because they cannot be seen as commandments – only as guidelines.
The overemphasis on legalistic Torah reading over spiritual reading comes at a price. It creates an atmosphere of obedience and conformity. It teaches people to judge – ourselves and others – for how well we are complying with requirements, rather than teaching us to embrace the diversity and fluidity of the human experience. It also teaches us to focus on the endpoint of our behaviors rather than to be present in the moment. Mostly, it shuts off our hearts. Because instead of engaging with questions about what joy is and how we bring joy into our lives, we go straight for the emotionless rulebook. And that shutting off of the heart and turning on the voice of judgment creates problematic relationships and communities. We know too well how that story ends.
Again, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be shaking the lulav and sitting in our booths. I love my sukkah, and it is one of my favorite holidays for sure. I am simply saying that I am ready to reread our sources with a different heart and mind, engaging with our traditions and texts through the lens of genuine spiritual experience.
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is a feminist thought-leader, anthropologist, and writer whose research and ideas help shape a vision for a compassionate society. She has published five books on gender in society, and today helps women amplify their own voices and find their power through Lioness Booksand Media. She coaches women through the writing process, edits, and ghost-writes women's books, and publishes women's writing through Lioness. She also speaks and consults with groups and organizations around the world on gender issues and women's experiences in the world. Would you like to schedule a chat? Contact her at email@example.com