By Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz
Whenever I’m asked to explain the difference between the denominations of Judaism, I respond that each group is defined by its relationship to halachah: Jewish law as defined by many generations of rabbis.
Some individuals and communities adhere to halachah strictly, adapting only when we can find an historic precedent. Some allow more leeway to adapt, change or even reject halachah when it conflicts with our modern sensibilities.
The word halachah likely comes from this week’s Torah portion, Behukotai, which begins im behukotai teilechu, often translated as “if you follow My laws” (Leviticus 26:3). Teilechu comes from the same Hebrew root as halachah, which means, “to walk.”
What does it mean to “walk” in God’s laws? In the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 14a) Rabbi Hama bar Rabbi Hanina suggests that we “walk” in God’s path by imitating God: providing clothes for the naked, as God made garments for the first humans; visiting the sick, as God visited Abraham after his circumcision; consoling mourners, as God blessed Isaac after his father Abraham’s death; and burying the dead, as God laid Moses to rest in the Torah’s final scene.
If God provides an example for us to follow, how is it that each of our paths looks different? This is in part because we face different opportunities to observe the commandments, and in part because we have the free will to choose to do or not do.
Yeshayahu Liebowitz, a 20th-century Orthodox thinker, draws a distinction between the word teilechu and the Hebrew words for “hold” or “stand” that might also have been used in this passage. “Walking” connotes free will: the ability to choose, and to change. This is in direct contrast to the angels, who can do none of these things. Rabbi Dahlia Marx, of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, elaborates:
“The angels are “standing”; their character is fixed and does not change. … But human beings have one important quality that neither angels nor animals have — the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to choose. Angels cannot do wrong, and therefore there is no moral significance to their deeds; they cannot do wrong, and therefore, they also cannot do good.”
“Walking” in God’s ways, then, means making choices and responding to challenges, something that only humans can do. But how do we choose the right path in a world so vastly different from the one described in the Torah? Do we only do what makes sense to us? Or is there value to the less rational elements of Jewish law?
The word hok, which shares its root with the name of our Torah portion, Behukotai, might refer to those regulations that we commit to, even though they are beyond our understanding. Not every step we take in living a Jewish life is going to make sense to us on a rational level. While we might wish to change and adapt with the times, some things are worth keeping, even if we aren’t sure why.
Rabbi Myra Soifer suggests that, rather than walk in God’s ways, we might consider dancing in them.
“While I live pretty rationally, I dance best when I’m least cerebral. … I can put my whole body into it and enjoy the dance without thinking every step to death. Which of the mitzvot that my brain rejects might my dancing parts relish?”
Sometimes, we take the lead in our Jewish dance, changing our tradition to accommodate new ideas and innovations, and to correct our tradition’s bias against women, the LGBTQ community, interfaith relationships or people with disabilities.
Other times, we let the Jewish tradition gently guide us in the right direction, reminding us to balance work and rest, acquisition with compassion for our fellow human beings and our people’s uniqueness with our integration into the secular world.
Dancing, like walking, is not without rules. But dancing also allows for creativity and joy. Judaism need not be a rigid, immovable structure that stifles us. Rather, it can serve as a raw material out of which to create beauty and meaning for ourselves.
We are currently counting the 49 days of the omer, leading up to commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. While we may not choose to walk down every path that the Torah lays out for us, we might still commit ourselves to learning a few new steps to add to our Jewish dance. May we perform these steps with passion, with enthusiasm and with joy.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park and the author of the children’s book The World Needs Beautiful Things. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.