Jewish Laws through Various Lenses

Jewish Laws through Various Lenses


Religion, by its very nature, is undefinable.

Rachel LaVictoire
Rachel LaVictoire

There’s no label suitable for spiritual experiences, nor is there a uniform meaning for mysticism. I find even that statement presumptuous, tindirectly suggesting that spirituality and mysticism are components of all religions.

The difficulty, frankly, is attempting to define another’s experience. Even the most general of definitions – focusing on laws and rituals, for instance – will fall short, since it will fail to capture the experience of religion.

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And it’s that experience, I think, that essentially defines Judaism.

Our ancient religion is unique and compelling, even to outsiders. In fact, in “The Complete Essays of Mark Twain,” there’s a section that focuses on the magnificence of the Jewish people:

“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Persian, rose, filled the planet…Other peoples have sprung up, held their torch high for a time, but it burned out…The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence… All things are mortal, but the Jew.”

On that note: I recently received a note from a reader. He was writing about a piece I did, “Taharah Today,” in which – he felt, with some justification – that I had drawn lofty conclusions were offensive to Jews who appreciate ancient Jewish practices.

It was early in the week, and yet I was already caught up in a sea of thrashing contradictions. We had this thing, faith and religion, and it was clear that people hold this thing as sacred and personal, but in extremely different ways.

I went back to my Blackwell Reader, the text for my Introductions to Jewish Civilizations class. The book is a compilation of both modern and ancient writings from Orthodox, Hassidic, Reform, Zionistic and other forms of Judaism. I thought it would help me sort things out, and I believe it did.

See, though we have these stark contrasts that at times draw lines among today’s Jews, there is in fact one thing that we all appreciate: community. Judaism is, undeniably, the culmination of community, a product of events both ancient and modern.

Of course, there’s a huge difference in how different sects foster community. On that, the Reader has the words of Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik – prominent leader in the 1950s of American Modern Orthodox Judaism – on the necessity of halacha.

“Rituals would continually have to be reformulated to correspond to the feelings of different individuals at different times…no community service of G-d would be possible since the group worship presupposes a unifying constancy…The fact that Jews of all times and from all different parts of the world are able to worship together…is directly due to the constancy of form which is controlled by the Halakhah.”

Even as a Reform Jew, I can appreciate his argument. The adjusting of practices to fit personal needs does risk a lost sense of community, as we may become more focused on our own personal experiences of Judaism. On the other hand, the argument in support of Reform Judaism is equally compelling.

Along those lines, the Reader offers this definition of Reform Judaism, proposed to the Central Conference of American Rabbis at a conference in Pittsburgh in 1999. Titled “A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism,” it argues:

“We [Reform Jews] affirm that Torah is the foundation of Jewish life…We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community…We bring Torah into the world when we strive to fulfill the highest ethical mandates in our relationships with others and with all of G-d’s creation…

“We seek dialogue and joint action with people of other faiths in the hope that together we can bring peace, freedom and justice to our world…In doing so, we reaffirm social action and social justice as a central prophetic focus of traditional Reform Jewish belief and practice.”

Again, we see the importance of community, but from an entirely different perspective. Here, it’s a more inclusive community that reaches past religious group and into the lives of “all of G-d’s creation.”

I can’t say I whole-heartedly agree or disagree with either of these takes on Judaism, but I was not doomed to a mental stalemate on the issue, as this week’s parsha portion has my mind on halacha once more.

In reading Emor, we’re given an additional list of laws – those pertaining to the kohanim (priests) and kohen gadol (high priest), those regarding the festivals of the Jewish calendar and the requirements for each and those regarding the penalties for murder – and thus it seemed relevant to spend this week talking about differing views on our religious law and how these laws can be interpreted and implemented in entirely different ways among various Jewish groups.

Now, I don’t see it as my place to discuss their relevance, so instead I’ll leave you all with this ancient puzzle.

G-d given laws, differing levels of observance, and a group of people who have endured for thousands of years: How do you reconcile that?

Rachel LaVictoire ( is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.


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