The Gestalt

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            It may be wise for me to first begin with a disclaimer. Nothing in what I am about to present should be understood as challenging the intrinsic value of a single mitzvah and the importance and significance in the performance of each individual mitzvah. I am one who shares the belief that, in our relationships with other Jews, we must accept the reality of inherent, contradictory natures in lifestyle and relate beyond this limitation with an eye on what can be and an ideal of future growth. I share the attitude of the many rabbis who state that once a person enters a shul on Shabbat, the question of how he/she got there should not be the focus but, rather, we should see all those who wish to daven together on Shabbat simply as that – people who wish to spend Shabbat morning together in prayer with other Jews. After all, everyone who is there is still doing a mitzvah and that singular action has value in itself regardless of what else the person may or may not do.

Yet, even as I take this stand, I have begun to wonder about the effect of this perspective on the gestalt, the unified halachic system. While a singular mitzvah still has immeasurable value, what happens to mitzvah observance, and Torah observance as a whole, when singular mitzvah performance is not perceived as part of an integrated entity? The issue is even further compounded if, coupled with the observance of certain mitzvot, there is an adamancy expressed in the non-observance of others. We often see observance of a mitzvah as a positive while categorizing any act or position of non-observance as simply an expression of some status quo, more akin to some standard of omission rather than commission. This, though, may not be the case. As much as the performance of a mitzvah may reflect a positive value within the corpus of Torah, the non-performance of a mitzvah may equally be a forceful expression of some negative value. Even as we promote the observance of one mitzvah, can we simply ignore the effect of a violation of some other mitzvah on the overall expression of Torah and even on the performed mitzvah?

In a certain way, we can compare our promotion of mitzvah observance to a type of smorgasbord, offering individuals an array of mitzvot from among which they can choose those they may wish to observe. I present this categorization not to be critical; it may be the only way to draw one into the world of Torah. The result, though, is that each individual action and mitzvah is perceived as standing alone, not connected to the ones which this person has not chosen -- and not even linked with those which this person has chosen. The perception that Torah is not a smorgasbord but, rather, an integrated system that links together the individual mitzvot to create a complete whole is lost. The words of T.B. Eruvin 6b immediately come to mind. The gemara contends that, in this period of history, one could choose either to follow Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai but one who would either choose the stringencies of both or the leniencies of both was critiqued. While the latter was, indeed, deemed worse than the former, the overall message was still the same. Torah is an integrated system. To allow individuals to choose which mitzvot he/she may wish, or perceive they are able, to observe, clearly, may lead to greater individual mitzvah observance – but at what cost to the perception of the system as a whole?

Non-Orthodox forms of Judaism actually are also now doing the same thing, attracting people to their ways by also offering individuals the choice of which forms of Jewish expression they may wish to undertake. The non-Orthodox even can promote this more freely, further amending the offerings to include non-halachic practices as options to “enhance, decorate” the smorgasbord of Jewish practice. To them, furthermore, there is limited challenge from the whole as they can also further reinforce the perception that one’s choice of Jewish practice is exactly just that, one’s choice. Indeed, to maintain their ability to touch others, Orthodox outreach organizations, for pragmatic reasons, must also present, and continue to present, a similar type of smorgasbord concept – of course, still distinguished, in an important way, by only offering halachically acceptable individual options. Ultimately, though, they cannot truly project the concept that there really is an allowed personal choice in the determination of the mitzvot that one may wish to do – yet in a certain way they still must present a perception of “do what you can or what you choose” in order to maintain their attraction to others, especially in light of the new endeavours by the non-Orthodox. Bottom line, there simply exists this powerful deterrent to the promotion of what we should be advocating, an overall objective to present the mitzvot as interconnected. Rather, though, than a person at least adopting the practice of one mitzvah, any perception of Torah as an ‘all-or-nothing’ endeavour could lead to a rejection of even that singular practice. Giving the impression that one mitzvah is not really interconnected to another, though, yields a misperception of Torah as a whole.

What occurs is the potential developments of what one may term personal Conservative or Reform Judaisms. Each individual by choosing the mitzvot he/she wishes to follow and, as such, also choosing which mitzvot he/she does not wish to follow, essentially is left to create a personal theology to defend their choice. This personal philosophy furthermore becomes further intensified in its deviance from the halachic or Torah norm with any adamancy voiced in any positions of rejection, notwithstanding what is chosen to be observed. This is not to say that these personal theologies are highly sophisticated, or even thought-through on any level; the result, though, is that there is no gestalt in the understanding of Orthodox Judaism. The further result is that there is no standing challenge for the individual. Torah is to change us; to do so it must confront us. We can all describe mitzvot that we like. The challenge is in how we relate to those mitzvot that we find difficult.

Of course, you cannot attract one to Torah by describing demands from the system to which this individual would respond negatively. You can really only attract one to Torah by highlighting the aspects of Torah that would interest this individual. The point is, though, that at some point, for the movement to Torah to be honest, those aspects of Torah which a person may find problematic cannot simply be swept under the rug. They are part of Torah. It is in the dynamic that they bring to Torah that we actually find the essential movement of Torah. It is in our call to accept the system, the gestalt of Torah that we find the greatness of this Divine system. The gestalt cannot be continuously ignored even if the cost is a drop in individual mitzvah observance. Our challenge is to know how to make this type of decision properly.

Torah isn’t anyway simply a checklist of actions – it is a gestalt that an individual deserves and requires. It is the sum that purely and succinctly outlasts, outshines the parts. It is essential to remind everyone that the details are lines and colours toward the ultimate picture.


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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