Judaism Unbound Episode 164: Going, Jewishly - Leon Wiener Dow

Leon Wiener Dow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and BINA Secular Yeshiva joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg in conversation about his new book, The Going. They discuss Jewish law — a system which both bounds and binds — probing the tensions between individual Jewish practice and an ongoing communal endeavor.

(00:01 - 16:30): Wiener Dow begins the episode with an explanation of his new book’s title, “The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law” [1] where he translates Halacha as “The Going” instead of its more conventional translation as “Jewish Law”. [2] Wiener Dow explains that the word is a gerund, a word which indicates a process, illustrating the dynamic nature of Jewish law which is ever-changing. He briefly talks about his upbringing in a “nominally conservative” home and a young epiphany regarding his own observance of separating milk and meat. He encourages those who see the Torah as compelling to really own that connection, living Torah through action and speech. He highlights that a person’s relationship to halacha is open-ended and may change throughout a person’s life. He also discusses the “limitations” that might occur through halachic observance, causing people to make choices that are uncomfortable, or challenging, because they perceive something deeper at stake.

(16:31 - 30:28): In this section, Dan and Lex ask about the distinction between “the Halacha” versus “a halacha.” Wiener Dow emphasizes that halacha is a deeply communal endeavor which is both concerned with correct interpretation of the law and the evolution of the communal legal system which ties us to our tradition. He argues for a descipription of halacha as a comprehensive entity (“The Halacha”) that both bounds and binds. Meanwhile, calling it something individual (“a halacha”) creates a problematic privatization of practice, divorcing Jews from their own community. Wiener Dow says that this collective binding agent also allows for opportunities of “holy disobedience” which always take place in a communal context. The conversation turns to a discussion regarding the detriments of such a communal system, asking, what happens when one’s personal values are at odds with halachic observance? Can we build a Judaism that is both faithful to our sense morality and honest within the tradition? Wiener Dow affirms these questions, pulling in a quote by Michael Walzer, [3] and asserting that being a responsible member of a community means claiming that community it as one’s own and criticizing it from within. He references a tale in the Talmud, in which students follow a rabbi home — into the bathroom and even the bedroom, during intercourse. When they are asked what they’re doing, they reply, “It is Torah and I must learn it!” [4] In this way, Wiener Dow says, it is up to the greater Jewish community to expand the definition and meanings of that Torah and live it out in a way that is both ethical and honest.

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(31:29 - 50:12): Wiener Dow continues to explore the tension between the idea of received tradition and our individual sense of right and wrong. He expounds on the notion of acting for God by disregarding or rebelling against the system. [5] He discusses how of a communal halachic system requires a recognition of all Jews and their practices, whether they are following halachah in an observant manner or not. In this way, even Jews who might identify as non-halachic or even anti-halachic are actually living a halachic life, but “just pulling a different way.” So what do we do when the system seems so misaligned with our sensibilities? Do we rebuild or rework? Wiener Dow gives the example of constructing a building, explaining that while many people love to create new buildings from scratch, it may be more costly and less effective than just renovating an old one from the inside out. To start from scratch halachically, too much would be lost. The discussion turns finally to theology as Lex remarks that, throughout this whole conversation, there has been very little direct mention of God. [7] Wiener Dow articulates that it is more significant to respond to the divine than to talk about it, that actions articulate devotion. For this reason, he believes that it’s important that living a halakhic lifestyle doesn’t mean being closed off into narrow spaces, but instead demanding of oneself to live in the widest open of spaces, attentive to everything, sensitive to the world around you and bearing the tensions with pride.

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[1] Find Leon Wiener Dow’s website here.

[2] Check out Leon Wiener Dow’s book, The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law.

[3] Learn more about this reference to Michael Walzer by downloading this PDF of his piece entitled “Interpretation and Social Criticism.”

[4] Read this Talmudic story about the Rabbi’s disciples following him into his home, the bathroom, and the bedroom, declaring, “It is Torah and I must learn it!”

[5] Wiener Dow references the phrase, "Eit La'asot Hashem..." it is time to work for the Divine. Read about this concept here.

[6] Speaking of cleaning up, flash back to a previous conversation where we discuss Marie Kondo, in Episode 154: Ten New Commandments.

[7] We also have conversations about divinity here on Judaism Unbound! Check out this handy playlist of episodes about God!