Ayalon Eliach: Judaism Unbound Episode 172 - Judaism With Purpose(s)

Ayalon Eliach, Director of Learning and Strategic Communications at the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, [1] joins Dan and Lex for a conversation that re-imagines forms of halachah (traditionally defined as “Jewish law”) that could look different than many might expect, and imbue lives with a deep sense of purpose and meaning. [2]

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(0:01 - 17:26): To begin the episode, Eliach lays out the ways in which the rules, regulations, and structure of halachah (continue below for how Eliach defines this term) were not merely one part of Jewish life, but rather the defining, central element of Jewish life. He looks back at his own journey both away from, and eventually back to, a daily halachic practice. Next, Eliach defines what he means by halachah, clarifying that he doesn’t conceive of it through the lens of “Jewish law,” as many others do, because it lacks a core characteristic of law — the power of coercion. He reflects on a recent Judaism Unbound conversation with Leon Wiener Dow, providing his take on the question of keeping kosher, and in particular responding to Wiener Dow’s approach to meat and dairy. [3] Eliach argues that the goal should be to discover the underlying purpose of this practice. Once looking at the function of keeping kosher, we can then ask both how the traditional practice achieves the function and whether there are new mechanisms or practices that could achieve its function in an equally or more effective manner.

(17:27 - 31:14): Eliach digs deeper into the concept of “purpose.” He asserts that “original intent” is not the most important factor in determining the reason for a particular Jewish practice, but rather that it is imperative to search for the most compelling purpose it can achieve, even if that function may not have been at play when a ritual was first pioneered. He pushes back against the idea that Jewish practices are designed primarily to create community, examining how that mindset makes the details of particular practices largely arbitrary. Dan tries to think from the perspective of someone who has never observed any form of halachah, proposing four ways that new forms of halachah could provide deep meaning in life. Eliach compares and contrasts the idea of halachah as a “system” vs. halachah as a “shared discourse.”

(31:15 - 47:35): Through some examples from his work with the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, [4] Eliach identifies what it looks like to re-vision halachah in creative ways, which might not look “halachic” from a traditional vantage point. In particular, he names projects including MitzVote and Mayyim Hayyim Living Waters as meaningful forms of a halachic process being applied in the 21st century. To close the episode, he and Lex look at two particular practices: consumption of Kosher (and non-Kosher) wine, [5] on the one hand, and work-related reading on Shabbat, on the other. He asks how a new kind of halachah could lead to different — but equally rigorous — conclusions around Jewish ritual practice. In doing so, he calls on listeners to both re-claim the language of “halachah” and “halachic,” and understand that their meanings and resonances have the potential to be more expansive than they have been in the past. [6] [7]

Click this image to read Eliach’s essay, entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

Click this image to read Eliach’s essay, entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

[1] Learn more about Ayalon Eliach by clicking here, and check out this essay he wrote — still a work-in-progress, but you get a sneak preview! — entitled “Radically Traditional Halachah: Realigning Jewish Purpose and Praxis.”

[2] Hear more from Eliach by checking out these two videos, from a Harvard Law School conference on Progressive Halakhah: Video 1: Teaching, Living, and Learning Halakhah in a Pluralistic Context, Video 2: Kashrut - Do Jewish Ethics Matter?

[3] Listen in to Judaism Unbound’s conversation with Leon Wiener Dow here: Episode 164: Going, Jewishly - Leon Wiener Dow.

[4] Learn more about the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah by visiting its website.

[5] Click here to read another argument against the consumption of Kosher wine, through an article in The Forward by Liya Rechtman, entitled “A Feminist Case Against Kosher Wine.”

[6] Eliach cites Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, as an argument for constantly exploring the underlying function of Jewish ritual. For the specific text that he alludes to, around sacrifice, prayer, and meditation, click here.

[7] Ayalon Eliach was recently named as one of seven rabbis collectively forming the third cohort of the three-year David Hartman Center Rabbinic Fellowship. Learn more by clicking here.