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 Mishpatim     5784   | Rabbanit Sara Wolkenfeld

02/13/2024 04:27:35 PM


Law is My Love Language


There’s a famous story about a famous rabbi, let’s say it was Rav Soloveitchik, though I think it has been told in different forms about different rabbis. His scholarship ranged from the highly theoretical to the extremely practical, and he could of course give detailed answers to any halakhic question. When his wife, Dr. Tanya Soloveitchik, was in the hospital, he carried on as best he could in the kitchen, and followed the laws of kashrut to the letter. When she was sent home, she discovered that he and his son Haym - legitimately the scariest professor I have ever had - had been eating cold cereal with milk in meat bowls, which is totally in keeping with the laws of kashrut, since the dairy taste cannot be absorbed into the meat dishes when both the dairy and the dishes are cold. She, of course, was horrified. The Rav explained to her that it is clear from the Shulchan Arukh, the authoritative 16th century law code, that this is entirely fine. Her response was: Keep your Shulchan Aruch out of my kitchen! 

I strongly dislike this story. The gender roles play on some of my least favorite tropes - he’s learning Jewish law, she’s cooking, he’s helpless in her terrain and she’s clueless in his - a paradigm that doesn’t even really hold true in this case, as Dr. Soloveitchik was herself an extremely knowledgeable Jew.

But even worse, it perpetuates what I think is a terrible stereotype about the relationship between Jewish law and custom. Her customs, she is implying, are threatened by his halakhah. She has her way of doing things, handed down, presumably, from mother to daughter. Her practices - like many of the kashrut practices that you would find in many modern Orthodox homes - aren’t strictly mandated, but they have become the way that many practice these traditions. The story portrays her as not wanting to considser the actual halakhah, because it might endanger the way she has observed Jewish practice her entire life. 

I also feel that this story perpetuates a kind of injustice against the Shulchan Arukh - the title literally means “a set table - which was a hugely innovative work in its time, designed to be studied and used by people of varying levels of knowledge, in all kinds of settings. If there was ever a book that was written to be brought into the kitchen, it’s the Shulchan Arukh! 

Rabbi Yosef Karo, writing in the 16th century, said the following about his book: 

ראיתי אני בלבי כי טוב ללקוט שושני ספירי אמריו בדרך קצרה בלשון צח וכולל יפה ונעים, למען תהיה תורת ה' תמימה שגורה בפי כל איש ישראל,

I saw fit to gather the pearls of the halakhah’s sayings in a concise way, in clear language, and in nice and pleasant general ways, so that the perfect Torah of God is always fixed in the mouth of every Jewish person…

קראתי שם ספר זה "שולחן ערוך", כי בו ימצא ההוגה כל מיני מטעמים ערוכים

and I decided to call this book “Shulkhan Arukh” because the reader will find in it all kinds of delicacies, set out before them…

What better book to keep in your kitchen? 

But as it turns out, the name of that work, the phrase “a set table” comes from a midrashic comment on this week’s parsha. 

Parashat Mishpatim opens with the words: 

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃

“These are the rules that you shall set before them”

What’s the significance of these rules being “set before” the people? This isn’t the standard formula for presenting laws or information. Without even realizing it, you probably know that standard formula by heart: 

דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם…

Speak to the people of Israel and say to them…

The Mekhilta D’Rabbi Yishmael,  a third-century collection of midrashim, sets out to answer this question. 

Rabbi Akiva sets up the question: Why describe the laws as placed before them? The midrash says it is to teach you that sharing the laws just once is not sufficient. You need to repeat it two, three, even four times, until it is clear. The midrash asks: 

יכול שונין ולא יודעין? 

Could it be that they learn it but they don’t need to understand it? 

תלמוד לומר: "ואלה המשפטים אשר תשים לפניהם" – ערכם לפניהם כשולחן ערוך

No, the midrash says. That’s what the words “these are the laws that you shall place before them” means - set it up before them like a set table, a Shulkhan Arukh. 

I grew up in a home that could be described as omnivorous when it came to Jewish law and custom. Neither of my parents grew up in a religious home, neither had much of a Jewish education, and my father, in particular, was extremely eager to learn more and to translate what he learned into practice. Judaism was like one big smorgasbord for him, and throughout my childhood, he came home from various classes and told the rest of us all sorts of things, some of which were more technically correct than others. My family was always making choices, and so I had to learn along with my father if I wanted to be an active partner in those choices.

Our family’s “famous rabbi story” took place one Shabbat shortly before my bat mitzvah, when my father took us to the home of a famous rabbi in Monsey. Actually many stories in my father’s life could have been chasidic stories; they usually start with him meeting a famous rabbi while davening in a minyan in the airport. That’s how he met this rabbi, and that’s how we wound up at his home for Shabbat. And on Friday night, after we all sat down at the table to have Shabbat dinner, the rabbi’s wife moved the cut flowers off the table.

My mother nearly gasped in horror. Why? Because my father had told her that you can’t move flowers on Shabbat. There is a prohibition against moving a growing plant on Shabbat if it is still attached to the ground or in a pot, and my father must have learned that at some point, and extended it to all plant-like things. 

My mother couldn’t get over it. She said, out loud: “You moved the flowers!”

“They were in my way,” the rebbetzen replied, and then she served dinner. 

This is a story I like much more because in this rabbinic tale, a woman's knowledge of halakhah enabled her to assert more control over her surroundings and to create the Shabbat environment she wanted for her family and for her guests. I appreciate her nuanced understanding, and the way she taught my family on that Shabbat.  

There’s a prevailing trope in the Western world, rooted in early Christian thought, that puts law and love in tension with one another. Love is embracing and accepting, and law is harsh, demanding, and meant as a curb on our baser instincts. But that’s not the way Judaism views law. From the very beginning, it was presented as a gift, a gift born out of love. It was, in the words of the midrash, placed before us. We get to decide what to do with it; which parts will be most formative for our lives, how exactly to observe it, and what we will pass on to the next generation. 

Just a little while ago, as we finished up the Torah service, we held up the Torah for all to see. Do you remember what we sang when we held it up? 

Vezot Hatorah…

If I were asked to craft a sentence about Moshe’s role vis-a-vis Torah and the people, I would think it might make more sense to say that this is the Torah that Moshe taught us, or that Moshe relayed to us. But the word “sam” - the Torah that Moshe placed before us - is purposeful. The Torah is there for the taking, and it always was. We hold up the Torah when we say the words, as if to say: Don’t turn away, don’t not look. Ignorance is not bliss. Every time we have the opportunity to learn something new, to study a new law, to hear about a different halakhic option - that is an opportunity to appreciate the laws that Moshe set out before us, beautifully arrayed and ready for us to explore and to develop. 

When we hold on to “the way we’ve always done it” just for the sake of not changing, we miss an opportunity to take full advantage of Torah and the way that it is presented. 

The Torah is there for us, just as it was for prior generations, just as it was for us earlier in our lives when we made our first set of decisions. We might make the same choices as earlier generations did, or as we did earlier in our lives, or we might make different ones. 

To be faithful to the legacy of the giving of the Torah - to be present in the moment of Parashat Mishpatim -  is to be open to learning more, to adjusting our practices - or to keeping them the same, with a renewed dedication that comes from understanding what the other options are, and why we’ve chosen this one. To paraphrase something my teacher, Rabbi Brovender, once said: Practicing Judaism is completely transformed when you can do it with sophistication and understanding. You’ve looked under the hood and understood how the engine works, or gone through the code to understand the website, or made the recipe yourself so you can appreciate all the ingredients (pick your favorite metaphor). 

As my mother might have said; Try it, you might like it! You can’t develop a sophisticated palate if you don’t try new things. And when it comes to Torah and mitzvot, we should all want to cultivate a sophisticated palate. 

In our home here in DC, as in all the homes in our married life, the moment inevitably comes when whichever one of us is cooking realizes that there is a dairy spoon in the ground beef on taco Tuesday, or that a child who shall remain nameless switched the plates on us. You don’t make it through 21 years of marriage and 5 children without some treyfed up dishes along the way, but the discussions and debates that ensue will, we hope, be more memorable for our children than the meal itself. And I think our kids know that it is a sign that we’re really serious when, in the middle of prepping dinner, we pull out the Shulchan Arukh. 

Shabbat Shalom, and Chodesh Tov! 


Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784