Thursday 31 July 2014

032) The Fourth Dimension

When talking about Jewish practices to people who are not observant, they often ask whether the matter under discussion is a ‘custom’ or a ’law’. Is it ‘Divine’ or ‘man made’? This is quite intriguing because the distinction between Torah Law and Rabbinical Law is often only drawn at quite an advanced level of Torah study. The advanced observer may be looking to better understand the structure of the Law (to ascertain whether extenuating circumstances may or may not allow the Law to be flexible). The non-observer, however, may be looking for a possible justification not to do something (since it’s ‘only’ a Rabbinical Law). This is reminiscent of the Karaites of old, who totally disregarded Rabbinical Judaism.

The question is: How much should we allow this invisible dividing line, between both sets of Law, to influence our observance?

From a purely halachic point of view, there is no practical distinction between them. One does not have the discretion or liberty to choose one over the other. The distinction between them exists only on an academic and theoretical level.

Part of the reason why so much authority is given to classical Rabbinical Law, is because the Torah itself instructs us to adhere to the ‘priest who will be in your day’. Furthermore, as we all know, the Torah of Sinai was presented together with an Oral (read Rabbinical) Tradition to support and supplement it. This gives tremendous credibility to the Rabbinical Tradition, as its authority is rather more primary than secondary.

Then there is the third issue concerning the status of Custom or Minhag: Although the concept of ‘minhag shtus’ (a silly or nonsensical custom) does exist - for the most part, a well established custom is treated with as great a reverence as the other two abovementioned components of our law. The fullness of time seems to imbue the custom or practice with an earned sanctity of its own.

The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that in more recent times, a fourth component appears to have silently crept into our body of tradition. This fourth dimension, he aptly calls ‘Frumkeit.’ ‘Frumkeit’ is difficult to define, but you’ll know it when you see it. It doesn't have to be, but sometimes is, a very visible display of ‘in your face’ Judaism. It’s more of a social construct and peer driven than hallowed over time.

While we have no effective discretion when it comes to the first three components of the Law - Torah Law, Rabbinical Law and Custom - we may (at least according to the Kotzker) exercise some agility with ‘Frumkeit’.

Says the Kotzker Rebbe:
Frumkeit is not necessary for someone who is already ‘fixed’.However, it is sometimes valuable as a means to an end.
(Emet VeEmunah p99, par 6)

I believe it is with regard to this fourth component of ‘Frumkeit’ that our religious mettle gets subjected to the most crucial of tests. How we handle this, defines who we are. We humans are, after all, social beings and need to know and show where we fit into society. But when ‘Frumkeit’ becomes an end in itself, instead of a means, we may have just missed the mark. It may also be an indication that we are not yet ‘fixed’.

When the perceived security of any social construct, becomes an end, the Kotzker reminds us that perhaps we have not yet even begun.

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