God is in the (halachic) details
Rabbi David Silverstein of West Caldwell, who moved to Israel in 2008, serves as the sgan (assistant) rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem. He specializes in the philosophy and meaning of Jewish law, and has just published “Jewish Law as a Journey: Finding Meaning in Daily Jewish Practice” (Menorah). Silverstein received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, as well as a Master of Arts Degree in Talmud from the Bernard Revel Graduate School. The son of Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, the younger Silverstein now lives in Modiin, with his wife and four children.
NJJN: What do you imply by your title, that Jewish law is a journey?
Silverstein: One of the themes you hear from people struggling with Jewish observance is the sense that traditional halacha lacks any larger religious vision beyond obedience to the divine word. Even traditionally observant Jews can often feel that the daily demands of Jewish life seem rote and habitual. The title addresses both concerns. The word journey implies a sense of movement from one place to the next. Commitment to halacha is supposed to help refine our character and ground our lives in a conversation of meaning and virtue. Investing time and energy in understanding the spiritual messages that underlie traditional Jewish practices allows us to ensure that our religious lives really feel like a journey toward a God-centric life.
NJJN: You speak of the spiritual messages of Jewish law and of spiritual growth. Spirituality is a word that’s hard to define. How do you explain its meaning?
Silverstein: The word spirituality implies the existence of a reality beyond the physical. Traditional Jewish observance expresses itself in real-world terms. Halacha asks us, for example, to wear tefillin, recite the Shema daily, and eat exclusively kosher food. To the outside observer, these rituals may seem mechanical and dry. Does God really care if we recite the Shema in its proscribed time? What can possibly be “religious” about wearing black boxes on one’s head and arm? These physical expressions are entry points to experience and understand the ideals and virtues that underlie Jewish observance.
NJJN: How might you and your father, an American Conservative rabbi, approach these questions differently?
Silverstein: Both my father and I agree about the binding nature of halacha and about the importance in rooting one’s religious identity in the language of being commanded. My goal is to reach traditionally minded Jews irrespective of denominational affiliation. This is one of the reasons why I consciously chose to avoid contentious topics such as gender in Jewish law. These issues are of great significance and dominate much of the public dialogue about halacha. However, they unfortunately tend to overshadow the spiritual opportunities provided by the overwhelming majority of mitzvot, which are agreed upon by traditional Jews irrespective of ideological orientation.
NJJN: Can you give an example of a halachic practice that has become mechanical or separate from its meaning, and how restoring the meaning and context can lead to a larger vision?
Silverstein: I think that prayer often poses a specific challenge for the modern Jew. For example, the requirement to recite a fixed text thrice daily can make prayer seem cumbersome and repetitive. Also, the fact that traditional prayer is in Hebrew can be particularly challenging for most Jews for whom Hebrew is not their mother tongue. However, when we understand the religious messages of traditional Jewish prayer we can reorient ourselves to see daily prayer as a blessing and certainly not a burden. The details of halachic prayer are carefully constructed with the goal of ensuring that prayer is a meaningful and potentially transformative experience.
NJJN: Are schools in Israel and the U.S. teaching this view that goes beyond teaching observance?
Silverstein: Day schools in both the United States and Israel are doing an excellent job creating Jewishly literate young adults who feel comfortable navigating the demands of daily ritual observance. Traditionally, the Jewish curriculum focused more heavily on the “whats” of Jewish life with a more minimal focus on the “whys.” I think that 21st-century Jewish education needs to reorient this balance and add an increased focus on addressing the religious messages imbedded in halachic texts and practices. One need not look outside the halachic framework to experience religious meaning. Jewish law provides an ideal medium for accessing God in the context of our daily routine.
NJJN: How important is the expression of gratitude in your view?
Silverstein: Gratitude is a central value in the Jewish tradition. Developing a personality rooted in the ethic of gratitude provides a perpetual reminder of the need to think beyond ourselves. Halachic observance has a similar goal and helps us express our gratitude to God. In its ideal vision, Jewish law demands that a person understand the rationale behind the mitzvot, and therefore be spiritually transformed by the divine messages imbedded in mitzvah observance. However, our commitment to Jewish law cannot be contingent on our understanding of halacha’s values. If we were to ONLY observe those rituals that we fully understood and found personally meaningful, we would effectively be engaging in a commitment to ritual in which the self is the primary source of worship. Embracing those mitzvot whose meaning still remains mysterious ensures that our observance of halacha is truly a self-transcendent exercise.
NJJN: How can the book inform a deeper understanding of the holiday of Shavuot?
Silverstein: Shavuot celebrates the Jewish people’s acceptance of the Torah and provides an annual opportunity to reflect on our commitment to Jewish observance. The 613 mitzvot are not an arbitrary list of rules. My hope is that this book will serve as a daily guide to help facilitate a more passionate and meaningful commitment to the beauty and wonder that a life dedicated to Jewish law seeks to inculcate.