Although it's now been a little over 36 hours since I returned from Limmud NY, I think mentally I am still very much at the conference. The experience definitely has given me pause to think about some issues of critical Jewish importance to me and I'd like to share them to give an idea of the impact Limmud can have on people.
One thing I have been focusing is the role of Halachah and halakhic texts in my life. I definitely partook, at least as an observer, in things this past weekend that I don't think actually who is interested in keeping halachah would consider halachically permissible. This includes attend the pseudo-Reform service with instruments played by the Kosher Gospel on Friday night, and the Jewish Renewal service Shabbat morning with drums and a siddur that feminized tefillot such as brachot and the Shema and included prayers to Asherah (essentially a foreign god). My rationale for attending these things was that as long as I did not actively participate in them, that since the instruments and such were going to be played whether or not I was there, I wasn't actively engaging in any sort of chilul Shabbat.
This, of course, assumes that the very playing of instruments on Shabbat is forbidden. But where does that idea come from? A scanning of Google results for "musical instruments Shabbat" indicates that the main concern is that an instruments could break and a person thus be tempted to fix it. This idea occurs in Beitzah 36b and somewhere around Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 338 or so, as well as a few other places. Now, one could dismiss this and say that this is only an issue if an instrument actually breaks (and even then I wouldn't be doing the fixing) so therefore it's OK to go ahead and play. But for me this speaks to a more fundamental issue of my relationship to halacha and halachik texts. What is the role of the Talmud, Shulchan Aruch, and other such texts to my life and halakhic observance? When do I choose to follow them, and when do I choose to ignore them, and why? Do I value the overall life enjoyment I get out of these things over their halachic value? I have also been mulling over that question in regards to other behaviors that are traditionally seen as banned by halacha, including the quintessential dilemmas of egalitarian tefillah and mixed dancing, both I which I participated in abundance at Limmud and thoroughly enjoyed. In terms of egalitarianism-well, that's a thoroughly complex issue I won't cover here. In terms of mixed dancing, my Googling shows me that in the Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 21:1, mixed dancing is assur becuase it leads to touching, promiscuous thoughts, and more. There is, I believe, some truth to that statement, but I also feel that my life is lacking something if I don't take part in these sort of things. The Sunday night dance party at Limmud was alot of fun, even if I haven't the slightest idea how to dance. Yet my much frummer roommate stayed in the room and watched Sportscenter, and seeing him do so made me feel like he was choosing a much more inhibited way of living. But does this make me someone who picks and chooses my halakhic observance? Am I abandoning part of some concrete package? And is that necessarily a bad thing?
An experience yesterday gave me even more food for thought on the question of what value observing halachah has for me, of how important it should be for me. Yesterday morning, I went to the most beautiful davening I think I have ever been to, at Kehilat Romemu. Romemu is New York's Renewal congregation. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, given the rather trippy experience I had the previous Shabbat at the Renewal service at Limmud NY. But 5 minutes in, I felt I was experiencing something truly beautiful-a word I neither use lightly nor often. It's hard to describe, but it felt so incredibly different from any minyan I had ever been to before. People felt so happy to be there, weren't in a rush to finish or go anywhere-it felt FUN! I've never been to any tefillah before that really felt FUN. I don't even know how I can go back to a regular minyan after something like this.
Now, my wonderful experience at Romemu again raises the specter of how much I should care about halachah. Romemu clearly violates normative halachah-instruments and electricity are used. But the end result is something so beautiful that it's hard to imagine denying it to myself. And yet I feel so torn-something so celebratory of Shabbat, that comes out of something violating Shabbat. Then there is the fact I am benefiting from what I consider other Jews violating Shabbat, though I myself am not doing so.
There are other things that I've been contemplating, though not as much, in terms of halachik observance coming out of Limmud NY 2011. Among them are egalitarianism and mixed dancing. These are complicated issues that I feel that I have essentially solved by deciding how I feel about them rather than what various halakhic sources have to say. But it comes back to the same issue-how much do I care about what those sources have to say? Why can't I just live as I please? After all, it is very clear in the 21st century that one can live a far from halakhic life and still be deeply connected to Jewish life in a variety of ways. That is, in a sense, what Limmud is all about-connecting Jews of all types to Jewish life and community, and trying to turn that into a permanent community that exists outside the purview of one 4-day conference per year. It's about celebrating the diversity of Jewish life that exists.
Looks like I'll be struggling with this tension for awhile, maybe even the rest of my life. More to come on this later on.