Jewish law as a journey – finding meaning in daily Jewish practice

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by Rabbi David Silverstein, Menorah Books (2017)

Over the past three years I have reviewed over 100 Jewish books and I can say with absolute honesty that I have drawn wisdom and understanding from them all. However, I must admit that I do not always identify with the worldview of the author, or the methodology of their scholarship.

Of course, not every Jewish book that one reads is necessarily going to align with one’s values. In fact, it is often those which do not which teach us the most about ourselves! Yet while I am passionate about the value of Tanach and Talmud, fascinated by Midrash and Minhagim, and stimulated by classic and contemporary philosophical musings, at my core I am someone in an intimate and passionate relationship with the study of halacha and who sincerely believes that halacha contains within its often seemingly simple instructions a profound value system which is there for us to discover.

For example, a study of the laws of Tefillah should not only teach us how to pray, but also about what it means to be in communion with G-d. A study of the laws of the Asseret Yemei Teshuva should not only teach us what to do, but also about how to instill practical change in our lifestyle and thereby meaningful change in our life. And a study of the laws of Shehecheyanu teach us not only when to recite this blessing, but also about the importance of celebrating life while also finding meaning in our material comforts.

Over the years I have looked for books or teachers who relate to Jewish law and Jewish practice in the way I have described and who value the importance of revealing meaning and depth in our religious rituals and customs while not diminishing – in any way – the importance of observing those rituals and customs. And a few months ago, I was blessed to find what I’ve been searching for.

Rabbi David Silverstein’s ‘Jewish Law as a Journey: Finding Meaning in Daily Jewish Practice’ is a truly magnificent compilation of insights from an incredibly wide range of scholars who have sought to explore and explain the meaning behind our Jewish daily practices. As Rabbi Silverstein explains, it is a book that seeks ‘to reorient the contemporary conversation of halakha towards an increased focus on meaning in halakhic observance’.

In each of the 25 chapters in Jewish Law as a Journey Rabbi Silverstein provides a multi-faceted analysis of a different aspect of Jewish daily practice such as the recitation of Modeh Ani, Jewish Modes of Dress, Fixed and Spontaneous Prayer, Washing Hands before a Meal, Birkat HaMazon and the Bedtime Shema, through exploring and contrasting scholars from the Talmudic period until today.

For example, in Rabbi Silverstein’s treatment of Modeh Ani he begins by exploring the Talmudic association of waking up from sleep as a form of resurrection. He then moves onto the Mishne Brura who describes our morning prayers as an opportunity for us to express our appreciation for the gift of life. Following this he explains how Modeh Ani – which does not contain the name of G-d – was instituted as an expression to meditate on G-d and on life before ritually washing our hands. He then refers to Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Nagen whose, basing himself on the thought of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, explains that its recitation is meant to remind us of life’s opportunities and the danger of spiritually sleep-walking through life. And he concludes by referring to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson who, through re-emphasising how Modeh Ani is a prayer that is recited prior to the ritual washing of hands, teaches us that that ‘all the impurities of the world cannot contaminate the Modeh Ani of a Jew‘.

Having examined 25 different areas of Jewish daily practice, the 26th and final chapter of Jewish Law as a Journey summarizes the key lessons found in each of the previous 25 chapters through a series of questions that refer to the scholars cited and ideas presented. To cite just one example, in his ‘Reflections before Reciting Birkat HaMazon’, Rabbi Silverstein asks:

  • Do I fully understand how reciting Birkat HaMazon reminds us to place our prosperity in context and appreciate the humble beginnings of the Jewish people? (Ramban)
  • Does reciting Birkat HaMazon help me overcome my natural inclination to forget God after achieving economic success? (Meshekh Chokhma)
  • Do I remember the Jewish people’s time in the desert and understand it as highlighting our dependency on God? (Talmud, Rabbi Melamed)
  • Am I able to affirm our ultimate goal of partnering with God in perfecting the world as symbolized by our working of the Land of Israel? (Rabbi Melamed)
  • Am I mindful of the role that the Land of Israel plays in actualizing divine ideals, even outside the context of codified law? (Rabbi Haggai London)
  • Do I understand the profound connection between the Land of Israel, the covenant of circumcision, and the centrality of Torah observance as precursors to entering the Land? (Talmud, Rashi)
  • Am I able to affirm the centrality of Jerusalem, and the unique theological message of the Temple, as symbols of Jewish sovereignty? (Talmud, Prof. Kaufman)
  • Do I feel the ever-unfolding drama of Jewish history and maintain a continued posture of hope and optimism during the period of exile? (Talmud, Rabbi Sacks)

In the introduction of this final chapter, Rabbi Silverstein explains how Jewish Law as a Journeyattempts to articulate the transcendent religious messages that underline many of the mitzvot that we encounter in a day committed to halakha’ because ‘although punctiliously observing the detailed prescriptions of the law is a central focus of halakhic observance, halakha is also intended to inspire religious development through awareness of the values inculcated by Jewish law’.

Jewish Law as a Journey is clear, profound, yet incredibly readable. It is a book that will inspire those early on in their journey of Jewish learning, and enrich those whose have been observant throughout their lives. Simply put, Jewish Law as a Journey is a book that I’ve been looking for throughout my life and one that I, and I believe many others, will make us indebted to Rabbi Silverstein for many years to come.

To purchase a copy of this book, click here.