Playacting: A D'Var Torah on Parshat Hukkat
8 Pages Posted: 6 Jul 2017
Date Written: July 1, 2017
Some historians have argued that one of the great theological innovations of the early Rabbis was to understand much of halakha as a form of spiritual discipline rather than a reflection of cosmic metaphysical reality. This view of halakhic nominalism has powerfully influenced at least major strains of the Jewish legal imagination writ large. And one possible upshot of that sort of approach is to understand the observant Jewish life as, in some sense, a form of "playacting." But understanding halakhic observance as playacting does not reduce the responsibility of halakhically-committed Jews, it only deepens it. For observant Jews to admit that they are acting in a play is no excuse for them to be sloppy actors. For the Rabbis also insisted that Jews have a duty to follow the script, to be authentic and convincing actors in the drama of Jewish religious life. They need to be actors, but darn serious actors.
This short talk further explores the metaphor of playacting. It distinguishes the ritual script and the moral script and emphasizes the importance of navigating their complex relationship. It also widens the lens to a brief discussion of the larger script of human life. In that context, the playacting metaphor must be read to accommodate the divine gift of human free will. In a certain sense, God is the author, or director, or stage manager, or critic, of a single-performance live show, with little in the way of rehearsal and no retakes. It can go well. And it can also go badly. As C.S. Lewis put it, "Of course God knew what would happen if [human beings] used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk."
Keywords: Jewish law, halakhah, halakhic realism, halakhic nominalism, Parshat Hukkat, red heifer, Moses, Jephthah, C.S. Lewis, law and morality
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