Michael Fishbane in Sacred Attunement carefully holds theology and life together. He discusses halakah, usually defined as the Talmudic and Rabbinic law that builds upon the Torah. However, his definition of halakah seems to be that of a type of piety and not just a collection of writings. Halakah, he says, is living Jewish theology. This piety is not an individual or isolated spirituality. Rather, it rests on the framework of people and generations who have thoughtfully considered how to live a covenant life and have created a halakhic culture.
He uses the image of a tree planted at Sinai that has now grown to sustain those who cultivate it centuries and generations later.
He makes a distinction between our Adamic selves and our potential Mosaic selves. This requires a little adjustment in thought for those of us who are heirs of Paul the Apostle and think of Adam in terms of sin and the Fall. The Adamic self, for Fishbane, is just the natural person who lives in the material world and eats, labors and dies.
The Mosaic self is one who puts eating in the context of prayer, puts labor in the context of the Sabbath, and puts death in the context of generation-to-generation faith in God. In other words, the Mosaic self is the Adamic self transformed by covenant living. Halakah provides a way of moving towards the Mosaic self.
The notion of blessing is important here. Prayer and ritual hand washing before meals acknowledge blessing and put daily life in the context of mindfulness of God’s plentitude. Halakah prescribes set prayers which speak, for instance, of God “who brings food forth from the earth.” So theology transforms the reception of nature into spiritual awareness.
Something similar happens with Sabbath keeping. The observance requires a shift in consciousness from everyday matters to what transcends our normal activities. Fishbane calls the Sabbath a divine stasis and the cultivation of a mindfulness of inaction. When we return to the activity of the other six days, we may do so with a more settled mind and the ability to act out of a more focused spiritual center.
He speaks of the other Jewish festivals as also helping the cultivate a life of prayer with a pulse of action and reflection. Meals, the Sabbath and the festivals all become markers of praise and thankfulness directed to the “Life of all life.”
Fishbane says that some rabbis have understood the oral tradition that produced halakah to be the continuing words of God at Sinai. The reference to “all these words” spoken by God in Exodus 20:1 refers this ongoing tradition. The interesting thing to me about this is that the rabbis also acknowledge that various rabbis and schools disagree with one another. So “all these words” do not agree but are still, taken together, the words of God.
For Fishbane, I am beginning to think, the main problem of life is holding together the phenomenal world (the Adamic world, perhaps) and the deeper, hard-to-perceive ground of it all. This is a distinction he gets from Kantian philosophy. This is a pretty fruitful perspective even for those of us who might not fully buy into that way of seeing reality.