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Unscrolled Nitzavim: A Communal Praxis

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What is the Law? What do we know of its true nature? In what ways does it act upon us, restricting or sanctioning our actions?

The post Unscrolled Nitzavim: A Communal Praxis appeared first on Jewish Journal.

What is the Law? What do we know of its true nature? In what ways does it act upon us, restricting or sanctioning our actions? With what authority does it direct us left or right, conducting our hearts and speaking through our lips?

In the popular conception, the Law is external. It exists somewhere as words on text – symbols abstracted from life, and yet they come to shape the very nature of life itself in all of its unabstracted physicality. The Law is ink and paper, but it regulates blood and flesh, bone and tears.

As to the question of how it does so, we look to the enforcers and the courts. It is these institutions that serve as the point of transformation. Here, we imagine, the Law goes from the realm of the theoretical to the realm of physicality. Here, the Law is set loose upon us mortals, winding its way around our limbs, restricting some movements and leaving others unfettered.

Perhaps, however, this is not what the Law really is.

And perhaps, this is not how the Law really works.

“This Commandment which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach,” says Moses in Parashat Nitzavim. “It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea…

“No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

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With these words, Moses relocates the commonly assumed locus of the Law. It is not elsewhere. It is as close to you as your jugular. It is in your mouth and in your heart, and you shall know it by doing it.

With these words, Moses relocates the commonly assumed locus of the Law. It is not elsewhere. It is as close to you as your jugular. It is in your mouth and in your heart, and you shall know it by doing it.

According to Rabbi Leon Wiener Dow, the Law is a “communal religious praxis.” “The path of every individual who situates herself in the nexus of Jewish shared living,” writes Dow, “affects the whole truly, albeit diffusely.”

In other words, there is no Law outside of the Law as it is lived. It is not, as Moses reminds us, an external standard which we impose upon nature and society. It is not a grid superimposed on the world, cutting it into manageable squares. Rather, there is no separation between the Law as commanded and the Law as formulated in the diffuse, de-centered “intersubjective” web of communal doing.

If this is becoming too theoretical, allow be to bring it home. I had the very stressful privilege this week of getting to move to a new apartment in Somerville, MA, with two close friends. Beyond the normal tasks involved in a move, it was incumbent on me (as the most kosher-observant of the bunch) to kosher the kitchen.

I had never done this before. I consulted with my rabbi. I watched videos online. I bought some caustic oven cleaner along with some heat resistant gloves and goggles, and I got to work.

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I scrubbed, scoured, poured boiling water. I let the oven lie fallow and ran it on 500 degrees for an hour according to the instruction that I had received. Then it was time to take care of the countertops, the sink, and the fridge. When I was finished, I stepped back and admired my work. The kitchen was kosher.

Or was it?

That night – doubt entered my mind. Had I missed something microscopic? Had I performed the order of operations incorrectly? Would some morsel of impurity end up un-koshering all of my new dishes without my knowing?

I even wondered if I should call a Chabad rabbi to come by (for a not so small “donation” fee) to re-kosher the place on my behalf. (Yes, this service exists).

My worries reveal an unspoken supposition about the nature of the Law – namely that it is an external standard that my kitchen either lived up to or failed to live up to. Most terrifying of all, I would never know for sure.

These worries continued to unsettle me until I read Parashat Nitzavim. Reading Moses’ words, I untensed my back and un-furrowed my brow. I remembered that the Law is not something beyond me, but that it is rather known in the doing.

I had koshered the kitchen in the ways instructed to me by my trusted teacher and my trusted YouTube videos. I had given my whole heart over to the spiritual task of cleaning and renewing this space for the new life me and my roommates are going to live in it.

Considering all that, it was time to put the worries away. The thing to do now was not to call in a pro-Kosherer with a blow torch, but rather to gather my roommates and announce: “It’s time to eat.”

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Matthew Schultz is the author of the essay collection “What Came Before” (2020). He is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

The post Unscrolled Nitzavim: A Communal Praxis appeared first on Jewish Journal.

Source: Jewish Journal https://jewishjournal.com/judaism/340302/unscrolled-nitzavim-a-communal-praxis/

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