These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Coercion – an inner struggle

Posted on February 6, 2012 by J. Belasco

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I find that I would like to explore more intensively the question of where flexibility exists within halacha and what to do with conflict between the halachic system and my other values. This is particularly important for me right now, since I am on the brink of moving out of the bubble of Pardes and Jerusalem, and into an American Jewish community where I will have to decide what I want my practice to look like in an environment much less supportive of halachic observance.

After a year and a half at Pardes, one of my biggest complaints is that Pardes is non-coercive. I have found that I grow and reach my potential best when I have some outside pressure helping to keep me on the path toward a long-term goal, and I have become aware recently that I need to seek out such coercive environments for myself. I am working, for instance, on developing a regular davening practice, but in all honesty, it’s not easy to make myself get up an hour early for minyan, particularly when I know it’s optional. I would benefit, I think, from some coercion in developing what I think could become a deeply meaningful practice of daily prayer. Of course, one of the downsides of coercion is that it denies the person being coerced the opportunity to make independent decisions.

On the flip side, while I have become more observant during my time at Pardes, I have still reserved the right to decide for myself when not to observe halacha. I try, for instance, to take a “value-based” approach to Shabbat – that is, I keep Shabbat generally, and will not break it just because I feel like it, but if something comes up that I feel is a genuine value conflict – a political event, a friend in need – I will evaluate the situation and decide, sometimes, that Shabbat is the less important value. Therefore, I am somewhat anxious about committing myself fully to observance, and giving up this ability to toggle between value systems. At the same time, I am excited to find out what happens for me on an experiential level when I submit to halacha as an overriding value… I am still seeking to determine what chovah (halakhic obligation) means to me as a contemporary, philosophically liberal Jew.