Function, Form, and the Future of Jewish Life

By Rabbi Ayalon Eliach

Mai nafka minah? What’s the practical difference?

The editors of the Babylonian Talmud asked this question regularly after citing two opposing viewpoints. The wisdom of this inquiry is that it recognizes that the stated disagreement only scratches the surface. Understanding the practical implications often excavates even more fundamental divergences in worldview and approach.

So, after reading the very thoughtful debate between Seth Chalmer and Andrés Spokoiny about whether we should give reasons for living a Jewish life, we found ourselves asking the question that we hoped would help uncover the deeper implications of their disagreement: Mai nafka minah?

On its face, the debate is about marketing. Seth argues that when making the case for engaging in Jewish life we should not offer reasons, while Andrés suggests that we should. Upon reflection, however, we think much more is at stake: Whether Jewish life should remain static or should evolve; whether Torah is merely something to live, or something living itself.

This divergence stems from another question that is inseparable from the one that Andrés and Seth addressed explicitly: What constitutes or counts as “Jewish life”?

Seth does not answer the question outright. Instead, he offers some examples: sounding the shofar, lighting Shabbos candles, speaking Jewish languages, donning tefillin, singing a nign, and eating maror. But what makes these examples Jewish?

According to Seth, it can’t be that they have some function. That would be a purpose, which he strongly opposes. Rather, it must be their “endurance,” their survival over many generations as Jewish practices. In other words, it is their pedigree that counts.

But valuing pedigree above all else does not leave room for innovation. Innovation is the opposite of endurance. It is disruptive and almost always done with a specific purpose in mind. If people did not have a reason to change the status quo, they wouldn’t create new things.

Toward the end of his essay, Seth makes this exact point:

In sermons every Rosh Hashanah, rabbis discuss many beautiful and inspiring meanings of the shofar. Somehow, no one ever suggests replacing the actual blasts with those sermons alone. Our hearts know the shofar isn’t reducible to the concepts it contains. The sound itself, as we experience it in our bodies, has the integrity of tangible reality.

If Jewish praxis, like shofar, has no function, innovation is simply not an option.

At Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, we do not advocate looking for a replacement for the shofar, but we do think it’s an interesting and necessary thought experiment to ponder. Like Andrés, we believe that Jewish “rites and cultural practices were [and should be] understood as vehicles of [a] mission, not just as devices to ensure the people’s folkloric continuity.” Accordingly, we must always ask whether the specific forms of Jewish life that we’ve inherited actually serve their functions, or if new forms are needed.

Not only does this reflect the historical reality that Jewish life has evolved over time (Jews did not always speak Yiddish, sing niggunim, or even don tefillin). It also offers a different model for answering the question of what counts as Jewish life.

If the “why,” the function, is essential, then form should follow function. We shouldn’t first determine whether something is Jewish simply because Jews did it in the past. Instead, we should ask what Jewish wisdom suggests we pursue in this world, and then develop applications for living out that wisdom at this particular time and place in history.

This not only opens the door for innovation in Jewish life. It makes it essential.

The Mishnah and the Talmud, two documents that capture some of the biggest revolutions in Jewish life, make this point consistently. The most explicit example, however, is found in a principle that appears throughout these canonical works.

Rereading Psalms 119:126, the rabbis reinterpret the verse to mean “it is time to do God’s will by destroying the Torah.” They then use this principle to justify incredibly disruptive innovations – saying God’s name, which cannot be uttered in vain, on a regular basis (Mishnah Berakhot 9:5); transcribing words of oral Torah, whose physical writing had previously been prohibited (Babylonian Talmud Temurah 14b) – that broke from existing practices and norms.

The essential point is that they believed that doing God’s will was not synonymous with the forms that they inherited. Instead, they saw Jewish life as an accumulated and accumulating wisdom tradition whose applications changed based on the needs of the time. Whether we follow their charge or limit ourselves to the forms that happened to be right for their moment in history is the question that we all face.

So what’s the nafka minah of whether we look for a “why”?

In short, the future of Jewish life.

Rabbi Ayalon Eliach is the Director of Learning and Strategic Communications at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah.