A Modest Jewish Proposal

A reporter recently asked me whether I thought Jewish women could be experts in Jewish law. “Of course,” I responded without hesitation.

The journalist was one of the horde of heralds who practically fell over one another a few weeks ago to celebrate – I’m sorry, report upon – the recent graduation of three women from a school whose aim is to place them in synagogues as rabbis, if not quite to call them that.

I elaborated on my response by citing the examples of my own wife and daughter. (We have several, all of them knowledgeable Jews, but I had in mind our youngest, about to be married but for now still at home.) “When I have a question, for instance, about what bracha, or blessing, to make on a food,” I explained, “they are the ones I ask.”

The reporter seemed surprised to hear that there could be questions about blessings. So I elaborated on the fact that much of an entire tractate of the Talmud deals with blessings on food and other things, and that there is a wealth of complex halachic material relating to the proper blessings a Jew is to make on different foods and special occasions. Since brachos entail invoking G-d’s name, I pointed out, it is important that they be made only when required, and that, when required, the proper blessing be made.

There wasn’t time to go into the underlying meaning of brachos, our need to recognize how blessed we are to be able to eat this food or that one, to have reached a milestone in the Jewish year, to have experienced thunder, lightning or an earthquake, or even to have digested one’s food (yes, there’s a blessing to be recited after leaving the bathroom).

The majority of brachos, however, and the volumes of halachic material thereon concern the proper blessings to be made before consuming a food and, if a certain amount is eaten, afterward.

There’s a movement in the larger world these days that promotes “mindful eating,” the conscious focusing on one’s food before consuming it and the retaining of that focus while doing so, slowly and deliberately. That approach dovetails well with the Jewish perspective on eating. We are indeed to stop and appreciate every morsel we consume; and brachos are the key to focusing us on that goal.

Unfortunately, many of us observant Jews are not sufficiently careful with our brachos, reciting them hurriedly and pro forma, without summoning the requisite attention to the meaning of their words, and often while doing something else: working, reading, conversing, even driving. What’s more, as above, the laws governing brachos can be very intricate; not having studied them is a recipe (I’m sorry) for error.

In the non-Orthodox Jewish world, to the best of my knowledge, there is little observance of brachos altogether.

Which leads me to a thought. With all the contemporary Jewish world’s disagreements and disagreeableness, all the polarized points of view and highly charged issues, might a small measure of pan-Jewish People unity be attainable by a collective embrace of brachos?

Brachos, after all, don’t touch upon issues like feminism (they are – well, almost all – gender-neutral) or insularity (they are recited on both cholent and crêpes Suzette). And brachos are not even within firing range of topics like drafting charedim in Israel or forcing changes in their educational system. In other words, they may well comprise a perfect potential Jewish unifier.

For those of us who identify unapologetically with the Jewish past and consider halacha sacrosanct, a renewed focus on brachos would mean strengthening our knowledge about the laws of brachos and undertaking to recite them properly. Instead of mumbling them, let us resolve to pronounce each word clearly and carefully. Instead of a mindless “shkolniyedvoro,” let us try harder to articulate our words and think about what we’re saying.

For the part of the Jewish world that does not consider itself governed by halacha at all, simply focusing on the Divine blessings inherent in our food, and acknowledging them with brachos, should present a wonderful opportunity to embrace a non-hot-button Jewish observance. There are many excellent English-language guides to the recitation of brachos available today.

And for Jews who embrace halacha in principle but feel a need to champion elements of contemporary societal mores, mindful eating and Jewish observance would seem a perfect pairing.

Imagine the importance and laws of brachos being spoken about from the pulpits of Orthodox shuls, Reform temples, feminist yeshivot and Jewish Federation meetings.

No, it won’t bring all Jews to agree on other things. But you know what they say about the journey of a thousand miles…

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

You can read this essay and others at rabbiavishafran.com

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