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1. Fascination

There is no other way, I think, to describe a Jewish traditional mind thinking in Hebrew.

The Hebrew titles of the four sections of the Shulchan Arukh fascinate. These names were assigned by the Tur:

Orekh Chay’im עוֹרך חיים A Structured Life
Yoreh Déa יוֹרה דעה Incisive Opinion
Eben Ha’Ezer אבן העזר The Basis of Aid
Choshen Mishpat חוֹשן משפט Sensitivity & Judgement

The English titles are mine, and there’s a problem with them: each of them is incorrect.

Hebrew can only ever be interpreted in English. Some languages translate with some precision, Hebrew is not one of them, and even those that do translate are subject to the Italian pun that “the translator is a traitor” (il traduttore è un traditore). Every translator knows this, yet Hebrew differs fundamentally, a handicap not encountered when translating Romance or Germanic languages to English: interpretation requires, I think, that we betray one language (Hebrew) to lie in another (English).

My interpretations of the arba turim (four rows -- or does tur mean “column”?) are based on what I think an adequate English thought is, not on what analog the Hebrew words might have in English. I’ll confine the remainder of these remarks to the interpretation of Yoreh Déa.

The interpretation “Incisive Opinion” fits Yoreh Déa’s context, I think, but it’s important I stress this: how the title is understood in Hebrew is irrelevent to how we understand it in English. The Hebrew noun yoreh is based on a shoresh (root) which nourises two separate verbs: “to shoot” and “to instruct”.

What can we learn from the relationship of marksmanship ( לירות ) to scholarship ( להורות )? Both, I think, trust the path -- halacha. Shooting an arrow, shooting a gun, every marksman ultimately relies on the wind to ensure his (her) shot hits true. Teaching a science, teaching an art, every scholar ultimately relies on what (or how) the learner thinks. Thoughts, I think, are the tradewinds of the mind.

And that is the fascination of Hebrew.

2. Names

The separation of ideas into discrete rubrics is a western preference which, I think, does not express itself the same way in Jewish tradition. Law is law to the western mind, ethics are ethics, and there may be an ethic of law but there is no law of ethics. This is Jaberwocky to an eastern mind, and the Jewish traditional mind is eastern: halacha is the Dao, not the Law. A sea of strong currents, halacha is ethics, law, religion, spirituality, each flowing in and out of the other.

What is the Dao? It is another Hebrew fascination: דאִיָה means “glide”. You were expecting, maybe, a Chinese metaphysical explanation? No. But I will leave you with this comparison: the Chinese Dao expresses “flow”, and are we to suggest that gliding is not related? Can one glide without when the air doesn’t flow? Interpretation is obligated to art, not to science, and so I merely note your objection of my flawed method.

I have no idea what we mean by halacha. This, however, is what I think.

Built on the Hebrew verb “to walk”, halacha is the path we take to a worthwhile destination. We oft-speak of “owning” an aspiration in English. Halacha is not aspirational, it is not the objective, it is the goal: it is not something to own, it is something already owned. If so, why do Jewish traditional movements define themselves by their attitudes to halacha?

They don’t. Orthodox Judaism defines Jewish traditional movements this way, the other movements are content to be so defined, and life goes on. It’s ridiculous, I think, and I’m not content to let the matter alone. The Jewish traditional trends we call “liberal” or “progressive” have failed to innovate halacha because that was something the Orthodox did -- except that it isn’t. Modern Orthodox Judaism has defined itself by not innovating halacha. In consequence?

A tragedy.

Rabbis in the Orthodox movements won’t take risks with halacha, rabbis in other movements don’t know how  to take risks with halacha, and so we all have mitpalelim groping about in the dark because their rabbis don’t know how to turn on the light.

It ends here.

Do we need a halacha of chaplaincy? If halacha is law, no; I hope I’ve established that halacha is not law? Chaplaincy deals with tremendously complex moral and ethical issues. This is so now and it has likely always been so. We need a halacha of chaplaincy to guide us.

The Tur’s division of halacha into arba turim [ארבעה טורים] “four rows” remains the norm almost 700 years later. The Tur, I think, had two reasons in devising this elegant system: he wanted to classify halacha categorically, thus restoring an intent of the Mishna ignored by the Gemara; and he wanted to give guidance as to when rabbinic intervention was required. Let’s look at his structure:

Do We Need A Rabbi?

Orekh Chay’im [עוֹרך חיים]

Jewish observance based on she’hazman gerama [שהזמן גרמה], e.g., rooted in time. Prayer, holy days, and social ethics. Minimal rabbinic intervention.

Yoreh Déah [יוֹרה דעה]

Jewish observance not based on she’hazman gerama, such as mourning, palliation, kashrut, brit mila, conversion to Judaism, and many others. Rabbininc intervention is generally assumed.

Eben Ha’Ezer [אבן העזר] 

Marriage, divorce, and sexual conduct. Rabbinic intervention is not required with respect to marriage, but is now generally assumed. Specific expertise is essential with respect to divorce.

Choshen Mishpat [חוֹשן משפט] 

Rabbininc intervention is generally assumed in our time. Expertise is essential with respect to torts and criminal law. Tort law, criminal law, judicial procedure.

The halacha of chaplaincy is found in Yoreh Déa, the only one of the four turim that assumes rabbinic intervention is required.

It is helpful, I think, to define chaplaincy. It’s difficult to find guidance from traditional Hebrew, which only offers komér - כּוֹמר - and that simply will not do. Modern Hebrew must guide us. Two words in Ivrit Modernit work for us, I think -- mid’rakh - מדרך - and mevar’ékh - מברך. A chaplain first offers, I think, a foothold (מדרך) on the steep mountainside we call G!d’s Will. Only later, and only if asked, does a chaplain offer blessing (מברך). This brings us to a general definition of chaplaincy.

Chaplaincy is, I think, the use of particular religious education to address general spiritual distress. Particular religious education? Someone trained in a specific religious tradition: a rabbi, cantor, priest, minister, imam, elder, whatever. Chaplaincy? The transconfessional application of a particular religious education. Rabbis teach Judaism, generally this is useful only for Jews, but chaplains apply it: a Jewish chaplain uses his (her) Jewish lived experience to address the universal distress people encounter when they are in spiritual pain. How are we to do this without standards of care and practice?


Chaplaincy is a mission of presence. It is not (or should not) be any type of ministry: a chaplain lives faith to apply it rather than teaches faith to be applied. This is almost opposite to what a rabbi does. Chaplains reconcile G!d to the world, not the world to G!d. I bring G!d to the world because I need G!d. Chaplaincy’s mission of presence must be entirely humanistic  I think, and this means chaplaincy is neither spiritual nor religious.

Religion may be a type of faith, but faith does not imply religion. Whether or not you need G!d is irrelevant to me — you’re on your own in this matter. My lived experience includes G!d for reasons I am free to reveal if I think it relevant to our relationship. Anyone may access how I experience G!d. I’ve neither intent nor interest in proving their need for my G!d — or any G!d, for that matter.