There is as hidden conditional phrase that precedes every mitzva and halacha. It goes like this, “If you want to participate in refining the world and refining yourself, then do…..(or refrain from……)”. Torah and Mitzvot are not arbitrary. They’re also not an excuse for any select group to assume power by running the rest of us through a maze. There is no such thing as orthodox, conservative, reform, renewal reconstructionist halacha. No more so than there are orthodox, conservative, reform, renewal or reconstructionist instructions to assemble a table from Ikea, no more so than denominational directions to get from your house to the grocery store. Halacha, which literally means “the walking”, gives you an opportunity, as well as detailed instructions, at just about every moment of your life, to participate in this tikkun, repair, which the mandate for all humanity.
No one goes to Ikea, schlepps home an enormous carton, opens it and, after taking a look at the instructions stomps off declaring that they have absolutely no interest and won’t be forced to “put three anchor screws into the half-drilled holes along the edge”. If you want the couch you follow the instructions.
In many ways, halacha is no more complicated than that. Granted, it’s much more time-consuming, but it’s also infinitely more complex and engaging. Also, we don’t find the same instant gratification of a beautiful and comfortable couch after just a few hours work because completing the work of Creation, bringing the Universe to its fullest states of perfection is at least a little larger job than assembling furniture. But the principle is the same. If you want X do Y.
Of course, there’s no point in turning the same screw in the same direction year after year after millennium after millennium. The immediate job always changes since, one hopes at least, that some of our earlier efforts actually succeeded and as we enter new phases there are new tasks–once we’ve assembled one section of the couch it’s time to move to that which is yet to be done and has its own instructions. But since each of us is also considered a complete universe, עולם קטן (Olam Katan), relatively similar to all others who’ve come before us and will come after us, many of the general instructions, Shabbat, Kashrut, Limmud Torah, Tzedaka, Tefilla and others will remain constant and timeless (although the way we perform these mitzvot has evolved, and will continue to evolve in relationship to what specific repairs, tikkunim, we’re engaged it at the moment as well as the current external reality (technology, the relative safety/vulnerability of Jews in a particular place, the possibility of living in Eretz Yisrael, etc.)).
Halacha is an art. Following this road-map brings us ever-closer to our goal, even though we’ve yet to reach it. It always has been tweaked when necessary, but by “engineers” who are able to envision not only our current position while keeping an eye on the destination, but who also understand the terrain in between. But these “engineers”, our giants of halacha (and we desperately need some of them now) aren’t limited by empiricism, popular trends or other narrow tools when they evaluate our progress and chart our next steps–not only are they trained in that very special type of thinking unique to the Jewish talmudic tradition: simultaneous linear/lateral, empirical/intuitive, practical/esthetic processing, they have also cultivated a highly sensitive openness to spiritual enlightenment (which is just one product of Tefilla and Torah learning and Ma’asim Tovim (righteous actions)). Halacha evolves but only in ways to bring us closer to our goal. When it changes merely to make it more convenient, “easier”, less embarrassing to our neighbors, just like any wrong turn it brings us farther away.
Halacha is frustrating, just like any difficult task has frustrating periods. But it also brings satisfaction, analogous to but exceeding (compare the scale of perfecting the world to building furniture….) to our hypothetical couch.
But, for we Jews, at least, Torah and Mitzvot are the tools we have. They are magnificent and they are powerful. They are also compulsory, if….
If we want to bring the world to its highest possible state of perfection.