In the 1995 film The American President, President Andrew Shepherd’s daughter gives him some famous advice as he prepares to go out on a date with Sydney Ellen Wade- make sure to complement her shoes.
This is a real pearl of wisdom. I always find myself giving happy and positive comments on the shoes that some of my colleagues wear to work. Not to stereotype (but I will), but there’s something to be said for the fact that women (and men!!!) do love getting compliments on their shoes.
In an interesting coincidence, my daughter is a two-year-old shoe aficionado, who walks around the house both amassing all of her shoes in one place and constantly changing them. It’s remarkable.
Speaking of shoes, for the past year my wife and I have become big fans of the Vibram Five Fingers shoes. As a runner who kept getting both plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis, since I have been running with the Vibrams I haven’t have a recurrence of either injury and in fact just destroyed my previous 10K personal best by twenty seconds. While I initially dismissed these shoes as fads, I’m becoming convinced there’s something important going on with these shoes.
And believe me, they are conversation starters. Over the course of a recent weekend away in Florida for a wedding, my wife and I got no fewer than twenty questions and comments about our footwear.
So where am I going with this?
How does my experience running in and wearing Vibrams at all speak to bigger questions about Judaism?
Bear with me.
For those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I like ancient Judaism. Especially those vestiges of ancient Judaism that we still talk about and do in some fashion. A great case in point is the Lulav and Etrog. When we read in Leviticus about taking the fruit of hadar trees and the boughs of leafy trees and using them to celebrate Sukkot, that’s not so different from what we do today. Similarly, when we sound of Shofar, it is a direct connection to an instrument that Jews have been using for assorted purposes since the time of the Torah. That’s cool.
Along the same lines, we have the Vibrams, and the question of how humans both run and protect their feet. Advocates of barefoot running like to point out that homo sapiens evolved having to run barefoot, or with minimal pieces of leather lashed to their feet, and this is the original human design for running efficiency. There is a vocal subset of runners and doctors who claim that all the innovations in running shoe technology (overpronation! Superpronation! Stability control! And so on…) have done nothing except to promote running injuries by trying to get the human foot to run on what is essentially a heavier-than-necessary shoe that tries to cushion you so much that it feels like running on marshmallows. Given the fact that running injuries still happen more or less exactly as much as they used to, despite all the fancy innovations in footwear, it’s hard to dismiss this notion.
To make the direct connection to Judaism I would suggest that our fundamental text is the Torah, and all of the innovations, interpretations, responsa, and Halakhic debates are simply enhancing the original text. In some cases, it’s more natural to simply go back to the basics and read about Judaism as it was originally designed.
Of course it’s not that easy. Not everyone has feet (or knees) that are designed for barefoot running, just as there are mitzvot in the Torah that don’t work anymore. But if you forgive me those exceptions I think this argument is worth making. Barefoot running, if defined as running as we were built and designed to do as humans, can be put side-by-side with a vision that holds the Torah as the structure that was built and designed for us to use above all others.
Call me an essentialist. Call me a minimalist. Call me simplistic. But there’s a reason that I keep this Tanakh by my bed and why it’s always easy to just open it up and start reading it again. If the Torah is our foundational narrative, then it’s worth reading over and over to remind ourselves how Judaism was originally designed.
Wait a minute.
That’s exactly what we do every year.
Maybe there’s something to this idea…