Contemporary Jews and Halakhah

Jews of different stripes differ greatly with respect to their assessment of the role Jewish law should play today?and each camp has much to learn from the others.

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But in the context of modernity and post-modernity, traditional ideas about revelation came under new scrutiny. Shouldn't each generation's interpretations be getting marginally better, not worse? After all, even if we ourselves are short, we stand on the shoulders of all the generations of giants before us. Some contemporary approaches to halakhah celebrate the impact of our modern, empiricist, voluntary society on Jewish law, and others bemoan it, but all strive to bring the essence of the past solidly into the future.

According to an old joke, a rather radical rabbi was expounding his views when a congregant challenged him with the most direct question he could imagine: “Rabbi, do you or do you not believe that God gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai?” The rabbi smiled, and answered, “Absolutely I do--depending on what you mean by Torah, when you think Sinai happened, how you envision God, and who you think Moses was!” Of course, how we understand revelation affects our halakhic outlook. A literal reading of the biblical account of revelation suggests fuller observance of traditional halakhah, while understanding Sinai metaphorically can lead to liberal legal views.

But contemporary issues in halakhah are not always so simple as the difference between traditionalist and liberal readings. Feminists across all movements address the near-absence of female influences shaping the tradition, and seek to redress the under-representation even today of women among those who interpret the law. The Mishpat Ivri approach in modern Israeli law--the term, meaning “Hebrew law,” is deliberately used as an alternative to the term “halakhah”--treats the Jewish legal tradition as a potential precedent even within the state's secular courts, especially on civil matters. And those who echo the prominent 20th century American Jewish thinker Mordechai Kaplan's adage that “halakhah gets a vote, not a veto” will likely see halakhah (law) and minhag (custom) as basically the same, since both are “folkways,” the ways in which Jewish people historically act.

We relate to halakhah for both its divinely revealed nature and its humanly developed nature. Ever since the early second century CE--when Bava Metzia 59b records Rabbi Yehoshua twisting Deuteronomy 30:12 (“It is not in the heavens”) to mean “humans make the rules, and God stays out of it”--the halakhic process itself has been at least as important as the particular rulings it has begotten. And the ultimate question about the halakhic process is, “Who decides?”

The issue of where ultimate halakhic authority lies is the one that differs most across the Jewish religious movements. For Orthodoxy, it resides with the g'dolei hador, the greatest of today's rabbis, who remain as loyal as possible to the corpus of halakhah received from prior generations. Conservative Judaism invests today's local rabbis, who privilege traditional Jewish law but admit all factors into their decision-making, with greatest authority. Reconstructionist autonomy lies mainly in communal decision-making, through a process bringing together classical Jewish texts, contemporary norms, and personal experiences and preferences. Reform Judaism allows the individual to retain ultimate authority, though always within certain ethical parameters, and usually with serious attention to the voice of tradition.

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Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.