Orthodox Judaism & Halakhah

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Orthodox Judaism seeks to preserve Jewish practice as inherited from the pre-modern period. In the passage before the one reprinted below, the author--a leading advocate of "centrist" or "modern" Orthodoxy--notes three of the intellectual and moral challenges posed by modernity: (1) Adherence to Jewish law is voluntary since Jewish communities lost the power to sanction their members; (2) modern Jews have attitudes formed by non-Jewish society that make the demands of Jewish law no longer self-evident; and (3) the rise of Jewish statehood in Israel raises new questions. Below, he reviews the ways in which Jewish law responds to these contemporary challenges. Reprinted with permission from Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought after the Holocaust, published by Manchester University Press.

[The dilemmas noted above] form the core of the recent argument about the nature of halakhah [Jewish law] and its responsiveness to new circumstances. They can be summarized in a single question. The situation of halakhah has changed. Can halakhah itself change?

The question touches on fundamentals. At the core of Jewish law are the commands and prohibitions set forth in the Mosaic books. Having been given by God, they can be repealed only by God. Having been accepted by the Israelites as the terms of the covenant, they can be abandoned by Jews only at the cost of forsaking the covenant.

To these propositions must be added two others. The first is that only the revelation granted to Moses had the force of divine legislative authority. Subsequent prophets were not authorized to make permanent changes in the law. The second relates to halakhic interpretation. The concept of an Oral Law, of equal authority with the Written Law, implies that the Torah cannot be legitimately interpreted without reference to tradition.

These principles are central to Judaism and were the cause of three of the great schisms in Jewish history. The Sadducees and later the Karaites denied the binding force of the oral tradition. The early Christians, Paul in particular, denied that the commandments could not be revoked. He argued that they had been and that a new covenant was now in force. The rabbis for their part held firmly to their view of the immutabilityof the law and traditions revealed at Sinai. The law is eternal because the covenant is eternal. On that faith, Jewish destiny depends.

God's Law is Unchanging, but Its Application Does Change

Torah does not change. But in one sense, halakhah does change. For halakhah is the application of Torah to specific circumstance, and circumstances change. What then are the parameters within which the law is given to adjustment? This is Maimonides' classic formulation:

"God knew that the judgements of the Law will always require an extension in some cases and curtailment in others, according to place, event and circumstance. He therefore forbade adding to or subtracting from the Law ... but at the same time gave permission to the sages--the Great Sanhedrin--of every generation to make fences around the judgements of the Law for their protection ... and similarly they have the power temporarily to dispense with some religious act prescribed in the Law or to allow that which is forbidden if exceptional events and circumstances require it ... By this method the Law will remain permanently the same but yet will admit at all times and under all circumstances of such temporary modifications as are indispensable."

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dr. Jonathan Sacks is the Chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth and the author of A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion. The British Chief Rabbi's office maintains a website: chiefrabbi.org.