Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish are two of the greatest sparring partners in the Talmud. The story of their meeting and later falling out contains an unlooked-for treasure on the subject of moral responsibility.
Halakhah is a compromise between ideals and real life situations. The truly great halakhic decisors are those who manage this compromise in ways that not only bring more kindness into the world, but also show others how to do the same.
Rav Elli Fischer recently “came out” as an orthodox rabbi willing to perform weddings outside of the official Israeli rabbanut. He joins a number of other rabbis who are taking steps to bypass a rabbanut that is seen by most Israelis as corrupt and detached from the needs of the people. This clash is an unfortunate result of the political reality at the foundation of the modern State of Israel. While Halakhah and the State of Israel are both expressions of the Jewish drive for self improvement, they are built on a opposing organizational structures.
For the past six weeks, I’ve enjoyed a new and very rewarding experience: I participated in an online course with the intriguing title: The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. The course, taught by Jacob Wright, argues that the Tanakh was aimed at providing a blueprint for a stateless nation. This idea isn’t new; it is central to the writings of Max Kadushin and Daniel Elazar. But Dr. Wright manages to give concrete and vivid support to the idea. While Kadushin looked at oral traditions that grew out of the Torah, Wright traces historical trends evident in the text itself.
We’re used to hearing that this or that halakhic impasse can be resolved only by the authority of a new Sanhedrin. The problem of course is that a Sanhedrin cannot be set up without a unanimous decision of all the “greats” of a single generation–something that is unlikely to happen in the near future. But is re-establishing the Sanhedrin really such a great idea, even if it were doable?
Halakhah is like a mansion, with rooms within rooms, mysterious hallways, and whimsical staircases; with renovations and additions made by past generations. The place is too vast for anyone to ever explore it all. And of course, it’s not perfect; there are places where the roof leaks, letting in the winter rains. But even with all its faults, one has only to make the journey down to the earliest floors to see how solid is the foundation.
Halakhah is the DNA of of Am Yisrael, and evolves over generations in response to changes in the environment. The mechanism for change however is the individual Jew, or at times, the individual Jewish community. Halakhah is case law, and addresses each individual case on a sui generis basis. But what is most intriguing about all this is that there is no central governing authority, and–even more importantly–no agenda. The reason why this is necessarily so comes from three diverse disciplines: organizational dynamics, mathematical logic, and chaos theory.