Halakhah must continually be updated and revised to take into account changing circumstances, but what is important is the process by which this takes place. Beit Shammai’s “Eighteen Rulings” provides a valuable lesson.
This week’s Torah reading, parashat Mattot-Masai, rounds off Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers). Among the narratives of battles, conquests, and politics, we can also discern a subtle shift in divine-human relations: only in the last few parshiot do human beings begin bringing questions and requests to change the law. What brought about this change?
As I make my way through the stack of books that will go into the writing of my next book, probably the one that I return to most is Eliezer Berkovits’ classic Not in Heaven. Rabbi Berkovits argues for the application of human reason in deciding Halakhah, but not for the reasons commonly believed!
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.