It often surprises those who know Jews only as “the people of the Book” that the greater part of Jewish observance is not to be found in the written Torah at all. The Judaism we know today would be unrecognizable to those who stood at Sinai. There are those who argue that this process of continual re-interpretation has made the Judaism of our day less “authentic” than that of our ancestors’ time. And yet, if we believe that God has had a hand in our history, we must see the Torah as being continuously given via the same hand that puts these challenges in our path and requires us to adapt to them.
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.
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!
One of the most quoted Talmudic stories is the story of the Tanur shel Akhnai, the story of a debate between the famous R’ Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the one side and the rest of the sages of Israel on the other side. This is the story of a dramatic upheaval in the Jewish world, whose echoes continue to reverberate down through the centuries to the present day.
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 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.