In a recent blog post, DCA Think Tank member, E.S. raised some intriguing questions regarding the role of halacha in general in the public life of the State of Israel:
If one has larger ambitions for the Jewish tradition—if one wants to see it playing a role in shaping the public life and public culture of the nation—then it is going to have to speak a new language, it is going to have to inspire an audience that is not predisposed to accept the axioms of the halachic system (for example, that all issues of law and morality are decided though the close, formalistic reading of ancient texts) and is not subject to the pressures of conformity operating within the halachic community.
Most orthodox Jews will not be willing to take this radical step. They will be content for their Jewish lives to continue being bounded by the walls of the halachic community and by halacha to in its traditional form
And yet, a lot of the solutions to our halakhic and cultural dilemmas are already “out there” in our public and/or halakhic space. For example, there are halakhicly-valid solutions to the recent “working on the railroad” fracass. Several t’shuvot were written by R’ Shaul Yisraeli back in the 60s on the whole issue of Jewish policemen, soldiers, etc. working on Shabbat. He coined a new halakhic category — Machshir Pikuah Nefes, מכשיר פיקוח נפש — to allow for the sort of labor that needs to be happening 24/7 if any modern state is to survive. (See for example: http://www.zomet.org.il/_Uploads/dbsAttachedFiles/tm-3-083isre.pdf)
Sadly, these t’shuvot did not make it into Bar Ilan’s extensive Responsa Project ( פרויקט השו״ת ) due to budgetary fears — the curators of the collection are worried about losing Hareidi funding. But while Hareidi communities struggle to preserve a way of life built for, and by, the galut, Israeli society seems to be putting out exactly the kind of innovative fruits that Rav Cardozo is advocating. Consider the “929 Project” which is bringing Israelis across religious and cultural divides to explore their written history as never before.
E.S. points out (rightly, I think) that secular interest in Jewish culture is not enough:
Rabbi Cardozo’s argument is that there are ways of weaving at least some awareness of Shabbat into the public awareness, even when Shabbat is being violated in the service of the public. I have to agree that his suggestions sound far more realistic than my imagined conversation between the Traditionalist and the Innovator. It’s true that many secular Israelis are drawn to these kinds of rituals (kiddush etc.) and also true that they are a way of affirming tradition and origin.
The concern, I suppose, is that this isn’t enough. This kind of ritual practice risks becoming merely sentimental. If the idea of Shabbat doesn’t play a more substantive role in our public life, if it doesn’t bear rich cultural meanings beyond the merely sentimental, it will simply die out—and not be deeply mourned.
Granted, without some form of concrete observance, secular Judaism likely won’t survive in the long term. We’ve had plenty of periods in the past were secular holidays of all sorts were introduced into the calendar. The only ones to survive are those, like Hanukkah and Purim, that could somehow be woven into our cultural DNA by linking them with observances and traditional value concepts (see Max Kadushin’s Organic Thinking).
But even if all this “secular” interest in Jewish sources ends up being sterile, in the way of most hybrids, it seems to me that it is already playing a beneficial role in bringing down barriers between different sectors. When a rock star writes a D’var Torah and posts it on a popular site like the 929 site, she makes a statement: “This belongs to all of us!” When a Hareidi yeshiva bachur enrolls in a class at the Yammei Iyyun baTanakh comparing Torah Law with Hamurrabi’s Code, he’s also making a statement: “We needn’t fear academic critiques”. All of these “barrier-breaking” initiatives are part of our growing pains as we get used to being a sovereign people again.
I think that in this process, we’re going to see halakhah being uprooted and transplanted, sometimes even being cut back to its deepest roots and regrown in a larger pot, where it can flower more freely. This will probably result in the “secularization” of some of our halakhot, which will be met from the other side by an increasing “Judification” of our secular society. Some of this will be in reaction to the globalization that E.S. mentioned, and some may be under the influence of globalization.
We’ve had a longer and more varied education than any other people on the planet; we’ve been given the tools to handle these challenges. Those who see the galut way of life as the only way to survive as a nation are right, at least in one way: the lessons learned during the galut are crucial to surviving in an increasingly decentralized and globalized world.
Both issues that E.S. raised: Israel’s participation in the Olympics and public works on Shabbat illustrate the new challenges of adapting to the Geulah. Jewish participation in the Olympics is part of the face we present to the rest of the world. How we handle public works on Shabbat is part of the face we present to ourselves. These are exactly the places where the “secularization of halakhah” can meet the “Judification of secular society” and open a dialog.