Part 4 of The Problem and Future of True Halacha
Excerpts from Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, New York, August 2017. Now available for pre-order on the Urim website.*
Part 1: https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/problem-future-true-halacha/ ;
Part 2: https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/halachic-fundamentalism-intellectual-dishonesty/
Part 3: https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/halacha-trouble-comfortable/
Psychologists tell us that one of man’s greatest enemies today is boredom. Sometimes, when reading a paper or popular journal, watching television or a DVD, using an MP3 or iPod, or just listening to the old-fashioned radio, we are confronted with the most absurd manifestations of dullness and apathy. Believe it or not, there are people who spend their time rolling around Europe in a barrel, and couples who dance the salsa for hours upon hours in order to break a record. Others seek entry into the Guinness World Records by developing the stunning art of eating more ice cream than any human since the days of prehistoric man.
What is boredom? It is a disorder that has stricken our modern world as a result of our wishes being too easily and too quickly satisfied. Once the urge has been fulfilled, we immediately feel the pressure of new urges because we cannot live without them. We are like deep-sea fish. We thrive on atmospheric pressure, and without it we are lost. Since Western man is easily able to satisfy most of his wishes, he begins to look for absurd pursuits to satiate his urges.
Our Sages make a very interesting point when they say a man’s character can be uncovered in three different ways: be-kiso, be-koso, uve-ka’aso—by his pocket; is he a miser or a spendthrift? By his cup; how does he hold alcoholic intake? And by his temper; how does he control himself when provoked? But according to one of the Sages, there is a fourth test: af besachako—also by how he plays, i.e., how he spends his free time.
One of the great blessings of our day is that more and more young people are starting to realize that there is more to life than parties and clubs. Many of them are showing a keen interest in matters of the spirit. Lectures on religion and philosophy in famous universities and other places of learning are becoming more and more popular. Young people are looking for existential meaning and a high-quality spiritual mission. It is here that Halacha has to tap in and show that it is able to dare to respond to this challenge. By showing that it has a wealth of different ideas, and even opposing rulings, it is able to fascinate many young people who live and love pluralism. Just like poetry, Halacha must become an expression of excited passion, and it can only do so by causing continuous earthquakes accompanied by eternal fever, which will throw young people off their feet in total surprise.
Jewish Self Discovery
In Israel, we see a large number of secular young men and women interested in studying Talmud, Halacha, Midrash, and Jewish Philosophy in their attempt to understand what it means to be a Jew and what Judaism has to offer the world.
Most interesting is the fact that young people are finding their way back to Judaism in rather unconventional ways. Official outreach programs are losing their grip on Israeli society. They are replaced by a new phenomenon: Jewish self-discovery. It is not uncommon to see young bareheaded men with long hair, earrings and tzitzit; others eating kosher, but never entering a synagogue; young women lighting candles on Friday afternoon without observing Shabbat, praying with great fervor and going off to a dance party. There are even committed atheists who will enthusiastically join prayer events. And women, whose dress code perhaps leaves much to be desired, sincerely kissing mezuzot before entering a shopping mall or gym.
Surely not all of this is a sign of maturity—no doubt in certain cases it is superstition; still, what we observe is people searching for a sense of authenticity.
No to Religious Plagiarism
It is an aversion to religious plagiarism that keeps these people out of mainstream Judaism and the conventional Halacha. By paving their own way, they develop a fresh approach to what Judaism is really all about—being open to new adventures. They are keenly aware that one cannot passively inherit Judaism and its vital companion, Halacha; they realize that one needs to discover it on one’s own.
Spiritually, nothing can be worse than trying to fit these people into mainstream Judaism and conventional Halacha. The religious establishment could make no greater mistake than to interfere in this development and start giving advice. All it can do is be there to help when asked. By trying to force its views on these people, it will uproot the seeds that have been carefully planted.
What the religious establishment needs to realize is that Halacha itself has generally fallen victim to boredom. Rituals and prayers are often mechanical and do not touch the soul. Today, show and ceremony must be minimized in Judaism. Ceremonies are for the eye, but Judaism is an appeal to the spirit. The only Biblically required ceremony in today’s synagogue service is the blessings of the priests, and even then the congregation is asked to close its eyes!
In Biblical days the Halacha was astir while the world was sleeping. Today the world is astir while the Halacha is sleeping. (Heschel) Only when it wakes up and starts to challenge our society with novel ideas and rulings will it once more be the vital mover of Jewish life. It must be prepared to look inward, challenge its own verdicts and once again understand that its main function is to protest and rebel.
We are in desperate need of bold ideas that will place the Halacha in the center of our lives and make us receptive to God’s presence through a daring new encounter with Him. Let it be heroic. Not staid and comfortable, but painful and hard-won; a deep breath in the midst of the ongoing conflict ever-present in the heart of humankind.
To forget this is to betray Judaism.
* Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage is available for pre-order on the Urim Publications website: urimpublications.com/jewish-law-as-rebellion-a-plea-for-religious-authenticity-and-halachic-courage.html
 Eruvin 65b.
 Ritual fringes knotted on each corner of a four-cornered garment, which religious Jews wear under their shirts as a remembrance of God and His commandments. See Bamidbar 15:37–41.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, quoted in Samuel H. Dresner, I Asked for Wonder (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983), 87.
Questions to Ponder from the DCA Think Tank
1) R. Cardozo describes the crisis of halacha as a contemporary phenomenon, yet his proposed remedy is to return to halacha’s embryonic phase before it was codified in the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Arukh, namely the Talmud. So, is the “embalming” of halacha a contemporary phenomenon or is it a very old one?
2) A traditional view has it that freedom of thought and diversity of opinion is legitimate within the realm of agadah but halacha requires uniformity. What is the reason for demanding uniformity in halachic practice? Is it driven by a pragmatic need to maintain social cohesion within the community? If so, is that need as strong today as it was in former times, or is it perhaps even stronger?
We live in pluralistic times. Does that mean we are better equipped to maintain social cohesion while accepting greater diversity of halachic practice?
3) A traditional view has it that halacha is something that is transmitted unchanged, and in an objective manner, from generation to generation – from Sinai, via the Talmud, to the present day. Does R. Cardozo’s call for novelty and creativity contradict this traditional view? Can the two views be squared?
Can it be said that what is unchanging are the deep, underlying values that inspire halacha while the detailed rules adapt to meet the needs of each generation? Is there precedent for such an approach in the halachic literature or is such an approach itself an innovation?
4) A traditional view has it that halachic developments, to the extent they occur, are a result of poskim (halachic decisors) responding to the needs of the age – in other words a “top down” model of change. On the other hand, Rav Kook writes of periods in which religious leadership becomes stultified and religious revival comes about through the rebellious behaviour of the people. Do you think the halachic innovation that R. Cardozo calls for in his extended essay will come about through a “top down” or a “bottom up” process? That is to say, to what extent do you think the contemporary rabbinic establishment is capable of initiating such changes; and to what extent do you think change will come about through grass roots initiatives (that may eventually receive retrospective rabbinic confirmation)?