Part 2 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.*
Above all, we see dishonest attempts to portray halachic fundamentalism as a genuinely open-minded intellectual position, while in truth it is nothing of the sort. Great visions of the past are misused and abused. Today we are seeing many people taught that they must imitate so as to belong to the religious camp. Spiritual plagiarism (a term coined by Heschel) has been adopted as the appropriate way of religious life and thought.
It is true that there are still dissidents within the world of Halacha today—and they are growing in number. There are even some yeshivot and institutions that dissent, but the great tragedy is that these places speak in a small voice, which the religious establishment is unable to hear. Instead, the establishment puts its weight behind the insipid and the trivial, and has fallen in love with the uncompromising flatness of mainstream institutions; places that yield large numbers of students and offer instant answers to people who find themselves in religious crisis.
Original halachic Jewish thinkers today fall victim to the glut of conformists. While these thinkers challenge conventional views, they remain unsupported and live lonely lives because our culture writes them off. Rather than saying yes to new halachic ideas, which we are in desperate need of, the conformists pander to the idol worship of intellectual and spiritual submission.
Most Talmudic scholars don’t realize that the authors whose ideas they teach would turn in their graves if they knew their opinions were being taught as dogmas that cannot be challenged. They wanted their ideas tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached, or even should be reached. They realized that matters of faith should remain fluid, not static. Halacha is the practical upshot of living by unfinalized beliefs while remaining in theological suspense. Only in this way can Judaism avoid becoming paralyzed by its awe of a rigid tradition or, conversely, evaporate into a utopian reverie.
Parents today who are worried by their children’s lack of enthusiasm for Halachic Judaism do not realize that they themselves support a system that systematically makes such passion impossible.
The Need for Verbal Critics
What today’s Halacha desperately needs is verbal critics who could spread and energize its great message. It needs halachic Einsteins, Freuds and Pasteurs who can demonstrate its untapped possibilities and undeveloped grandeur.
The time has come to deal with the real issues and not hide behind excuses that ultimately will turn Judaism into a sham. Our thinking is behind the times, and that is something we can no longer afford. Halacha is about bold ideas discovering solutions which nobody ever thought of. Its goal is not to find the final answer, but to inspire us to honestly search for it. The study of Halacha is not only the greatest undertaking there is, but also the most dangerous, since it can so easily lead to self-satisfaction and spiritual conceit. The leashing of our souls is easier than the building of our spirit.
What we need to do is search for the Halacha as it was in its embryonic form, before it was solidified into the great halachic codifications such as Rambam’s Mishneh Torah or Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch. We must return to the great ideologies of Halacha with its many varied opinions, as found in the Talmud and other early sources, and develop the Halacha in ways that can inspire the soul and address the varied spiritual needs of modern man.
To Emulate Rembrandt
We need to emulate Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter who, unlike all other painters of his generation, used the raw material of Holland’s landscape to perceive hidden connections—linking his preternatural sensibility to a reality that he was able to transform, with great passion, into a new creation. He found himself in a state of permanent antagonism with his society, and yet he spoke to his generation and continues to speak to us because he elevated himself to the point where he could see the full dimensions that art could address, which nobody else had discovered.
Just like art, one cannot inherit Halacha and one cannot just receive the Jewish tradition. One must fight for it and earn it. To be halachically religious is to live in a state of warfare. The purpose of art is to disturb; not to produce finished works, but to stop in the middle, from exhaustion, leaving it for others to continue. So it is with Halacha. It still has scaffolding, which should remain while the building continues.
I am not advocating revisionist positions, presented just for the sake of being novel or to justify certain behavior. History has shown that such approaches do not work and often lack the genuine religious experience. We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation in cases of doubtful improvement. But the time has come to rethink Halacha, its goals and methods as it is taught in many traditional places.
A New Kind of Yeshiva
We are in need of a radically different kind of yeshiva: one in which students are confronted with serious challenges to Halacha and its weltanschauung and learn how to respond; where they become aware that it is not certainty, but doubt, that gets you an education; where it is not Rabbinic authority that reigns supreme, but religious authenticity. A yeshiva where the teachers have the courage to share their doubts with their students and show them that Judaism and Halacha teach us how to live with uncertainty, and through that uncertainty to be deeply religious people. Students need to learn that Halacha, like life, is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises (Samuel Butler). A reasonable probability is the only certainty we can have. No doubt there will be fierce arguments, but we should never forget that great controversies are also great emancipators.
Broad change is not just window dressing, and it can be painful. It is liberating and refreshing, but comes with a price. Without it, though, not only is there no future for Halacha; there is also no purpose.
To Deliberately Create an Atmosphere of Rebellion
One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its students. Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator. We owe nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed, but to those who differed. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into existence. Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols, and he was followed by his children, by Moshe, by the Prophets, and by the Jewish people.
What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah and its laws was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions, the likes of which we have never known. The text enumerates all the radical heresies of the past, present and future. It calls idol worship an abomination, immorality an abhorrence, the worship of man a catastrophe. It protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, imitation, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.
All of this seems to be entirely lost on our religious establishment. We are instructing our students and children to obey, to fit in, to conform and not to stand out. We teach them that their religious leaders are great people because they are “all-right-niks” who would never think of disturbing the established religious and social norms. We train them to view these leaders as the ideal to be emulated. But by doing so, we turn our backs on authentic Judaism and Halacha, and convey the very opposite of what Judaism is meant to project.
By using clichés instead of the language of opposition, we deny our students the excitement of being Jewish. It is both the excitement resulting from the realization that there is a need to revolt and take pride in it, no matter the cost, as well as the excitement at the awareness that they are part of a great mission for which they are prepared to die, knowing that it will make the world a better place because they are the real Protestants.
When we teach our children to eat kosher, we should tell them that this is an act of disobedience against a consumerism that encourages human beings to eat anything as long as it tastes good. When we go to synagogue, it is a protest against man’s arrogance in thinking that he can do it all by himself. When couples observe the laws of family purity, it is a rebellion against the obsession with sex. By celebrating Shabbat, we challenge our contemporary world that believes our happiness depends on how much we materially produce.
The Mediocrity of Religious Teaching
As long as our religious educators continue to teach Jewish texts as models of approval instead of manifestations of protest against the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more of our young people to that very mediocrity.
Halacha, in its essence, is an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force that compels the world to grow.
To Be Continued.
* 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
 See Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 268.