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Is Halacha Necessary?

September 4, 2012 – 7:53 pmNo Comment


Portrait of Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra

Yaakov Gorr reflects on a session he attended at the recent Limmud NZ.

You’d think that a session at Limmud would leave one feeling more observant, and it so surprised me that I met many “cultural Jews” at Limmud in Auckland last month that I decided to attend one of the sessions at which the need for halacha was discussed.

Some mornings I wake up and believe, some I don’t, but I never realised that this was the feeling of many Jews, which does not stop us being Jews.  Even on the days that I don’t believe,  I still engage with Jewish Texts as a body of finely tuned discussions on how to live as an ethical human, and find that the thought processes of that engagement connect me with other Jews who are engaged with the Text, creating a community of such people.

What is Halacha? Well, according to some, Jewish law is determined by human intellect. Strange as it sounds, we are not concerned if we do not match God’s absolute knowledge.  We accept that we cannot, and we accept God’s command that we follow the Rabbis.  R’ Meir Rabi writes that the Torah is not a set of Divine Laws, rather Divine principles and guidelines that require our engagement and interpretation. Every single page of the Talmud is perfumed with the beauty of human ingenuity, argument and disagreement and all devoted to understanding the word of God.

One interpretation of Halacha comes from the word halicha, which means progress;  Halacha is the separation from ‘the bad’ and progress towards ‘the good’.  According to Ibn Ezra, it is tied to the time when Moses brought out law to the Jewish people and refers to the day after Yitro – Moses’ father-in-law and a convert – arrived from Midian to join the Jews in the desert. In this interpretation, the emphasis is placed upon Yitro removing himself from foreign behaviours and progressing to what is right.

How do we know what is right if the Torah is not clear?  We look to Rabbinic interpretation.  Rabbis use their intellect, just like any person. Before they were Rabbis, they had their intellect, and there is no apparent physiological change to the structure of one’s brain when one becomes a Rabbi. This title “Rabbi” refers to the permission and endorsement of another Rabbi, that he might rule on certain areas of Jewish law. In areas of halacha, we follow our Rabbis because halacha relies on their human intelligence. As the Torah says, “In accordance with the Torah they teach you, and according to the statutes they tell you, you shall do; do not veer … right or left.” (Devarim 17:11)  Because each Rabbi uses his own imperfect intellect, he is subject to errors, and hence Rabbis disagree.  Even Aaron disputed Moses. Moses, Aaron’s superior, was wrong, and conceded his error.

With this in mind, I began to think of the question, “Is Halacha necessary?”  I’m not the most religious Jew, or the most learned, but I do try to follow halacha. Yet there are many aspects of halacha that bother me.

For example, how can we follow a system of law which allows for halachic infertility, which prohibits “m’salalot” which some see as lesbianism and which provides unequal rights to women in the case of divorce? Halacha leads to absurd results today in some parts of Israel, including segregation on buses and kids being spat on, and women and men having to walk on different sides of the street. Furthermore, some of the most renowned interpreters if halacha, such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, have ruled that homosexuality is a  “problem that is controllable, for if it were beyond human control, HaShem would not have made it a sin.” This flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that treating homosexuality as a mental illness is both unlikely to turn one straight, and will generally cause great psychological damage.

On the other hand, those who follow halacha, argue that following it in its entirety is essential for the continuity of the Jewish people.  On this side of the argument, there is a tendency to dismiss the segregated footpaths and buses in some neighbourhoods of Jerusalem as being exceptional behaviours that are not inspired by adherence to halacha. They would further argue that misogynistic and homophobic statements occasionally made by some leading Rabbis are far from the normative view among orthodoxy today.

I heard Rabbi Mendy Goldstein argue this exact point at Limmud Auckland two weeks ago. He argued that the halachic lifestyle is the ideal because those who do not follow rabbinic law will disappear into oblivion within three generations. Noting that birth rates are much higher and assimilation is much lower amongst Haredi Jews as compared to secular Jews, this is a very valid point.  However, it did not seem to go over well with his audience, who on a show of hands (that he requested at the start and again at the end of his presentation) seemed to have become disaffected with his position in the space of a single session.

All of this leaves me with a challenging dilemma. On the one hand, the great weakness of halachic Judaism is its ability to facilitate extreme positions that sometimes go against both scientific reason and human well being. On the other hand, the non-halachic lifestyle has as obvious weakness in that it produces less Jewish offspring, and is far less structured and organised. With that in mind, which type of Judaism do you think will best promote the flourishing of the Jewish people in the coming century?

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