In de nieuwsbrief stonden per abuis verkeerde data voor de lezingen van Bart Wallet. De informatie op de website in inmiddels gecorrigeerd. In het cursusoverzicht staan nu de juiste data:
Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op en geeft lezingen in Israel en het buitenland voor Joden en niet Joden. Hij is de auteur van 15 boeken. De laatste twee: “Jewish Law as Rebellion. A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage” (Urim Publications, 2018) en “Cardozo on the Parasha, Bereshit” (Kasva Press, 2019),het eerste van 7 delen op de Tora en de feestdagen. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo neemt in zijn geschriften geen blad voor de mond en zijn ideeën worden in de velerlei media fel bediscussieerd.
Dear Friends, shalom u-vracha. As we will celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai this coming Shavuot, I am sending you herewith a video of a lecture which I gave in the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem on June 19, 2017. About Bible criticism, morality and archeology, from Rabbi Louis Jacobs to Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Zadok HaCohen of Lublin.
In this comprehensive lecture I attempt to explain how “Torah from Heaven” has been understood by many of our sages and thinkers and what it really means. I am dealing with many challenges to this belief, the moral and scientific problems involved and how this belief has given rise to many debates and how to solve many halachic problems and matters of faith. The lecture uncovers many new surprising insights with which the Jewish Tradition has been blessed.
I hope you will enjoy this lecture.
May all of us be inspired by this greatest moment in all of human and Jewish history which took place at Sinai.
Torah study has become nearly impossible, and the problem lies not with the Torah but with the reader. Reading the text requires courage. Not to open the Book and start reading, but courage to confront oneself. Learning Torah requires human authenticity; it means standing in front of a mirror and asking yourself the daunting question of who you really are, without masks and artificialities. Unfortunately, that is one of the qualities we, in modern times, have lost. We have convinced ourselves that we must be intellectuals, removed from subjectivity and bowing only to scientific investigation. Consequently, we have disconnected from our Self. Because we humans are a bundle of emotions, passions and subjectivities, we cannot escape our inner world, much as we would like to.
Still, we formulate ideas. We may proclaim the rights of the spirit. But they enter only our books and discussions, not our lives. They float around in our heads, rather than walking with us into the inner chambers of our daily existence. They don’t enter our trivial moments, but rather stand as monuments – impressive, but far removed.
People are no longer able to struggle with their inner Self and therefore cannot deal with the biblical text. It stares them in the face, and they are terrified by the confrontation. All they can do is deny it, so that they may escape from themselves. Since they know that they must come to terms with themselves before they come to terms with the Book, they cannot negate it or disagree with it, as this requires them to deny something that they don’t even know exists.
Does that mean that these people are not religious? Not at all. Even the religious person is detached from the spirit. They have elevated religion to such a level that its influence on their everyday life, in the here and now, has been lost. It is found on the top floor of their spiritual house, with its own very special atmosphere. It has become departmentalized. But the intention of Torah is exactly the reverse. Its words, events and commandments are placed in the midst of the people, enveloped in history and worldly matters. What happens there does not take place in a vacuum but in the harshness of human reality. Most of the Torah deals with the natural course of a person’s life. Only sporadic miracles allow us to hear the murmurs from another world that exists beyond. These moments remind us that God is, after all, the only real entity in all of existence. But the Torah is the story of how God exists among mortal human beings, with their ordinary troubles and joys. It is not the story of God in heaven, but of God in human history and personal encounter.
The Text Is the Author of the People
The art of biblical interpretation is far more than just knowing how to give expression to the deeper meaning of the text. It is, after all, impossible to treat the biblical text as one would any other classical work. This is because the people of Israel, according to Jewish tradition, are not the authors of this text. Rather, the text is the author of the people. Comprising a covenant between God and humankind, the text is what brought the people into being. Moreover, despite the fact that the people often violated the commanding voice of this text, it created the specific and unique identity of the Jewish nation.
That is precisely why reading the text is not like reading a conventional literary work. It requires a reading-art, which allows the unfolding of the essence and nature of a living people struggling with life and God’s commandments.
This calls for a totally different kind of comprehension, one that must reflect a particular thought process and attitude on the part of the student.
George Steiner expressed this well when he wrote: "The script…is a contract with the inevitable. God has, in the dual sense of utterance and of binding affirmation, 'given His word,' His Logos and His bond, to Israel. It cannot be broken or refuted." (‘Our Homeland, the Text’, 1996.)
The text, then, must be approached in a way that reflects a human commitment to ensure that it indeed will not be broken or refuted. This has become a great challenge to modern biblical interpretation. Many scholars and thinkers have been asking whether the unparalleled calamity of the Holocaust did not create a serious existential crisis in which the text, by definition, has been invalidated. Can we still speak about a working covenant by which God promised to protect His people, after six million Jews – including 1.5 million children – lost their lives within a span of five years, under the cruelest of circumstances?
The reason for raising this question is not just because the covenant appears to have been broken, but also because history – and specifically Jewish history – was always seen as a living commentary on the biblical text. The text gave significance to history and simultaneously took on its religious meaning.
Can the text still be used in that sense, or has it lost its significance because history violated the criteria for its proper and covenantal elucidation?
Not for nothing have modern scholars suggested that there is a need, post-Holocaust, to liberate ourselves from this covenantal text in favor of shaping our destiny and history in totally secular terms. The Holocaust proved, they believe, that we have only ourselves to rely on, and even the return to Israel is to be understood as a secular liberation of the galut experience.
It is in this context that “commentary” needs to take on a new challenge: to show not only how the covenant, as articulated in the text, is not broken or refuted, but how in fact it is fully capable of dealing with the new post-Holocaust conditions of secularity. Without falling victim to apologetics, biblical interpretation will have to offer a novel approach to dealing with the Holocaust experience in a full religious setting, based on the text and taking it beyond its limits.
It will have to respond to the fact that God is the most tragic figure in all of history, making our lives sometimes sublime and other times disastrous. The biblical text is there to tell us how to live with this God and try to see meaning behind the absurdity of the situation.
But above all, modern commentary must make sure that the Torah speaks to the atheist and the agnostic, for they need to realize that the text is replete with examples of sincere deniers and doubters who struggled all their lives with great existential questions. The purpose is not to bring the atheists and agnostics back to the faith, but to show that one can be religious while being an agnostic and perhaps even an atheist; to make people aware that it is impossible to live without embarking on a search for meaning, whether one finds it or not. It is the search that is important; the end result much less so. The art is to refrain from throwing such a pursuit on the dunghill of history throughout the ages. The struggle of homo religious is of the greatest importance to the atheist.
That many secular people no longer read the Torah is an enormous tragedy. The Torah is too important to be left to the believer. The beauty of day-to-day life takes on a different and higher meaning through the Torah, and that can evoke in atheists a faintly mystical anticipation, which they can experience when they are alone or when they watch a sunset at the beach. A voice is born, and it speaks to them; they feel a melancholy that calls forth something far away and beyond. They happen upon a situation that suddenly throws them over the edge, and they get taken in by the experience of a loftier existence. They realize that the god they were told to believe in is not the God of the Torah. The latter is a God with Whom one argues; a God Who is criticized and Who wants human beings to search, even if it results in their denial of Him.
This issue is related to other crucial problems. Surveying Jewish history, we see drastic changes in how the biblical text was encountered. In the beginning, it was heard and not written. At first, Moshe received the Torah through the spoken Word: “The Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to carry out.” (Devarim 30:14) God may be unimaginably far away, but His voice is heard nearby and it is the only way to encounter Him.
At a later stage, the Word evolved into a written form. Once this happened, there was a process by which the spoken Word was slowly silenced and gradually replaced by the written Word. With the eclipse of prophecy, God’s Word was completely silenced and could then only be read. The Word, therefore, became frozen and ran the risk of becoming stagnant. At that stage, it was necessary to unfreeze the Word, which became the great task of the Sages and commentaries throughout the following centuries.
Relevance and Eternity
Subsequently, a third element gained dominance. The text must be relevant to the generations that study it, while at the same time remaining eternal. Commentators throughout the ages have struggled with this problem. How does one preserve the eternity of the Word and simultaneously make it relevant to a specific moment in time? Many commentators were children of their time and clearly read the text through the prism of the period in which they lived. The perspective of eternity thus became critical. It was often pushed to the background so as to emphasize the great message for the present. Much of the aspect of eternity was thereby compromised, causing a few to wonder how eternal this text really is.
Other commentators wrote as if nothing had happened in Jewish history. That reflected the remarkable situation of the Jewish people in galut: its a-historicity. After the destruction of the Temple, Jewish history came to a standstill. While much happened, with dire consequences for the Jews, they essentially lived their lives outside the historical framework of natural progress. It became a period of existential waiting, with the Jewish people anticipating the moment when they would once again enter history. This eventually came about with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Inevitably, then, some commentators wrote their exegeses in a historical vacuum. They hardly emphasized the relevance of biblical texts to a particular generation. Therefore, students were often confronted with a dual sentiment. While dazzled by a commentator’s brilliant insight, they were forced to ask: so what? What is the implication of the interpretation for me, at this moment in time? Here we encounter a situation in which relevance is sacrificed for the sake of eternity.
With the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland, Jews are confronted with an unprecedented situation, which has serious consequences for biblical commentary. Due to a very strong trend toward secularism, caused by the Holocaust as well as other factors, the issue of relevance versus eternity has become greatly magnified.
Today, more than ever before, there exists a greater and more pressing need to show the relevance of the text. The radical changes in Jewish history call for a bold and novel way of understanding the text as a living covenant. At the same time, the drastic secularization of world Jewry and Israeli thinking requires a completely new approach to presenting the reader with the possibility of the Torah’s eternity. With minor exceptions, the religious world has not come forward with an adequate response.
Innovation in Receptivity
Most worrisome is the fact that the majority of Jewish commentary books published today in Orthodox circles comprise compilations and anthologies of earlier authorities with no opening of new vistas. It is as if original interpretations are no longer possible. The words of God are treated as if they have been exhausted. It clearly reflects a fear of anything new, or an inability to come up with fresh and far-reaching ideas. This phenomenon has overtaken a good part of the Orthodox scholarly world. Jewish commentary is becoming more and more about writing glosses upon glosses, instead of creating new insights into the living covenant with God.
No doubt, not every person is equipped with the knowledge and creativity needed to undertake the task. Years of learning are an absolute requirement before one can make a genuine contribution in this field. Still, one must be aware of the danger of “over-knowledge.” When students are overwhelmed by the interpretations of others, they may quite well become imprisoned by them and lose the art of thinking independently. Instead of becoming vehicles to look for new ideas, their knowledge becomes detrimental.
What is required is innovation in receptivity, where fresh ideas can grow in the minds of those willing to think creatively about the classical sources, without being hampered by preconceived notions. Only then will we see novel approaches to our biblical tradition that will stand up to the challenges of our time.
I stand at the Kotel, the Wailing Wall
I see her frozen tears and her eternal smiles
Her passing clouds with many sighs
Her pitiful laughter concerning those who wanted to destroy her but did not succeed
I read her holy books and hundreds of thousands of names
Those from Egypt, Babylon, Rome, Spain, Hungary, America and Africa
I hear the cries from Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau
And the playful delight of today’s Jewish children in Yerushalayim’s courtyards
I see the auto-da-fes in Spain, the Crusades, the pogroms and the Roman torture chambers
Mothers crying about their children
Women of all ages
But also the Israeli flag with King David’s star on top of Jerusalem’s stones.
The thousands of written prayers in the curves of the Kotel’s walls
I encounter the crying soldier, the sobbing stone hard businessman,
The movie star, the confused politician, the housewife and the Yeshiva student
And I realize that all those revolting, insufferable, defiant anti-Israel world leaders have not yet learned that with all their power, they can’t impose their will on these heavenly stones
Yeshayahu stands next to me
A little further on Rabbi Akiva
My teachers, Maimonides, Yehudah Halevi, Hillel and Shamai
Behind me the Gaon of Vilna in deep thought
The Baal Shem Tov in exalted devotion
Women, men, children, Mitnagdim, Chassidim, Ethiopians, Yemenites, Sephardim and Ashkenazim
Jews of all colors
There is no time, no clock, no early or later at this Wall
Just broken eternity
I stand but cannot grasp
I say my tefilah
Then the truth descends on me:
I have never left this place
I find myself here for thousands of years
The return to Zion is unprecedented
A happening sui generis
The creation of the State of Israel is an astonishment
The survival of the Jewish people a shock
A breach in a world where people do not want to be surprised
And therefore Israel irritates
The mighty Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian conquered the world with much noise, pomp and splendor
The Greek and the Roman followed with their drumbeat and war carriages and died out
Others came and held their torch high and burned out
The Jew saw them all, surpassed them all and became what he always was: immortal
O’ that Israel’s enemies would just wake up!
When will they learn that Israel never left their homeland but were forced out against their will?
And that Titus and his army were ultimately defeated by a people of orphans?
By an ever-dying people which never died?
There is no victory for those who fight a nation which kept praying for thousands of years to return to its capital which they emotionally never left
Where their bodies were resurrected while they were turned into ashes at Auschwitz?
What to do with a people which mourned for its Temple and rebuild it in its hearts while sitting on the floor in deep mourning for thousands of years?
How to deal with a people which covers its dead with the dust of the land of Israel while their tombstone stands in countries of animosity?
A people who for thousands of years have broken a glass under the marriage canopy to remind them that Yerushalayim has not been fully rebuild
How many millions of those glasses have been broken for this eternal city?
How to defeat a people whose home in exile turned into a portable city which it took to every corner of the world in which it found itself and kept living by the teachings of Moses and the Hebrew prophets?
And came home
And teach Torah
Through Israel we perceive the Infinite
The God of Israel
Israel and its people are indispensable
They are God’s witness in history
In a world where the ordinary has become a hallmark and where indifference has turned into a selfish complacency
When will the world wake up?
* Partially inspired by Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mark Twain.
In the previous essays in this series, Yehuda DovBer Zirkind and I we delved into the teachings of the Mei Hashiloah on God, Torah and Halacha. In the final essay of this series we will come full circle and return to the beginning of our discussion about the evolving Torah and the quest for the perfect Torah of the future.
The premise of this entire series is that alongside the “perfect Torah” paradigm which views the Torah as a fixed and perfect Torah without any need for improvement or modification, there is another strand in Jewish thought which maintains that Torah and Halacha is less-than-perfect and is slowly evolving toward a more ideal and perfect state. This concept of Torah is a core component of the hashkafa (religious outlook) of Rabbi Cardozo (1) and other progressive Orthodox rabbis (2) and a guiding principle in their attitudes toward Halacha.
Rabbi Cardozo rails against what he terms a “defensive” and “waiting-mode” Halacha and calls for a “redemptive” and “prophetic” Halacha which is capable of moving Judaism forward. He passionately believes that the current reactionary halachic system must be replaced by a visionary halachic system. (3) In his presentation to the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank on the teachings of the Mei Hashiloah, Rabbi Cardozo spoke about the Mei Hashiloah’s vision of the Halacha of the future and his notion of Torah and Mitzvot as levushim (garments), which will be transcended in the messianic era. (4)
We will now continue this series with an exploration of various ways of conceptualizing and envisioning the Torah of the future. In addition, we will analyze the role that dreaming about a futuristic Torah and utopian Halacha plays in shaping the Halacha in the present.
The Abrogation of the Law in the Future
One paradigm that we already mentioned in this series is the opinion mentioned in the Talmud that mitzvot beteilot le-atid lavo (the commandments will be abolished in the future). (5) There is much discussion about the precise meaning and application of this concept. Another related concept is the notion that in the messianic era, a new Torah will be revealed, “A new Torah will emanate from Me.” (6) According to several opinions, the Torah of the future will be radically different from the Torah that we have today and many of the Mitzvot that are operative today will be abrogated in the future. (7)
The Primordial Torah and the Exiled Torah
A highly original view of the ideal Torah is the Kabbalistic concept of Torah ha-keduma (primordial Torah). (8) According to Ramban (Nachmanides), Moshe Rabeinu copied a primordial Torah that preceded the creation of the world. This Torah was written in letters of black on white fire. Unlike the current combination of letters which forms words containing narratives and law, the letter sequence of the primordial Torah is divided to form a chain of divine names. (9)
Other authorities expound the idea that Torah is rooted in a higher spiritual Torah that represents the mind of God but was garbed in the lowly physical garments of this materialistic world. (10) Given our current condition, the Mitzvot must be performed in an embodied, physical way. According to several Kabbalistic and Chassidic sources, in the future, when we will ascend to a higher spiritual level, the Mitzvot will similarly be performed on a spiritual plane in a manner totally different to what we are accustomed to today. The letters of the future Torah will be recombined to reveal the spiritual dimension of the Mitzvot. (11)
Moreover, The Kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (1841-1926), also known as the Ba'al HaLeshem, propounds a radical idea that the Torah itself is in exile. The Torah we have today is a compromised Torah; it does not reflect the higher, pristine level of Torah that transcends the constraints of exile. In the age of redemption, the Torah itself will be redeemed from the shackles of exile. (12)
The Reestablishment of the Sanhedrin
The foregoing paradigm, based on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, envisions the Torah of the future as a spiritual manifestation of the divine light and hence the Mitzvot will also be elevated to a higher spiritual plane. There are, however, less rarefied and more pragmatic visions of what Halacha in the future will – and ought to – look like. These utopian visions are less concerned with the esoteric dimensions of Torah and more concerned with the tikkun (repair) of practical Halacha.
One strategy for implementing thoroughgoing changes in the Halacha is the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Religious High Court of Israel). In fact, the hope for and feasibility of reinstating the Sanhedrin is something that has been hotly debated through various periods of Jewish history since the abolition of the Sanhedrin until the present day. (13) Once the Sanhedrin is renewed it will theoretically be possible to revise many laws in the Torah which are perceived as morally problematic. There are many people who pin their hopes on the future Sanhedrin for effecting wide-reaching changes that will eliminate the morally problematic aspects of contemporary Halacha.
Thus, the famous Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook (1865-1935) states: "… if a question arises about some law of the Torah, which ethical notions indicate should be understood in a different way, then truly, if the Great Court decides that this law pertains only to conditions which no longer exist, a source in the Torah will certainly be found for it. The conjunction of events [that prompted the new interpretation], with [the reinstatement of] the power of the courts and the interpretation of Torah is not a coincidence. They are rather signs of the light of the Torah and the truth of the Torah's Oral Law, for we are obligated to accept [the rulings] of the judge that will be in those days [a reference to Jeremiah 2:3] …" (14)
The Radical and Conservative Functions of Halachic Utopianism
The foregoing leads us to the question: what is the function that Halachic utopianism should play in the here-and-now? How can dreaming about a better halachic future help us in the present?
In a very insightful and illumination study, Professor Benjamin Brown from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem raises this question regarding the teachings of the Mei Hashiloah. (15) He asks: if the Mei Hashiloah did not intend to implement his radical views regarding Halacha in practice, but merely preached “theoretical” or “neutralized” antinomianism (as indeed Professor Brown argues), what significance, if any, does this idea hold for us living today in an unredeemed world?
In his article, Professor Brown argues, based on the work of other scholars, that dreaming about a Halachic utopia can serve two opposite functions: a “revolutionary” versus a “conservative” function. The radical function of utopian thinking is its ability to foment discontent with the status-quo and spark a revolution. Conversely, the conservative function of utopian thinking is its ability to provide a psychological coping mechanism to deal with a difficult situation in the present by providing hope for a brighter future. Throughout history, people have reacted differently to utopian visions. For example, within Judaism, the promise of a messianic utopia inspires some people to actively hasten the end of days, but it also has the opposite effect on others. Instead of inspiring revolution it can actually help maintain the status quo by deferring the realization of an anticipated utopia to a distant eschatological age.
The Midrash on the Mamzer: Conservative or Radical Utopian Thinking?
These two functions of utopian thinking can be applied to the dream of a halachic utopia. This will be demonstrated by an analysis of a Midrashic passage regarding the law of the mamzer.
In Kohelet it states: "So I returned and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun and behold the tears of such as were oppressed. And they had no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter." (16)
The Midrash comments: '“Behold the tears off the oppressed” – their fathers sinned, but what has this to do with these insulted ones? The father of this one went to a woman forbidden to him, but how did the child sin, and why does it concern him? “They have no comforter . . . but in the hands of the oppressors there is power” – these are the hands of the Great Sanhedrin, which moved against them with the authority of the Torah and removed them from the community, because it is written: “A mamzer shall not enter in the congregation of the Eternal One.” (17) “And there is none to comfort them” – therefore says the Holy One, blessed be He: “It is upon Me to comfort them . . .” As Zecharia prophesied, (18) “Behold I see them all like pure gold.” ' (19)
This statement made by Daniel the Tailor, an obscure figure, (20) expresses profound moral discontent with the Halacha. It is noteworthy that the Midrash records the objection of an unknown figure and not that of a prominent rabbinic sage. We can speculate that perhaps it may have been inconceivable or too dangerous for such a statement to be uttered by a member of the rabbinic establishment. Therefore it had to be uttered instead by a rabbinic outsider who felt oppressed by rabbinic authority. Furthermore, the midrash may be employing a subversive literary technique whereby they protest against the halachic system indirectly. Being that it cannot explicitly critique the very system they represent, it does so vicariously by raising the critique leveled by an outsider. (21)
The Midrash deals with Danial’s protest against the injustice of the mamzer law with a promise that although in the present reality we have to suffer the injustice of the law, in the future this problem will be solved. The Midrash cites the prophecy of Zecharia in support of the view that in the future God Himself will purify the mamzerim.
What is the midrash seeking to accomplish? Is it a cry to action or a call for patience? Does the promise of the future purification of the mamzerim intend to send a signal that we must do all we can to limit the applicability of the law today? Or is the Midrash trying to placate Daniel and perhaps even itself by saying, “yes Daniel, you’re right that the law is unfair, but there is nothing we can do about it! We can only wait for the day when God Himself will change the law”? According to the latter interpretation, the Midrash is actually imparting a more conservative message than the radical protest it is generally understood to convey.
The Midrash may be trying to temper the radical impulses of a Daniel and people like him by promising him that one day, when a perfect world order will reign, the negative effects of this law will be erased, but in the meantime, since we live in an imperfect world the law is still binding. Rather than offering a definitive interpretation of the Midrash, we are deliberately underscoring the hermeneutical ambiguities that this text presents. This highlights the paradoxical aspects of utopian Halachic thinking as will be outlined below.
Futuristic Halacha: Dream or Reality?
The foregoing analysis provides relevant insights for the role of utopian Halachic thinking regarding the contemporary halachic crisis. We believe that the more conservative voices within Orthodoxy will view all discussion of Halachic utopianism as something that is relegated to the Messianic Age. The function of Halachic utopianism according to this perspective is twofold: 1) to help alleviate some of the cognitive dissonance caused by the discrepancy between Halacha and morality by allowing people to indulge in the fantasy of a futuristic halachic utopia 2) to safeguard the integrity of the current Halachic system by deferring any possibility of change to a future that lies beyond our reach.
On the other hand, there are other more strident and revolutionary voices within Orthodoxy whose utopian Halachic thinking serves as a clarion call to action. Thus, while Yehudah DovBer believes that the Halachic desideratum expressed by Orthodox feminist Rabbanit Blu Greenberg, “where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way” (22) should be viewed – at least in the current state of affairs – as an expression of utopian Halachic thinking rather than a statement of fact, nevertheless, Rabbi Cardozo believes that it should serve as a strong call and catalyst for Rabbinic action at the present moment and also to bring us one step closer to the utopian ideal.
We must also acknowledge the present-day limitations of achieving a total Halachic revolution and utopia. Sometimes halachic change is achieved best by means of evolution rather than revolution. In instances when radical change is impossible, the conservative function of utopian dreaming can serve us well. The imperfect reality of the present becomes more bearable when we able to dream about a brighter future. The main thing is that we don’t give up hope nor lose sight of the desired goal!
Indeed, as Halachically committed Jews, we often need to walk a tightrope between halachic preservation and innovation and maintain a fine balance between halachic conservatism and progressivism. Sometimes we need to declare that ke-shem she-mekablim sechar al ha-derisha kach mekablim sechar al ha-perisha (just as we receive reward for advancing novel interpretations, so too we receive reward for withdrawing (from this enterprise when necessary)). (23) Indeed, the capacity for dialectical thinking and living has always been a hallmark of Jewish experience. The ability to anticipate redemption while at the same time remaining firmly rooted within the present reality is an essential feature of Jewish existence.
The ideal Halachic utopia of our imagination falls short of the contemporary Halachic reality. But it is precisely the gap between the imagined utopia of tomorrow and the gritty reality of today which fuels our hope for a better future and pushes us to take small steps today to ensure that today’s dream becomes tomorrow’s reality.
(1) See Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2018), chap. 18, 19, 22, 27.
(2) Some of these rabbis include Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935), whom we have already encountered in essay #2 in this series. Two of the more recent outspoken and controversial advocates of this approach are Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman (1910-2008).
On R. Berkovits, see Eliezer Berkovits, Ha-Halacha, Kocha ve-Tafkida (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1981). Translated and abridged in English as Not in Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halacha (New York: Ktav, 1983); Ira Bedzow, Halakhic Man, Authentic Jew: Modern Expressions of Orthodox Thought from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (Jerusalem: Urim, 2009); David Hazony, “Eliezer Berkovits and the Revival of Jewish Moral Thought”, Azure 11 (Summer 2001): 23-65; Shalom Carmy “Eliezer Berkovits’s Challenge to Contemporary Orthodoxy” Torah u-Madda Journal 12 (2004): 192-207; Jonathan Cohen, “Incompatible Parallels: Soloveitchik and Berkovits on Religious Experience, Commandment and the Dimension of History”, Modern Judaism 28, no. 2 (2008): 173–203; Rahel Berkovits, “Torat Hayyim: The Status of Women in the Thought of Eliezer Berkovits”, Shofar: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 31, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 4-15; Marc B. Shapiro, “Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits's Halakic Vision for the Modern Age”, Ibid., 16-36; David Shatz, “Berkovits and the Priority of the Ethical”, Ibid., 85-102; Nadav Berman Shifman, “Pragmatism and Jewish Thought: Eliezer Berkovits’s Philosophy of Halakhic Fallibility”, Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 27 (2019): 86-135; Gil Graff, “Halakhah as Torat Hayyim: The Values-Conscious Visions of Eliezer Berkovits and Emanuel Rackman”, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 18, no. 3 (2019): 330-342. For a critique of Berkovits’ views, see Allan N. Nadler “Review Essay of Eliezer Berkovits’ Not in Heaven”, Tradition 21, no. 3 (Fall 1984): 91-97.
On R. Rackman, see Emanuel Rackman, Modern Halakhah for Our Time (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1995); Idem, One Man’s Judaism (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2000); David Singer, “Emanuel Rackman: Gadfly of Modern Orthodoxy”, Modern Judaism 28, no. 2 (2008): 134-148; Lawrence Kaplan, “From Cooperation to Conflict: Rabbi Professor Emanuel Rackman, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy”, Modern Judaism 30, no. 1 (2010): 46-68.
(3) See Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion, chap. 2
(4) Mei Hashiloah, vol. 1, folios 51b-52a on Bamidbar 19:2; Ibid., folio 19 on Tractate Megila 12b; Ibid., vol. 2, p. 122 on Tractate Megila 12b.
(5) See Niddah 61b.
(6) Based on Yeshayahu 51:4. See Vayikra Rabba, Vilna ed. 13:3. See Moshe Idel, “‘Torah Hadashah’ – Messiah and the New Torah in Jewish Mysticism and Modern Scholarship”, Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 21 (2010): 57-109.
(7) For a comprehensive presentation of the various views on this topic, see Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Ha-dorot (Theology of Ancient Judaism), Vol. 3 (Jerusalem: JTS, 1995), 54-81 (Hebrew); Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), chap. 8.
(8) See R. Meir ben Ezekiel ibn Gabbai, Avodat Hakodesh, part 1, section 21; R. Yeshaya Horowitz, Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, part 2, Aseret Hadibrot on Tractate Shavuot, Torah Or 1.
(9) See the Ramban’s introduction to the Torah.
(10) Nathan Lopes Cardozo, The Torah as God’s Mind: A Kabbalistic Look into the Pentateuch (NY: Bep Ron, 1988).
(11) See Avraham Azulai, Chesed Le-Avraham (Amsterdam: Emanuel Atias, 1685), 2:11; 2:27. See also Gershom Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York, Schocken, 1969), 66 ff. See also the sources compiled here, and here.
(12) See Sefer Leshem Shevo v-Achloma, vol. 2, Sefer Ha-de'ah (Piotrków, 1912), 153a. This text appears in this source sheet #12.
(13) There is a vast literature on the topic of the Sanhedrin and the possibility of its renewal today. Recent attempts to reinstate the Sanhedrin has received much attention and generated many responses in the form of scholarly articles, media reports and blog posts. For a brief overview, see R. Moshe Tzuriel “Sanhedrin Achshav”, Techumin 18 (1998): 448–461, available online. For further reference, see the comprehensive bibliography listed in Prof. Nachum Rakover, Otzar Hamishpat s.v. Chidush Ha-Sanhedrin, available online, and these sources and this one.
(14) Igerot ha-Rayah (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 2006), Vol. 1, p. 103. The English translation appears in Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2004), 206. See also R. Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, Le-Nevuchei Hador (For the Perplexed of the Generation) ( Tel Aviv: Yediot Acharonot and Chemed Books, 2014), chap. 6 (1) and 13.
(15) Benjamin Brown, “Theoretical Antinomianism and the Conservative Function of Utopia: Rabbi Mordekhai Yosef of Izbica as a Case Study”, The Journal of Religion 99, no. 3 (July 2019): 312-340.
(16) Kohelet 4:1.
(17) Devarim 23:3.
(18) Zecharia 4:2.
(19) Kohelet Rabba, Vilna ed., 4:1, section 1. The view that in the future mamzerim will be purified accords with the opinion of R. Yose. See Kiddushin 72b and Tosefta Kiddushin 5:4. Note that R. Meir disagrees with R. Yose. See the interesting difference of opinion between Kiddushin 72b and Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 3:13, 64d as to whether the Halacha is according to R. Meir that mamzerim will not be purified in the messianic era or according to R. Yose that mamzerim will be purified in the messianic era. For a detailed study on this topic, see Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion, chap. 27.
(20) The only other known statement from Daniel the tailor is cited in Bereshit Rabba, Vilna ed., 64:7. On the identity of Daniel the Tailor, see “Daniel Ḥayyata”, Encyclopaedia Judaica, ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), 5:429; Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000), 247 n54.
(21) The arguments of the biblical figure of Korach are interpreted in the midrash as an expression discontent with the law and a protest against Halachic oppression. See Midrash Tehillim, Buber ed., 1:15. On the topic of raising voices of protest against God and Torah in rabbinic literature, see Dov Weiss, Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
(22) See Blu Greenberg, On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1981), 44.
(23) See Pesachim 22b; Kiddushin 57a; Bava Kama 41b; Bechorot 6b.
Reflections on the Mei HaShiloah, by Yehudah BehrDov Zirkind, based on the observations by Nathan Lopes Cardozo.
In the previous essay we discussed the Mei Hashiloah’s radical suggestion that God’s will and Halacha are not always identical. He even formulates a dichotomy between following the general rules of Halacha as exemplified by the archetype of Yosef versus seeking direct illumination from God as exemplified by the archetype of Yehuda. The halachic personality consults the external compass of Halacha for guidance, whereas the religious personality will follow an internal compass which, in rare individuals of great stature and spiritual attainment, is synchronized with the divine will.
In this essay I would like to move away from a theoretical analysis of the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas and focus on some practical implications and applications of his ideas within the realm of practical Halacha. However, before I do so, I wish to state several caveats: 1) I’m not claiming that the following ideas necessarily represent a correct interpretation of the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas or that he would agree with any of the positions delineated below 2) I’m not claiming that my arguments are valid within the standard parameters of halachic discourse. In other words, I don’t expect these arguments to be advanced within a classic halachic teshuva (responsum) 3) The following suggestions are in no way intended as definitive statements or halachic rulings; rather, I am raising difficult questions that I believe need to be seriously considered. Finally, I embark on this discussion with utmost seriousness and yir’at shamayim (awe of Heaven).
The thoughts expressed below are the musings of someone who has grappled deeply with these issues. I’m fully aware that I’m pushing the envelope and that certain people might deem some of these ideas completely beyond the pale of Orthodox thought; nevertheless, I believe that the dilemma articulated here is one that is shared by many people. At the very least, I feel that this acute dilemma needs to be confronted and addressed in a courageous and honest way.
This dilemma that faces us is how to relate to Halacha as the will of God, especially when it clashes head-on with our inner religious convictions about what God wants of us. Stated simply, what ought we to do when the Halacha instructs us to violate our religious convictions and moral principles?
Our halachic complacency is shattered, and our religious equilibrium is shaken, when confronted with acute moral dilemmas stemming from conflicts between halacha and our innate sense of morality. (1) Some of the most prominent cases where a dissonance between Halacha and morality is felt are issues concerning the changing roles of women, the aguna problem, social equality, sexual and gender identity, and other issues. The profound dissonance between what our innate sense of morality tells us to do versus what Halacha tells us to do in these instances, leads many people to question whether these halachot truly reflect God’s immutable will for all time or whether these laws were historically conditioned and should therefore be revised.
It is important to realize the enormity of this issue. These conflicts should not merely be dismissed as an extraneous concern arising from the confrontation between two competing sets of values, i.e. internal religious values versus external secular values; rather, religious individuals perceive this conflict as an internal division formed at the very core of their religious commitment. The very same religious commitment that upholds the Halacha as the Word of God, also rejects these laws as inconsistent with the Will of God (based on the inner prophetic voice and internal conviction that these laws violate God’s justice and morality). This modern day Akeda trial plagues the religious conscience of many people who sincerely wish to heed God’s call, yet are pitted against two contradictory voices, each one demanding total allegiance in the name of God.
Indeed, the Jewish tradition itself is replete with examples of people who confronted God and argued with Him about the morality of His own edicts and laws. Thus, for example, Avraham Avinu argued against God’s decision to destroy Sodom with righteous indignation “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (2) Likewise, the Torah relates in Parashat Shemini, that on the day that Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron the High Priest, died, the priests did not follow the proper procedures which Moshe had instructed them regarding the sin offering. This enraged Moshe; whereupon Aron responded, “Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved? And when Moses heard this, he approved” (3) These verses indicate that the Torah reckons with human judgment as a way of discerning right from wrong and determining which actions would find favor in the eyes of God.
While it may run against the grain of conventional piety to question whether a specific Halacha reflects the ultimate will of God for all time, many searching religious Jews when confronted with halachot that oppose their most deeply held religious sensibilities about the morality of God cry out in righteous indignation “Is this something that the Lord would approve?” Would the implementation of this Halacha in today’s day and age truly find favor in the eyes of God?
Indeed, there are many rabbis and sincerely observant people who precisely because of their deeply religious feelings are perturbed about the perceived immorality of certain halachot. It cannot be denied, for example, that among the Orthodox Jews who are in favor of expanding the role of women within Judaism, there are those who advocate these changes not merely because they were contaminated by the bug of Western humanism and want to conform to the spirit of the age. On the contrary, they are motivated by a deep moral and religious conviction that promoting greater gender equality is not only a value in the eyes of man, but is also a value that, to the best of their understanding, would find more favor in the eyes of God than a more hierarchical and exclusionary approach. (4)
The Mei Hashiloah’s ideas are directly relevant to these issues. Although he does not specifically address the tension between Halacha and morality, nevertheless, his insights about the possible discrepancy between the depth of God’s will versus codified Halacha provides a useful paradigm for addressing the dilemma of Halacha, morality, and God’s justice. Unlike the Yosef archetype who can take comfort in obeying the Halacha under all circumstances because Halacha represents the ultimate religious commitment, the Yehuda archetype cannot afford the luxury of taking comfort in the certainties of Halacha, because obeying the rules by the book may turn out to be an infraction of God’s true will and a chilul hashem, a violation of His Holy Name.
As we have seen in the first essay, the Rambam and other Jewish thinkers maintain that certain laws in the Torah were historically conditioned and commanded by God as a compromise to human weakness. Is it then possible to take this a step farther and claim à la the Mei Hashiloah that these laws do not reflect the true depths of God’s will for today? Moreover, if someone does indeed possess this inner conviction is s/he allowed or even mandated to violate Halacha in these circumstances? This is not a typical Orthodox Halachic she’ilo (inquiry) that is usually addressed to a halachic authority; however, whether or not this question is deemed “kosher” by the conventional rabbinical establishment, it is still an urgent question that must be asked and addressed.
The Mei Hashiloah and the Ordination of Women Rabbi
A practical example of the application of the Mei Hashiloah’s approach relates to the ordination of female rabbis. Rabbi Hertzl Hefter, an Orthodox rabbi residing in Israel and a scholar of the Mei Heshiloah’s thought, explained that he decided to ordain women based on the teachings of the Mei Hashiloah and other thinkers. In his view, these thinkers assert the that voice of human conscience may itself be a form of divine revelation. (5) He proposes a new theology with far reaching Halachic implications: “Humans are created in God’s image, which means that human consciousness is the instrument of divine revelation. Since God is revealed through human consciousness, our refined moral convictions and religious sensibilities may be considered a form of divine revelation.” (6)
Rabbi Hefter applies his theology to the case of the ordination of women: “Semikha for women is an instance of where the tradition comes into conflict with deeply held convictions. These convictions, having been tested through the mettle of “clarification”, need to be brought in dialogue with the tradition and in this case determine the normative behavior.” (7)
Whether or not the Mei Hashiloah himself would have concurred with Rabbi Hefter’s decision to grant *women Semikha is not our main concern. The main point I which to demonstrate is how one Orthodox rabbi invokes the Mei Hashiloah’s theological paradigms in order to determine practical Halachic decisions.*
The Conscientious Objector to Halacha
Thus far we dealt with the application of the Mei Hashiloah’s insights on a communal level in terms of issuing halachic rulings which affect the community at large, such as the ordination of female rabbis. But how should these conflicts be handled on an individual level? I’d like to raise the question whether based on the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas, a person may or even must violate Halacha when it clashes with their own personal sense of what God wants from them. To put it differently, can there be any religious legitimacy to the notion of being a conscientious objector to the Halacha (in specific instances)? Can violating the Halacha for the sake of God be regarded as an act of religious piety?
The acute nature of this dilemma is the clash between one’s personal moral and religious convictions with prescribed Halacha. At this stage, a person cannot rely on the sole guidance of the Shulchan Aruch or a Halachic authority, because the Halacha itself is being challenged. This is an agonizing personal decision that someone has to make. During this moment of truth, one must stand alone in the presence of God without the aid of the Halacha and take a leap of faith. The famous Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) describes the Akeda as “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” A conscientious objector to the Halacha for religious reasons might feel that at times they need to engage in the “theological suspension of the halachic.”
I’m not claiming that the notion of a conscientious objector to Halacha is halachically legitimate or acceptable by normative Orthodox standards. I’m merely asking a question that I believe needs to be raised.
It must be emphasized that the very consideration of the notion of a conscientious objector to the Halacha on moral and religious grounds requires extreme caution. One has to be extremely careful when trying to discern God’s will to make sure that s/he is free of all personal prejudices, biases, and agendas. One can easily be misled into mistaking one’s own personal bias or the contemporary moral zeitgeist and conflating it with the divine will. For example, in the challenging case of expanding the roles of women within Orthodoxy, one can easily conflate a secular feminist agenda with a religiously driven quest for equality. Extreme humility is required during these moments of truth when performing a moral reckoning before God. Indeed, the Mei Hashiloah writes that only after freeing oneself from all personal biases and nullifying their ego in the presence of God is a person capable of discerning God’s true will.
Above all, one must avoid the pitfall of trying to rationalize and justify their transgression of Halacha with the “pious” excuse of holy sinning. The yetser hara (Evil Inclination) can easily tempt one to sin and also provide a ready-made heter (legal dispensation) to do so under the guise of pious transgression.
As the case of Sabbateanism and other heretical and antinomian religious movements have taught us, the possibility of egregious sinners deluding themselves and trying to convince others that they are pious saints is an ever-present threat. Nevertheless, I believe that an honest engagement with the Mei Hashiloah’s ideas requires us to confront the dilemma of what we ought to do when we experience a conflict between the dictates of Halacha and the voice of our religiously informed moral conscience. I’m leaving this as an open question for my readers to contemplate without stating at this moment any definitive position on this serious issue.
(1) There is a vast literature devoted to this subject. It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide a comprehensive bibliography of relevant sources. R. Aharon Lichtenstein, “Does Tradition Recognize an Ethic Independent of Halakha?,” in Marvin Fox ed., Modern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1975), 62-88; reprinted in R. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, 2004), 33-56; Avi Sagi, Judaism: Between Religion and Morality (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1998) [in Hebrew]; Michael J. Harris, Divine Command Ethics: Jewish and Christian Perspectives (London: Routledge, 2015); Shira Weiss, Ethical Ambiguity in the Hebrew Bible: Philosophical Analysis of Scriptural Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Moshe Halbertal and Donniel Hartman, Judaism and the Challenges of Modern Life (London: Continuum, 2009); David Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014); Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
(2) Bereishit 18:25.
(3) Vayikra 10:19-20.
(4) Bereishit 18:25.
(5) Vayikra 10:19-20.
(6) It also cannot be denied that the internalization of liberal values may also shape one’s religious sensibilities. People can easily fall into the trap of conflating their moral conscience which is shaped by the moral zeitgeist with their perception of God’s ultimate will. Thus, there is no guarantee that one’s own moral compass is a reliable guide for discerning God’s will. However, my argument in this essay is based on the premise that moral considerations do play a role in Halacha and in interpreting God’s will.
(7) R. Yoel Bin Nun articulates a similar idea in his analysis of the writings of Rav Kook. See Yoel Bin-Nun, The Double Source of Human Inspiration and Authority in the Philosophy of Rav A.I.H. Kook (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2014), chap. 5.