Needed: Redemptive Halakha How Halakha Must Transcend Itself

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 11 december 2015

In September 2015 the Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, “Conversations”, published a long ground breaking essay on the need to redeem the Halakha and to bring it into line with the larger mission of the Jewish people in our days.
Below are some segments. Click here for the full essay.


… While many opinions prevail, there are some basic beliefs concerning the very existence of the Jewish People and its mission. With perhaps the exception of Maimonides, all the classic Jewish philosophers claim that the ultimate reason for Israel’s existence is to be part of the unifying thread in a kind of Heilsgeschichte (redemptive history). Its purpose is to move humankind forward on its spiritual journey both to full recognition of God as the ultimate Master of all existence and to supreme ethical behavior. This noble role demands exemplary conduct on the part of the Jews. To fully understand this, we must realize that God is not merely the Creator and God of the universe but primarily the God Who is deeply involved in human history. God is not a philosophical idea advanced by Greek philosophers, totally separate from and beyond all human existence. He is an almost touchable Being Who dresses Himself in human emotions to make His point known to mankind …

… This perplexing notion of “redemptive history” stands at the very core of the mission of Jews and Halakha. For Halakha to be meaningful and eternal, it must be redemptive Halakha, constantly deriving its vitality and its guidelines from this notion. Redemptive history must move forward in order to be redemptive, and Halakha must therefore move with it. Once it has accomplished a certain goal, it must abandon the means by which it achieved this goal and move to the next stage of its redemptive goals. If, instead, it adheres to the means by which it achieved its goal, it undermines itself and becomes destructive. Instead of being redemptive, it becomes confining and harmful, turning progress into regression and reversing everything that it wants to achieve …

… Many of Halakha’s redemptive goals have been fulfilled. Franz Rosenzweig’s thoughts on this subject have been right on the mark. He points out that it is not so much Judaism itself that is directly responsible for these achievements. It required a more extroverted monotheistic religion to take on its ideals and expose them to the world. This, says Rosenzweig, is what Christianity did. With all its mistakes and anti-Semitic overtones, it paradoxically made monotheism into a powerful force throughout the world, and many Jewish values are now well known while conventional idol worship has ceased to exist. Rosenzweig adds that Judaism gave birth to Christianity for this very purpose, and Christianity can only fulfill its purpose if Israel is in its midst. It must take its inspiration from Israel. It cannot stand on its own feet. Christian philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich suggested that there would always be a need for Judaism because “it is the corrective against the paganism that goes along with Christianity.” …

… But there is more. The famous philosopher, Talmudist and halakhic expert Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits argues that over the last 2,000 years Halakha has become increasingly defensive. It has had to deal with aggressive anti-Semitism, as Judaism and Jews were constantly attacked in the Diaspora. Under those circumstances, rabbinical authorities built many walls between us and the Gentiles. This was very understandable; it was the only way to survive. But it also meant that Halakha became stagnant. It couldn’t develop naturally because it had to constantly look over its shoulder to make sure that Jews wouldn’t be affected by the non-Jewish world whose practices and ideologies might oppose Jewish ethical values. It had to ensure that in no way, neither directly nor indirectly, would Jews be influenced by or support non-Jewish idolatrous traditions and immoral acts. During all of these 2,000 years in exile, Halakha was forced into a waiting mode, in anticipation of redeeming itself when Jews would again return to their homeland and live in freedom …

… But times have changed. The waiting mode has come to an end. Halakha’s longtime dream, to liberate itself from its defensiveness and fear, is being fulfilled in our own days! The Jews’ situation has drastically changed, specifically since the establishment of the state of Israel. We no longer have to be defensive, as we were in the ghettos. The state has given us our long-awaited independence. We run our own affairs and are no longer afraid of the anti-Semitic world. If attacked, we will strike back. And just as the Jewish state has freed the Jews from defenselessness by building a powerful army with tens of thousands of soldiers and the most sophisticated weaponry, which has made the Israeli army into the world’s best, so must Halakha abandon its fear, take a courageous, assertive approach, and make a radical turnabout. Instead of fearing the corrupt influence of the non-Jewish world, we should now show ourselves and the world the enormous spiritual and moral power of Judaism. Instead of building high walls around us, we should create transparent partitions. It’s time for the world to be awestruck by the power of Judaism. It’s time for exposure, and the export of Jewish spirituality and ethics. The world needs it. The world is ready for it. Jews would find great meaning in religious Judaism, and non-Jews would be astonished and impressed. Assimilation will not come to an end by enacting laws rooted in fear and weakness, but by a halakhic ideology of strength and courage. Judaism has more than enough strength to face head-on the many negative powers that surround us and win the war. Yes, there will be victims, as we have in any Israeli war, but war can only be won if you take that risk, no matter how painful. Today’s weak approach creates more victims, by far …

… As long as our religious teachers continue to teach Jewish texts as models of approval, instead of manifestations of protest against the mediocrity of our world, we will lose more and more of our young people to that very mediocrity …

… Judaism is in essence an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent means renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the stuff that world growth is made of …

… But all of this can be achieved only if we re-establish Halakha as an ideology and practice by which courage and determination will lead to great pride and a strong feeling of mission …

… We must now make sure that Halakha can once again develop in its original, innovative way and come back to itself. We don’t need to reform or update it. We need to simply take it back to the point where it had to turn against its own self because of our galut, exile, experience, and we must get it back on track. We have to cut off the many foreign branches that have for centuries concealed its ancient roots. It requires a purifying process so as to bring it to complete spiritual fulfillment …

… Yes, it has to be done slowly, with great care, and in a way that doesn’t harm the core. I haven’t the slightest doubt that we’ll discover a beautiful canvas with many diverse but harmonious colors that will deeply impress our fellow Jews and make Judaism irresistible …

… To achieve this goal, we have to de-codify Jewish law and dispense with the official codes of law by which Judaism was able to survive in past centuries. Codification stagnates. While it was necessary in order to overcome the enormous challenges of exile, it has now become an obstacle, outdated and unhealthy, which to a great extent blocks the natural development of Halakha. Jewish law must move and grow, taking into account various developments in our world and giving them guidance. And that can happen only if it is fluid and allows for a great amount of flexibility, which codification cannot offer. Certainly, some conformity is necessary, such as in the case of civil law, but unlike non-Jewish codifications, Jewish law is foremost a religious and spiritual tradition. As such, it can never be translated into immutable rules to be applied at all times, under all conditions, and for everyone, without considering the personal, religious and practical components. These elements vary drastically, as can be seen by the many differing and even opposing opinions in the Talmud, which the Sages were not only aware of but seem to have actually encouraged …

… What we need now is prophetic, New Age Halakha, dedicated to the great, authentic, ethical mission of the Jewish people as conveyed by the prophets, and combined with the demands of the Torah. The prophets preached a rare combination of particularism and universalism. They strongly advocated Jewish particularism, so as to keep the Jews separated from the rest of the nations. But they always viewed this in terms of universalism. There was a need for a central driving force, full of spiritual and moral energy, that would enable the Jews to inspire all of mankind and be “a light unto the nations,” conveying the oneness of God and the significance of justice …

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