The Ideal Torah Versus the Evolving Torah Thoughts on the Mei Hashiloach and the Halacha Part 1

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 21 februari 2020

Dear friends, Shalom u-vracha. It is a great pleasure to present to my readers the first of several essays, written by my dear friend, student, colleague and scholar Yehudah DovBer Zirkind, based on my insights into Torah and Halacha and the discussion of these ideas within the David Cardozo Academy’s Think Tank.

This time the discussion centers around the thoughts of the great Chassidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, (Poland, 1800-1854) known by his work: Mei Hashiloah, one the most unusual works ever written by a deeply ultra-orthodox master thinker. This work has influenced many other orthodox and non-orthodox scholars, above all the famous halachist, and mystic, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1865-1935).

Rabbi Leiner’s thoughts are of the greatest importance for our days. It deals, among many other issues, with the numerous serious problems which emerge when our moral intuition conflicts with conventional Halacha; the question whether the Halacha is able to respond to the radical changes which have taken place in modern times. Is the conventional Halacha appropriate for all Jews when it is becomes clearer and clearer that human beings are by nature so radically different and consequently unable to live by one and the same code? How can one standardized deeply religious law respond and give guidance to all those different people? And what happens when an individual has a “religious illumination”, a kind of divine revelation, coming from God which contradicts the very requirements of the Torah?

And while Rabbi Leiner lived long before the State of Israel was established, his many unconventional thoughts touch on perhaps the most important question with which Jewry struggles at this very hour: How to secure the democratic State of Israel’s religious Jewish character which gets constantly compromised but nevertheless wants to stay Jewish. No doubt, this matter touches on the very core of Jewish identity and consequently on the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

In my writings and thoughts, I have dealt with many of these problems. (See for example: Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, 2018)

In the following essays, Yehudah Dov Ber Zirkind discusses my thoughts on the Mei Hashiloah in relationship to my own ideas as I presented them in our Think Tank and also shows us the highlights and pitfalls of these ideas.

Much more can be said about all these topics which we hope to present to you in the future.

It is of outmost importance that our discussion should be read with a great amount of Yirath Shamayim, the awe of Heaven, deep belief in the divinity of the Torah, which are fundamental to the very thoughts of the Mei Shiloah and my own small contribution.

Enjoy.

Nathan Lopes Cardozo


Thoughts on the Mei Hashiloach and The Halacha

Yehudah DovBer Zirkind

Introduction: The Orthodox Jewish Spectrum

There is a heated battle currently raging within Orthodox Jewish circles and beyond for the soul of Judaism, Torah and Halacha. I believe that it is fair to say that this issue constitutes one of the core conflicts and major fault-lines dividing right-wing and left-wing orthodoxy. At the risk of oversimplification, I would like to argue that within Orthodoxy, Ultra-Orthodoxy (on the right) and Open-Orthodoxy (on the left) represent the polar extremes of this ideological divide.

The view generally associated with right-wing orthodoxy, espouses a “perfect-Torah” approach. According to this view, the Torah – as interpreted by its authoritative interpreters and codified by its preeminent halachic authorities – contains the perfect “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Thus, living a Torah-true lifestyle demands that one not compromise the truth of Torah by surrendering to the changing intellectual currents and shifting moral fads of a particular Zeitgeist. Halacha is morally and ethically perfect as it stands, and any attempt to change Halacha to make it more compatible with the moral spirit of the age is a religious travesty. This attitude toward Torah is best summed up in the words of the Psalmist, “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul…The orders of the Lord are upright, causing the heart to rejoice… The judgments of the Lord are true, altogether just.” (1) Even when certain laws appear to be unjust, one must defer to God’s superior judgement. “There is neither wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord.” (2) Thus, according to this view in its most extreme formulation, changing moral attitudes toward a host of issues (for example the changing roles of women, social equality, sexual orientation, and other issues) are a violation of Torah-true principles, and hence must be completely rejected.

On the other side of the spectrum is the view generally associated with left-wing or liberal orthodoxy. The ideologues of this camp espouse an “evolving-Torah” approach. According to this view, while Halacha is binding, not every letter in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) represents the ideal and lofty spirit of the Torah. It is possible that the contemporary Zeitgeist indeed reflects a higher moral norm than what is currently codified as Law. Those that maintain this view find support in a variety of halakhic sources, among them: statements in the Talmud and Rabbinic literature asserting that certain laws in the Torah were a compromise to the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) (3); the Rambam’s view that sacrifices don’t reflect the ideal form of divine worship but were divinely sanctioned only because a more elevated standard could not be expected of the Israelites at that point in time (4); and other sources which record the rabbis’ struggle with morally problematic texts and the interpretive strategies they employed to address them. (5) Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992), one of the champions of this approach, succinctly expresses this idea of morally imperfect laws in the Torah as Torah tolerated norms as opposed to Torah taught ideals. (6)

Consequently, the proponents of this approach don’t view these higher moral notions as sacrilege and an affront to Torah, rather they maintain that God himself would approve of these higher moral standards. Instead of viewing these ideas as foreign influences from the external world of secular humanism – ideas that must be kept out of the Jewish worldview – these very insights and moral intuitions are seen as having been implanted by Divine Providence. These new insights thus derive from a (quasi) divine revelation in the guise of the secular Zeitgeist.

Proponents of this view believe that Halacha itself must evolve in order to take these more progressive values into account. Unlike other movements in Judaism, however, which believe that the law can be totally discarded in such instances, these liberally minded Orthodox Jews attempt to employ legitimate halachic mechanisms to change the law. To be sure, the ability to amend a static and fixed code of law in accord with a dynamic and ever-evolving conception of morality is fraught with great challenges and tensions. Nevertheless, advocates of this view believe that while this enterprise involves greater risk than the more conservative religious approach, it is not only morally justified but also religiously mandated.

This dichotomy between the “perfect-Torah” verses the “evolving-Torah” models permeate both the realms of Hashkafa (religious outlook) and Halacha (religious law). A hashkafic view that upholds the “perfect-Torah” model will view Halachic changes based on a more progressive moral outlook as a falsification of Torah; whereas a hashkafic view which upholds the “evolving-Torah” model will actively pursue any and all means at their disposal to revisit and reshape Halacha. This is based on their firm conviction that in so doing they are not desecrating the Torah; rather, they are elevating the Torah to a higher degree of sanctity. They are slowly and steadily attempting to narrow the gap between the less-than-perfect Torah of today and the ideal Torah of the future.

Rabbi Cardozo

One of the contemporary ideologues of the latter view is Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo. In numerous essays he espouses an “evolving-Torah” viewpoint, and calls for thoroughgoing changes in the Halacha. In one essay he views conventional Halacha as “defensive-Halacha” which ought to be replaced by a “redemptive” and “prophetic Halacha.” (7) While in another essay, he distinguishes between the pragmatic Torah that is and the ideal Torah that ought-to-be. (8) Often ridiculed for his controversial and radical approach toward Halacha, Rabbi Cardozo stands resolute in his conviction that his views are not a departure from authentic Orthodox Judaism; on the contrary, he insists that his views express the true creative spirit of Halacha which has unfortunately become fossilized. He maintains that the prolonged exile and the collective trauma of Jewish persecution gave rise to a reactionary and paralyzing spirit which froze up the bubbling hot springs of the Halacha.
In addition to Rabbi Cardozo’s prolific output of essays and lectures, he also heads a Think Tank in Jerusalem. The members of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank consist of a heterogonous group of scholars, educators and professionals, all of whom share a vision and passion for a revitalized Judaism. Among other things, the Think Tank provides a platform for Rabbi Cardozo to explore his ideas and discuss the ways in which his ideas can have an impact on the greater Jewish community in Israel and abroad.

The DCA Think Tank Discusses the Mei Hashiloah

On January 29, 2019 the members of the David Cardozo Think Tank in Jerusalem convened to discuss several ideas of the Chassidic master, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, Poland (1800-1854), also known as the Mei Hashiloach, after the title of the book containing his teachings.

The Mei Hashiloach’s teachings have recently become a focal point for lively discussion and heated debate. In particular, his ideas have been widely popularized by neo-Chassidic thinkers and religious seekers, thereby making him a central figure in contemporary scholarly and religious discourse. Numerous scholarly treatments of Mei Hashiloach’s original and controversial views on matters pertaining to theology and Halacha have appeared in recent decades and continue to engage the minds of rabbis and academics alike.

Of particular interest to Rabbi Cardozo and the Think Tank are the Mei Hashiloach’s unconventional statements about Halacha. (9) These statements, although strictly hashkafic (philosophical) and not halachic (legal) in nature, are often cited by proponents of the “evolving-Torah” approach to support the view that that the Halacha as codified in the Shulchan Aruch may not always reflect the ultimate will of God.

Thus, for example, the Mei Hashiloach presents a typology of opposing archetypes as personified by the biblical personalities Yosef and Yehudah. Yosef represents the strict Halachist, whereas Yehudah represents the person who looks directly toward God to discern His will. (10)

In other passages, the Mei Hashiloach talks about the possibility of a personal divine illumination, or insight, guiding a person toward a different course of action than what is mandated by normative Halacha. (11) This divine insight reflects a deeper and more individualized notion of what God wants a person to do at a particular moment or in given situation, which can be at odds with the general practices of Mitzvot and Halacha. (12) After all, what the Mei Hashiloah terms כללים or “general rules of Torah” (13) prescribe rules for all situations, without differentiating between different times, places, and personal temperaments.

To be continued next week.


(1) Tehillim, 19:8-10.

(2) Mishlei 21:30; See also Brachot 19b.

(3) See Kiddushin 21b.

(4) See Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:32. See also Stephen D. Benin, The Footprints of God, Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), especially chaps. 5 and 6.

(5) For a comprehensive treatment of this issue, see Moshe Halbertal, Interpretive Revolutions in the Making (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1999) (Hebrew); Dov Weiss, Pious Irreverence: Confronting God in Rabbinic Judaism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press), 2017; idem, "Divine Concessions in the Tanhuma Midrashim," Harvard Theological Review 108, no. 1 (2015): 70-97. For a different perspective, see David Weiss Halivni, “Can a Religious Law be Immoral?,” in Perspectives on Jews and Judaism: Essays in Honor of Wolfe Kelman, ed. Arthur A. Chiel (NY: The Rabbinical Assembly, 1978), 165–170.

(6) Eliezer Berkovits, Jewish Women in Time and Torah (Hoboken, N.J.: Ktav, 1990), 1.

(7) See Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2019), chap. 2.

(8) Ibid., chap. 19.

(9) For a discussion about the inherent dangers and possible abuses of relying on the Mei Hashiloach’s teachings to espouse a radical reformulation of the Halacha, especially within liberal religious circles, see David Bashevkin, "A Radical Theology and a Traditional Community: On the Contemporary Application of Izbica-Lublin Hasidut in the Jewish Community," Open Orthodox Symposium I, available online; Don Seeman, “The Anxiety of Ethics and the Presence of God,” in Arthur Green and Ariel Even Mayse, eds., A New Hasidism: Branches (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 73-103.

(10) See Rabbi Mordecai Joseph of Izbica, Mei Hashiloach, Vol. 1 Parashat Vayeshev 2; Morris M. Faierstein, All Is in the Hands of Heaven: The Teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Joseph Leiner of Izbica, rev. ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2005), 28-36, 68-71. See the accompanying source sheet #1. The source sheet can be downloaded here.

(11) The term “divine illumination” referring to an internal insight, intuition, or inner clarity that enables a person to discern God’s will concerning a particular situation, was coined by the late scholar of Jewish Mysticism and Hasidism, Joseph G. Weiss (1918-1969), in his study “A Late Jewish Utopia of Religious Freedom,” in David Goldstein, ed., Studies in Eastern European Jewish Mysticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 211 ff. Weiss’ term “divine illumination” is a translation of the Hebrew word ha’arah which appears in the book Mei ha-Shilo’ach. Note that RMY uses other words as well to describe this type of “illumination.” One of the key terms he uses is “Binah” which seems to indicate that he is not referring to a mystical experience per se, but rather to an internal perception and conviction.

(12) There are numerous passages in the Mei Hashiloach which discuss the dichotomy between the general rules of conventional Halacha versus discerning the true depth of God’s will for each specific moment and situation. See, for example, Mei Hashiloach, vol. 1, folio 9a on Bereshit 23:1; Ibid., folios 14-15a on Bereshit 37:1; Ibid., folio 30b on Shemot 34:17; Ibid., folio 52 on Bamidbar 21:10; Ibid., folio 53b on Bamidbar 23:23; Ibid., folio 56a on Bamidbar 36:5; Ibid., folio 12b on Shabbat 22b; Ibid., folio 15 on Yoma 26a; Ibid., vol. 2, p. 24 on Shemot 6:23; Ibid., pp. 53-54 on Vayikra 26:3; Ibid., p. 56 on Bamidbar 9:2; Ibid., p. 57 on Bamidbar 9:23; Ibid., p. 58 on Bamidbar 12:6.

(13) See source sheet #2-3.

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