Excerpt from Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea For Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, New York, September 2017.
It is time to start thinking big about Halacha. Great opportunities are awaiting us and too much is at stake to let them pass by. For too long, Halacha has been jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate it.
Most religious Jews are not aware that Halacha has nearly become passé. They believe it is thriving. After all, Halacha is very “in” and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage. We have fallen in love with – and become overwhelmed by – an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive halachic information, which does not get processed but only recycled. We have access to a nearly infinite amount of information via the Internet, books, journals and pamphlets, providing us with all the knowledge we could ever dream of. The problem is that this easily accessible information has replaced creative thinking. It has expelled the possibility for big ideas, and we have grown scared of them. We only tolerate and admire bold ideas when they provide us with profit-making inventions – when we feel our empty pockets – but not when they dare challenge our hollow souls. We do not discuss big ideas because they are too abstract and ethereal.
Novelty is always seen as a threat. It carries with it a sense of violation; a kind of sacrilege. It asks us to think, to stretch our brains. This requires too much of an effort and doesn’t suit our most important concern: the need for instant satisfaction. We love the commonplace instead of the visionary, and therefore do not produce people who have the capacity to deliver true innovation.
It is only among some very small, secular elite groups that we see staggering ideas emerging (Hawking and black holes, Aumann and game theory). In the department of Halacha, with only few exceptions, we rarely find anyone who even comes close to suggesting something really new. This is all the more true within Orthodox Judaism. While in ages past, discussions within Halacha could ignite fires of debate, we are now confronted with an increasingly post-idea Halacha. Provoking ideas that would boggle our minds are no longer “in”. If anything, they are condemned as heresy. Since they cannot easily be absorbed into our self-made halachic boxes, and they don’t bring us the complacency we long for, we stick to the mainstream where we can dream our mediocre dreams and leave things as they are.
The Retreat of Creative Thinking
Most of our yeshivot have retreated from creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than push for daring ideas. We are producing a generation that believes its task is to tend potted plants rather than plant forests.
We offer our young people prepared experiences in which we tell them what to think instead of teaching them how to think. We rob them of the capacity to learn what thinking is really all about. The plethora of halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts of Jewish law, hardly generate the inspiration for new ideas about these laws. In fact, they stand in the way. There is no time for anyone to process all the information even if they want to. But instead of seeing this as a problem, they and their teachers have turned it into a virtue.
And that is exactly the point. We are faced with two extremes: either our youth walk out on or maintain a lukewarm relationship with Jewish observance, or they become so obsessed by its finest points that they are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees and they consequently turn into rigid religious extremists.
What we fail to realize is that this is the result of our own educational system. In both cases, young people have fallen victim to the disease of information for the sake of information.
Information is not simply to have. It is there to be converted into something much larger than itself; it is there to produce ideas that make sense of all the information gathered in order to move it forward to higher latitudes. Information is not there to be possessed, but to be comprehended.
Jewish education today is, for the most part, producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance, but think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers. Some are even Talmudic scholars, but these very scholars don’t realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand. Just as a young child may think it is an act of kindness to lift a fish out of an aquarium and “save” it, so these Rabbis may be choking their students while thinking they are providing them with spiritual oxygen. Doing so, they rewrite Halachic Judaism in ways that are totally foreign to the very ideas that it truly stands for. They are embalming Halacha while claiming it is alive, because it continues to maintain its external shape.
Fewer and fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great halachic arbitrators of the past. They know little of their weltanschauung. And even when they do, the ideas of these great thinkers are presented to them as information, instead of as challenges to their own thinking or as prompts to the development of their own creativity. This is a tragedy. Our current halachic, spiritual and intellectual challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backwards and giving answers that once worked, but are now outdated.
The Quest for Certainty Paralyzes the Search for Meaning
Instead of new theories, hypotheses and great ideas, we get instant answers to questions of the utmost importance, offered via a wide variety of self-help books, the authors of which seem to claim that their halachic information came directly from Sinai. Trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information replaces significant ideas. The information is reduced to a catchline – thus too brief and unsupported by proper arguments – yet still presented as “the answer”. By delivering “perfect” answers, which fit nicely into the often underdeveloped philosophies of their authors, everything is done to crush the questioning of halachic conclusions. The quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning. It is uncertainty that is the very stimulus impelling man to unfold his intellectual capacity. Every idea within Halacha is multifaceted – filled with contradictions, opposing opinions, and unsolvable paradoxes. The greatness of the Talmudic Sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them, as when Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, Rava and Abaye debated major halachic problems; their fierce disagreements rooted in their outlook on life and how they saw Judaism. (1) Students were made privy to their teachers’ inner lives, and that made their discussions exciting. The teachers created tension in their classes, waged war with their own ideas and asked their students to fight them with knives between their teeth. They were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to take them apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions. These teachers realized that not all halachic paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is full of paradoxes. They also realized that an answer is always a form of death, but a question opens the mind and inspires the heart.
It is true that this approach is not without risk, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk free. Nothing is worse than giving in to the indolence and callousness that stifles inquiry and leaves one drifting with the current. Such an approach shrinks the universe of the Halacha to a self-centered and self-satisfying ideological ghetto, robbing it of its most essential component: the constant debate about the religious meaning of life and how to live in God’s presence and move to higher levels.
The Greatest Proof of Judaism’s Decline is the Prodigiously Large Number of Like-Minded Religious Jews
Outreach programs, although well intentioned, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are. That their methods crush the minds of many newcomers who might have made a major contribution to a new and vigorous Halacha is of no importance to them. The goal is to fit them into the existing system. That their outdated theories make other independent minds abhor Judaism and Halacha is a thought they do not seem to even entertain. To them, only numbers count. How many people did we make observant? Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the same type of religious Jew. Like the generation of the Tower of Babel, in which the whole world was “of one language and of one speech,” we are producing a religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered to be the ultimate ideal. We have created a generation of yes men. We desperately need to heed what Kierkegaard said about Christianity: “The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [like-minded] Christians.” (2)
Insight has been replaced with clichés, flexibility with obstinacy, and spontaneity with habit. What was once one of the great pillars of Judaism – the esteemed value of spiritual, intellectual and moral dissent – has become anathema. Instead of teaching the art of audacity, we are now educating a generation of kowtowers.
There is social ostracism of any kind of healthy rebellion against the conventional. The famous Orthodox Rabbi, Eliezer Berkovits, was ignored when he argued that Halacha had become defensive; the master thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of Halacha is completely disregarded by Orthodoxy; Charedi yeshivot pay no attention to Rav Kook.
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. (3)
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 be continued
(1) Eruvin 13b.
(2) M.M. Thulstrup, “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation”, in A Kierkegaard Critique, ed. H.A. Johnson and N. Thulstrup (New York: Harper, 1962), 277.
(3) See Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 268.