Introduction to The Narrow Halakhic Bridge

The Challenge to Halakhah in our Generation
by Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth

  1. Halakhah in Existential Danger

The dizzying pace of developments in technology, media, and the world of social networks has accelerated the process of globalization and has turned the world into a small, vulnerable global village. The far-reaching social changes we see in our world are the result of the same unprecedented processes of development. The values of equality and postmodernism are all-encompassing, and are consciously and subconsciously profoundly influencing our way of thinking. The information revolution, making knowledge instantly available to anyone seeking it, causes intellectual shallowness by creating the illusion that anyone can acquire expertise in any subject quickly and effortlessly. In many circles, the place of the family is being undermined, and the authority of parents and teachers is being challenged, if not completely erased.

All these developments pose challenges of unprecedented proportions to halakhic leaders, and it is these challenges that this book hopes to address. More than ever before, the Halakhah finds itself in existential danger.

There is no way to shut out the waves of cultural influence that infiltrate even the most closed societies by way of classic or social media, through the internet and smartphones, which affects fundamental changes in people’s values and social conceptions. If in the past intergenerational gaps emerged slowly, over the course of decades, or even centuries, today’s generational gaps are created in just a few years with the cultural distance between the younger generation and its predecessor becoming more difficult than ever to bridge. These rapid changes present serious questions about the place of Halakhah in the Jewish world, and demand a thorough and fundamental response. I fear, indeed, that we stand near a tipping point in terms of saving Halakhah from its existential crisis. If we fail to wake up now, and boldly and honestly provide a comprehensive, relevant response to the questions of this generation using the halakhic tools of our eternal Torah, within a generation or two we are liable to find ourselves with a significantly weaker and smaller community of the halakhically observant. It is highly doubtful that the accepted answers that have endured and sufficed for past generations will be able to provide ample solutions for the coming generations.

  1. Post-Modernity and Spiritual Changes in Israel and the World

The world, in general, and Jewish society in particular, are in the midst of a search for spirituality and meaning. A spiritual renaissance is underway in Israel and the thirst for Judaism in Jewish communities around the world is growing, fulfilling the words of the prophet Amos,

“‘Behold, days are coming,’ says the Lord, God, ‘and I will send a famine in the land. Not a famine for bread and not a thirst for water, but to hear the word of God.’”[1]

The postmodern spirit that prevails today enables people to live simultaneously in multiple worlds and to navigate between them. Modernity was characterized by a polar ‘black-and-white’ attitude that demanded a rejection of the ‘old world.’ The younger generation preferred what was deemed ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ rather than anything associated with a world whose ‘expiration date’ had passed. In postmodern culture, on the other hand, while many values have been uprooted, there are also movements to resurrect and rediscover old and traditional values. The New Age phenomenon that has become more and more popular in recent decades has brought old teachings and traditions back to life and back into fashion. These new trends also affect the attitude toward Judaism in Israeli society. The old dichotomy between religious and secular in which ‘secular’ also meant ‘anti-religious’ has changed drastically in recent years. The stark lines between the different sectors have blurred and much of the feelings of ‘anti’ have dissipated. It has become easier for people to search for spirituality and Judaism without fearing they will lose their personal identities. We have, then, a unique, historic window of opportunity allowing for a Jewish renaissance after many years of estrangement of most people from their traditions. This spiritual thirst has the potential to propel forward the process of spiritual return to God that is, in the Torah’s vision, a necessary component of the process of returning to Zion,

“Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord, your God, will gather you, from there He will take you. And the Lord, your God, will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. Then the Lord, your God, will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live.”[2]

The prophet Yechezkel describes a similar process in his Vision of the Dry Bones,

“Thus says the Lord, God, “Behold, O My people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the Land of Israel . . . and I shall put my spirit in you, and you shall live, and I shall place you in your own land; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and performed it, says the Lord.”” [3]

However, this opportunity comes with its own challenge. The open, inclusive and pluralistic postmodern spirit also impacts attitudes toward Halakhah, especially the attitudes of those who were educated and raised as observant Jews. The result is an approach of selective observance, not out of religious compromise or spiritual weakness, but rather as a conscious choice and preference for certain Western values over halakhic requirements. We find more and more young men and women – some of whom have studied at the best yeshivot and seminaries – who adhere to the Torah as a way of life yet simultaneously are torn between their commitment to Halakhah and their identification with Western culture, and who ultimately choose Western values over halakhic ones. We see this in areas related to gender equality and gender identity, laws of modesty and family, of technology and science, and others. These challenges demand that we wake up and carefully examine our reality and provide our communities with the proper guidance and inspiration.

  1. From Destruction to Rebuilding

“Rabbi Chiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla, ‘Since the day the Temple was destroyed God has naught in this world but the four cubits of Halakhah.’”[4]

From the beginning of our two-thousand year exile, the Halakhah entered a defensive stance intended to protect and insulate it from foreign influence. In order to ensure their survival, Jewish communities throughout the world erected high walls separating them from general society. For hundreds of years, Judaism was kept safe in the shtetl within a spiritual enclave, separated and cut off from foreign cultures. Halakhah thus developed within an atmosphere of fear of foreign influences, and this trend developed as cultural influences grew stronger. Over the years, and in the shadow of the challenges of the exile, rabbinic leadership has become accustomed to being responsive and defensive, rather than ­visionary.

Seeking shelter within the four cubits of Halakhah was a process initiated by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai when he gave up hope of the Temple and Jerusalem and asked of the Romans, “give me Yavneh and its sages.”[5] With this brave act, necessary at the time (nonetheless harshly criticized by Rabbi Akiva), Judaism shifted from the Temple to the bet midrash, and from a Judaism of life to a Judaism of constriction, afflictions, and retreat, as Rabbi Kook describes,

“When the light was darkened, when God’s Presence was exiled, when the nation was exiled from its homeland, constriction began to be necessary. Any secular strength could be problematic; any natural beauty or desire could darken the holy light, the innocent purity and modesty; any thought that did not solely arise within the Jewish camp could destroy Jewish faith and life; any small amount of prosperity could lead to rebellion. From this came the sadness and self-denial, the gloom and fear, and more than it affected the physical life it affected the spiritual life, the breadth of thinking, and the scope of emotion.” [6]

After two-thousand years, we have merited to return to our land and to witness the miraculous process of returning to Zion. The processes of At’chalta di’Ge’ulah, ‘The Beginning of the Redemption,’ require a reverse movement to that which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai led. These processes require the redemption of the Halakhah from the four cubits of the study hall in order to reconnect it to life, a process Rabbi Kook hints at further on,

“Until the end comes, and a voice cries aloud, ‘Enlarge the site of your tent, extend the size of your dwelling, do not stint! ‘Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm, for you shall spread out to the right and the left; your offspring shall dispossess nations and shall populate the desolate towns’ (Yeshayahu 54:2) and the narrow area of two thousand cubits becomes ever broader . . .” [7]

The profound ways in which the world and the Jewish people have changed in recent years, require rabbinic leadership to move from a defensive stance to providing a meaningful vision for Judaism and ­Halakhah.

  1. Goal, Style, and Structure

As a person immersed in both religious and secular society in Israel, and as one who is well acquainted and involved with Modern Orthodox communities in the Diaspora, I experience the conflicts, dilemmas, and crises firsthand; with each passing day I have become more concerned for the future of Halakhah. This book was not written from the ‘ivory tower’ of Torah, but from within the thick of the social and cultural complexities of life. As the woman from Shunem said, “I sit amongst my people.”[8] As someone personally dedicated to the world of Halakhah who has spent many years studying and teaching it, I deeply believe in Halakhah’s eternal power to guide the Jewish people and to maintain our identity as the eternal nation. For this reason, I have been encouraged to invest years of research and writing to offer, to the best of my ability, a vision for the future of Halakhah – a vision that is loyal to our traditions and the path that has brought us to this point, while simultaneously does not ignore our changing realities and will rather allow the Torah to be applied to them.

This book is not only intended for rabbis, yeshivah students and academics. First and foremost, it was written for the public, both to strengthen their understanding of, and thus, their trust in, the halakhic system, and also to empower them with an appreciation of their power and role in shaping the future of Halakhah. As will be explained in the book, this is not something that is meant to be the purview of Torah scholars alone. Therefore, the book was written using common language, rather than the more technical rabbinic jargon known as Lishna de’Rabbanan, which is only understood by a limited circle. It is worthwhile in this context, to quote the words of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,

“Today, in the world of yeshivot . . . it is common practice to write and publish works of Torah in a dialect known as Lishna de’Rabbanan . . . This dialect does not match any spoken language in a bet midrash in our days, whether in Israel or in the Diaspora. But it is anchored in an ancient literary tradition that was itself, for the most part, disconnected from any lived social or cultural reality . . . Language, after all, is an ever-developing phenomenon influenced by social dynamics, and even one who strives to maintain a particular traditional style need not adhere to absolute preservation.” [9]

Over the course of the book, I will present many approaches of those figures who shaped the Halakhah over the generations on topics such as the nature of Halakhah and the ways that it develops and is decided. Along with a presentation of these opinions, I will try to navigate between them, passing on the “very narrow bridge” between preservation and innovation, which I humbly offer as the most appropriate path to meet the challenges of our period.

Close to one thousand texts, bringing the wisdom of rabbis over the course of the generations, are weaved throughout this book. Often, the quotes are extensive, and in some chapters, they will be brought with little additional explanation or discussion. Since the subjects being explored are both sensitive and complex, it is important that the reader see the ideas as they were originally formulated in order to appreciate that nothing in this book is of my own invention or creation. I see my role as arranging ideas that have already been articulated, combining them to form a whole, coherent picture, and also as raising challenges and offering a vision for the future.

Every section in the book will begin with a text from an aggadic or halakhic midrash, or from the Kabbalah. In this way, midrashic thinking will be weaved into our halakhic discussions. Rabbi Kook wrote of the supreme importance of connecting the realms of Aggadah and Halakhah, and this is what I have tried my best to accomplish,

“Halakhah and Aggadah need to be united with one another. The conditions that compel us to engage in both of them must also compel their spiritual uniting. The feeling of entering into a completely different world that one who focuses on Halakhah has when approaching Aggadah, and vice versa, takes away the greatest part of spiritual enrichment . . .” [10]

The words of the Aggadah and the Midrash add richness, depth and breadth to every halakhic discussion. Halakhah cannot be decided based on aggadic texts, but the soul of Halakhah can be invigorated by them, and this is my intention in the text.

While quoting a broad range of sources, I should note the thinkers who had the most profound influence on the worldview presented in this book. The writings of Rabbi A. Y. Kook[11] and Rabbi Y. D. Soloveitchik[12] were my major inspiration and laid the book’s guiding principles. Both these giants were trailblazers of religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s[13] courageous and creative halakhic approach with a clear-eyed view of reality also plays a large role. Another source of inspiration was the halakhic method of Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg,[14] author of the responsa Seridei Eish, who integrated both ethical and social sensitivity into his halakhic decisions. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,[15] one of the giants of our own generation who only recently passed away, also had a way of thinking and deciding Halakhah characterized by a high level of integrity and common sense that has been another central pillar of my writing. Finally, I have also appreciated the ideas of Rabbi Professor Eliezer Berkovits,[16] a creative and innovative thinker and a disciple of Rabbi Weinberg.

Rabbinic leadership has historically been courageous, visionary and inspirational, dealing with the problems of the time fearlessly and offering relevant halakhic responses.[17] However, over the years, as a result of social changes and political factors, the pursuit of vision has waned, and in some areas unfortunately, the rabbinate has become synonymous with an establishment solely providing rabbinical supervision and religious services. It is essential in our times to switch from a ‘supervision’ mindset to a spiritual leadership with a ‘super-vision’ for the future of Halakhah and Judaism. A broad perspective and an insight into the future may give us the tools to deal with the challenges of Halakhah in the postmodern era.

It is my aim that this book will provoke a broad discourse of issues within Modern Orthodoxy, a discourse that is critical to the continuity and eternity of Halakhah and the Torah

FOOTNOTES

[1]. Amos 8:11.

[2]. Devarim 30:4-6.

[3]. Yechezkel 37:12,14.

[4]. Berakhot 8a.

[5]. Gittin 56b.

[6]. Orot HaTechiyah, Chapter 15.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Melakhim II 4:13

[9]. Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Introduction to Kuntres Dina DeGarmei.

[10]. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot HaKodesh 1, p.25.

[11]. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, 1865-1935, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel.

[12]. Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, 1903-1993, Rabbi of Boston’s Orthodox community and Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva University, New York and one of the most influential, pivotal figures in 20th century American Modern Orthodoxy.

[13]. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, 1895-1986, one of the greatest halakhic decisors in North America after the holocaust.

[14]. Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, 1884-1966, Head of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin.

[15]. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, 1933-2015, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Alon Shvut, Israel.

[16]. Rabbi Professor Eliezer Berkovits, 1908-1992, Chairman of the Department of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie.

[17]. Many examples of this are presented throughout the book, and in particular in Chapter Eight, Section 2, “Laws of a Jewish State,” and in the Afterword