Understanding Na’aseh V’Nishma in a Post-Modern World

‘Na’aseh V’Nishma’ (we will do and we will hear) is one of the major challenges facing the Jewish world in the post-modern age. This proclamation, made by the people of Israel when they stood at Mount Sinai, is regarded as a national declaration of total subjugation to G-d’s will, accepting the Torah in its entirety without question. Unqualified obedience, however, is quite literally the opposite of today’s post-modern spirit, which offers boundless pluralism and moral relativism, unlimited possibilities, and endless freedom.

The breakdown of authority and the rejection of commitment in post-modern times are posing an unprecedented challenge to the continuity of Jewish tradition. I fear that if we fail to provide a comprehensive, authentic response to these challenges, even our halakhically observant Jewish communities will shrink dramatically within a generation or two.

In my new book, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age, I deal at length with this challenge. Changing the Halakhah to make it lighter and easier to observe has never been an effective solution; it has been proven futile throughout history, because without commitment there is no continuity. However, we can and should change the way we transmit Halakhah so that our young people are more likely to listen.  

One of the elements of the vision I suggest in my book is what I define as “Empowering Psak”. A definition of this approach to religious decision making can be found in the introduction to the responsum of one of the greatest poskim (decision-makers) of the last generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in his book “Iggerot Moshe”:

“And since I have written my reasons and everything that I clarified, in this way, I am just one who is teaching the Halakhah and the questioner can investigate for himself, check, and choose, so I am not at all considered to be ruling.”

Rabbi Feinstein repeatedly emphasizes that everything written in his book is only his opinion and that he is unworthy of being a posek. Nevertheless, he perceives his role as organizing and presenting the Halakhah to whoever is interested to learn from it. According to this approach, the posek creates a halakhic dialogue and empowers his followers to learn and take responsibility for their decisions. That is why traditional Halakhic psak does not only present the Rabbi’s final conclusion, but rather shares their Halakhic thought process, including an analysis of relevant factors and a presentation of a whole range of considerations. This process allows every questioner to see the context and to understand the Halakhic process. (By contrast, the new phenomenon of text message responsa delivers a very concise psak sometimes just a one word answer– and I believe this new trend is destroying the richness of the Halakhic system and disempowering the questioners.)  

This need to empower the questioner is especially relevant and necessary in our post-modern times, where the status of the individual is such a dominant concern. Rather than simply presenting a ruling, the posek should review all relevant factors and give his followers a toolbox for making Halakhic decisions, so that ultimately they will be able to decide for themselves. 

The recent Zoom Seder controversy is an example of how this approach would have been helpful. The reasonings of the rabbis who permitted isolated family members to connect using technology were valid, but so were the concerns of the poskim who prohibited it. This was a very delicate matter, with each individual coping in different ways with the enormous challenges of lockdown. I believe that the poskim should have set out the various factors, considerations and concerns involved in their decisions, and let people make their own decisions based on their own unique circumstances. This would have encouraged more respect for and trust in the Halakhic system, instead of showing rabbis arguing with each other and sometimes even verbally attacking each other without trying to understand each other’s positions.

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook offered a very creative interpretation of Na’aseh V’Nishma, which corresponds with this approach of empowering psak: 

“Every piece of information which is found in nature does not require any precedent in order to be repeated. A bee, for example, can construct its beehive in a singularly accurate method without hearing any lesson of geometry, because this knowledge is imprinted instinctively in its nature.” (Ma’amrei HaReiya I:171)

As in nature, instinctive knowledge does not need to be learned in order to be realized and inherent wisdom can be actualized without study because it is naturally understood. An artist, for example, can produce a basic level of art because of the internal talent with which he or she is born; this natural talent is represented by the word Na’aseh. Artists must, however, study for many years to refine their talent, and that is the role of the word Nishma

Thanks to the information revolution, we can all acquire plenty of knowledge. However, most of this knowledge is external and does not necessarily connect with our inner essence, as Rav Kook explains:

“Only humans, who might be perplexed by false knowledge and chaos, need to make an effort to restore their purely spiritual nature…At Mount Sinai, we returned to this level of greatness and became pure natural Israelites, and therefore we said ‘Na’aseh’ before ‘Nishma’, (accepting the Torah) above all the false cultures of humanity”. 

We live in a chaotic and perplexing world, constantly bombarded by contradictory ideas and concepts, and so we need to make greater efforts to restore our pure spiritual nature. At Mount Sinai, at the height of human revelation, we returned to our natural level of greatness and became “pure natural Israelites”. We began to feel the Torah from the innermost source — ourselves. We did not need to hear before acting; we could instinctively sense God’s will and follow the commandments naturally. Based on this approach, the most authentic Torah learning comes not from external sources but rather from revealing our internal essence. When that happens, the external knowledge of Torah assists us in developing our spiritual intuitive understanding. Perhaps this approach of Rav Kook to Na’aseh V’Nishma is what our generation needs. Not a system of suppressing human understanding to achieve obedience, but rather a system of empowerment and trust.

In this age of free information, it is hard to expect a community to listen to its rabbi with unquestioning obedience and submission. Appealing to authority is less effective than it once was, and using coercion will not bring the community to a more elevated spiritual level. Many people, particularly the younger generation, observe mitzvot from a place of choice, not from coercion or fear of rabbinic authority. Orthodox rabbis in the post-modern era need to create a Halakhic dialogue through which they can empower their communities. 

Furthermore, our generation craves transparency. Halakhic decisions that are made behind closed doors are more likely to be greeted with doubt and skepticism. Precisely because today’s Jewish community is more educated, we should not be scared to share the Halakhic process with them, including our considerations and dilemmas and the factors behind our decisions. In making Halakhic psak more transparent, we should also explain the severity of different prohibitions, the legitimacy of various allowances, and the full range of possible solutions. Sometimes, rabbis issuedecisions that combine Torah prohibition with a new stringency (chumra), without explaining the huge difference between the authority of the former and the latter. This phenomenon has led many people to lose trust in Halakhah and disrespect the entire Jewish legal system. It is important for the rabbi to share his recommendation, and also explain how he himself would act in the questioner’s place, but ultimately he should encourage them to decide on the right conclusion for themselves.

“Empowering psak” is a critical need in our generation, to continue the everlasting chain of Na’aseh V’Nishma and reinforce the observance of Halakhah. In light of the breakdown of authority and obedience in the world, I believe that we need to replace rabbinic authority with inspiration, in order to build greater respect for the institution of the rabbinate through respectful interpersonal interaction and connection.

This article appears in the June 22 edition of the Jerusalem Report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *