Contemporary Jews and Halakhah

Jews of different stripes differ greatly with respect to their assessment of the role Jewish law should play today?and each camp has much to learn from the others.

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Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), poet laureate of the Hebrew renaissance, studied in yeshivot (traditional Jewish academies) as a child and young adult. An accomplished writer who moved easily in the secular Tel Aviv society of the early twentieth century, he never left Judaism's classical texts far behind. He managed to rebuke both secular and religious Jews in his 1917 essay, “Halakhah and Aggadah,” which brilliantly links the two: halakhah, literally meaning “the way,” or “the going,” but usually used to refer to Jewish law; and aggadah, “telling”: stories, ideas, philosophy, legend, and all other non-legal strands of Jewish thought and literature. 

Bialik initially presents them in opposition to one another, calling halakhah “severe, strict, hard like steel” and aggadah “compliant, merciful, softer than oil.” But quickly he shows this to be a false dichotomy. The two are like flower and fruit, water and ice, thoughts and words; they are “different phases of the same larger entity: Living and creative halakhah is aggadah of the past or future, and vice versa.”  Bialik laments the “permissive Judaism” that downplays halakhah and minimizes obligations, even as he rejects a verbatim reading of the Shulhan Arukh (the late 16th century legal code that became uniquely authoritative).

jewish law todayBialik still speaks directly to the Jewish world nearly a century later. All but the most ardent secularists agree that halakhah is part of the creative record bequeathed by past generations as a resource, however binding or non-binding we understand it to be. And all but the most insular haredim (ultra-orthodox Jews) agree that halakhah admits change, whatever its pace.

Yet views of Jewish law often remain polarized according to Jews’ different denominational affiliation, backgrounds, and assumptions. Like Bialik, today’s literature about the nature of halakhah and its proper role bids us to clarify where we stand, see the validity in other approaches, and challenge our own expectations. 

Halakhah is both a process and a set of outcomes, and each is rooted in Torah. Jewish tradition holds that Moses received at Mount Sinai not just the Ten Commandments, or even just the Five Books of Moses containing (according to rabbinic tradition) 613 commandments, but the entirety of Jewish law, both the written record and an oral tradition of its interpretation. According to Mishnah Avot 1:1, Moses passed this knowledge down to Joshua, who taught it to the elders, who shared it with the men of the Great Assembly, who passed it all the way down to the rabbis of 200 CE, when the Mishnah was codified. Mishnah Avot's model assumes gradual diminishment of truth, since the further one is removed from the Source, the less complete or accurate is one's understanding of revelation.

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Rabbi Fred Dobb

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, serves on the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Shalom Center, Religious Witness for the Earth, and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light.