Orthodox Judaism & Halakhah

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Developments within the halakhic system are thus homeostatic rather than evolutionary. They are undertaken to restore equilibrium rather than to transform. Halakhah is the application of an unchanging Torah to a changing world. Halakhah changes so that the Torah should not change.

Behind this proposition lies a distinctive conception of revelation, time and the course of Jewish history. Jewish law cannot be understood in positivist terms as simply the record of what rabbis and judges ruled. It is part of a larger theological system. Revelation discloses a moral order which is intimately connected with the history of Israel. Obedience to divine law creates harmony between the people and its land. Sin creates dislocation which leads to exile which begets repentance, return and harmony restored.

Time is not for Judaism, as it was for other ancient civilizations, cyclical repetition or a meaningless sequence of events; nor is it evolution. Instead, human history is a series of deviations from an essential and permanent moral order which will eventually be restored. The end of history is already implicit in its beginning.

The changelessness of Jewish law is therefore not an accidental feature of rabbinic jurisprudence but is central to biblical theology. As Franz Rosenzweig, one of the most perceptive of 20th century Jewish thinkers, put it, "While the peoples of the world live in a cycle of revolutions in which their law sheds its old skin over and over, here the Law is supreme, a law that can be forsaken but never changed."

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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dr. Jonathan Sacks is the Chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Britain and the Commonwealth and the author of A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion. The British Chief Rabbi's office maintains a website: chiefrabbi.org.