Reconstructionist Judaism & Halakhah

Reconstructionists see halakhah as no longer viable, but still a resource to be taken seriously.

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Reprinted from Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub.

Why Reconstructionism Cannot be Called “Halakhic”

By contemporary definitions, one cannot define Reconstructionism as a halakhic form of Judaism. If halakhah were defined as the Jewish process of transmitting tradition and practice, then we certainly could see ourselves within the framework of halakhah. Unfortunately, today the term has taken on the meaning of a rigid body of law, changeable only under rarefied circumstances.

 

In past generations and other eras of Jewish life, halakhah functioned as we think it shouldtoday: though in theory it was seen as immutable law, in fact it served as a body of tradition that could adapt to the needs of the Jewish people throughout the ages.

Can Halakha Address Contemporary Concerns?

We also question the effectiveness of the halakhic method itself for dealing with contemporary concerns. In traditional Judaism as well as contemporary Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, only rabbinic scholars who are experts in the history and development of halakhah are empowered to make halakhic decisions. The halakhicmethod presumes that all questions are answerable with reference to legal precedent. It ignores the possibility that new issues, while they may be guided by old values, must be discussed with reference to the world in which we now live.

Furthermore, Jewish teachings no longer function for us as law, nor can they be expected to do so. For law to function, it must have an organized structure to create and adjudicate it. There must be sanctions against anyone who disobeys. Nowhere in the world does Jewish law now function in that way.

In tightly-woven Orthodox communities, the members choose voluntarily to place themselves "under the yoke of the law" and can choose to leave at any time. Even in Israel, where Jewish law governs issues of personal status, the law can be circumvented. Therefore, thinking of halakhah as binding law is misleading in today's world.

Finally, this change in social circumstances is not accidental. It reflects a basic value of Western democracy--that individuals ought to make religious choices autonomously. Our ancestors believed that the ideal Jew was one who subordinated independent judgment and instead behaved in accordance with the will of God.

Individual Choices, Communal Contexts

By contrast, we believe that moral and spiritual faculties are actualized best when the individual makes conscious choices. Thus, even if there were an opportunity to return to an authoritarian community in which the traditional mitzvot were enforced coercively, we would not choose to do so.

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Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert

Rabbi Rebecca T. Alpert is Co-Director of the Women's Studies Program and Assistant Professor of Religion and Women's Studies at Temple University.

Rabbi Jacob J. Staub

Rabbi Jacob J. Staub is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Medieval Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.