Orthodoxy is stuck, still fighting the fights of the last two centuries.
At a time when the Orthodox movement feared extinction in the face of the new developments of modernity, and new choices that were suddenly open and enticing, it went on the offensive, projecting its own existential insecurity onto every innovation, prophesying the end of Judaism should any novel approach be adapted.
In its treatment of prophecy in chapter 18, the Torah tells us that we can know whether or not a prophet is truly God-sent by the accuracy of their prediction. More than 150 years of history have proven the predictions of Judaism’s imminent demise to be false. The Reform and Conservative Movements didn’t destroy Judaism, rather, they likely kept a great many Jews connected to Judaism who otherwise would have become completely alienated. And Orthodox Judaism has not died, despite all the slippery slopes surrounding it; in fact, it’s more vibrant than ever.
In any case, it is not the prophet we are meant to consult when a new question of halacha arises. It is “the Levite Kohanim, and the judge who will be in those days“. The seeming superfluousness of those last words highlights their importance.
Would anyone think that a person would go to a judge that is not in his days? Rather, it teaches that you have only to go to the judge in your own generation, and it says “Don’t talk about what was, that the old days were better than now” (Rosh Hashana 25b).
The Torah does not hesitate to acknowledge that new questions will arise for which it has not provided a clear answer. This isn’t a challenge to the Torah’s eternalness, because the Torah sanctions a process for responding to these questions. The mechanism it provides is not the prophet, concerned with the future. It is the judge who has ‘only what his eyes see’, who is firmly embedded in his historical context, and provides the answer appropriate to it, without escaping to fantasies of ‘the good old days’.
If there is anything which challenges the eternalness of the Torah, it is being paralyzed by the mythic greatness of the past and the fear of the future. With that paralysis comes the stubborn refusal which animates so much of Orthodoxy’s internal battles, to follow the Torah’s mandate to acknowledge the present and respond to it.
This is a blog of my reflections on the daily 929 chapter of Tanach. Learn more at 929.org.il