I’d like to believe that the immutable beauty of Jewish law is a sacrosanct thing, one that everybody can accept with absolute certainty. Any why not? Hasn’t this system kept the Jewish people rooted with ethical and spiritual priorities, guiding us throughout the millennia as we’ve been scattered throughout the precarious diaspora? Halakhah has always been a unique and complex process (legally and socially). As the Orthodox community remains committed to these norms and to this discourse, other streams of Judaism continue to ebb away from the righteous rigor that Jewish law is meant to instill. Though it remains the guiding light of those who are (and deliberately choose to be) observant, there is the sad reality that for the vast majority of the Jewish people, the wonders of halakhah remain irrelevant.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in an essay written in 1967, identified this divide well:
Today, when the bulk of the Jewish people is alienated from the halakhah by lack of knowledge or by ideals which appear in their eyes to be superior to the halakhah, it seems to some that the halakhah is becoming the way of a sect and that some new vehicle of Jewish religion must be in the making. Others who know its power and its beauty believe that the halakhah can reclaim the connection to the entire Jewish people by embracing all of life and by taking up and giving meaning to both sides of the dialectical tensions which affect all Jews.”
In the modern realities we live in, I propose a radical solution fitting for our unique time. Judaism is in need of a second halakhah, one that is streamlined and elemental yet as meticulous as the halakhah we have known for generations. This second halakha is meant to be a broad paradigm that all of the Jewish people can turn to and share. It is not meant to supersede the original halakhah, but only act as a supplement to the first.
Rav Soloveitchik, drawing from midrashic literature of the opening chapters of Genesis, wrote about the existence of two beings named Adam: Adam 1 and Adam 2. The first being named Adam – grand, noble, and majestic – is the basis for all humanity as we know it today. The second Adam is humble with a limited purpose. This existential condition is the representation of the need for two halakhot: a traditional halakhah that keeps us rooted and humble and a second halakhah, to be developed, is the noble enterprise of the entire Jewish people in its full grandeur. As Jews, we live with paradox, with multiple selves.
We cannot bridge the Divine and temporal together if we lack a shared vernacular. One segment seems to have lost the big picture stuck in minutiae while the other segment seems to be lost with the whims of the time without strong enough anchors. The Orthodox have to gain because it once again brings them to relevance within the broader Jewish people. The more liberal Jewish communities have to gain because there is a desperate need for a rooted discourse. There is not merely a value of “protecting strangers,” for example, but detailed halachah to be developed around our moral imperatives. What would a new rigorous model of ethical kashrut look like? What rules would a new model of Shabbat include? How about a creative model of taharat mishpacha (bringing purity into marital relationships)? Clal Yisrael, as a collective, gains the most from this new model since we are in desperate need of ensuring the survival of one people with some kind of sustained values and discourse. Our spiritual liberation, from our own intellectual narrowness, is bound up together.
Just as modern observant Jews have the experience of translating ancient Jewish wisdom into a secular language of public policy, so too we can build another intellectual bridge for the sake of peoplehood and what our people could produce together. This was attempted with mishpat ivri but it failed. In the end, the Orthodox wanted halakhah to rule the state and the secular wanted the state to be secular. There was no middle ground to meet around Jewish values. We must, humbly but boldly, try again.
So let’s demonstrate now that a halakhah with branching paths is the new template for the Jewish people. In the first halakhah, we may have to look at twenty respona to properly permit a matter of certain interest. In the second, invoking tzelem Elokim (human dignity) may be enough. Yet, the results will be the same. Although there is now an alternative path, they each share the same end while simultaneously utilizing the same language without jeopardizing the integrity of either process. Where there are differences, we will embrace makhloket l’shem shamayim (argument for the sake of heaven) but remain in conversation together. Together we can strive for a unity that honors diversity. We can hold our absolutes and make room for others’ absolutes.
Neither system of halakhah will demand that the other side act differently but will merely provide a similar language for all sides to learn together with unpredictable results. Neither side compromises their integrity but merely learns a new form of expansive engagement. The liberal Jew will seek a more rigorous and sustained Jewish commitment. The Orthodox Jew will maintain their full commitment to halakhah 1 but will also be challenged and broadened by relationships and perspectives from the encounter with halakhah 2. Both sides will feel uncomfortable in a humbling and productive process of growth. This will not work for individuals from two extremes (one which claims they hold the sole truth and there is no truth beyond theirs nor for those who claim that Judaism cannot dictate our behavioral norms in any fashion at all). Halakhah 2 will have concrete norms but not so detailed and divisive as halakhah has become today. Each individual can’t open opt out because they feel alienated from the existing model. Rather they can feel compelled to take responsibility for developing an authentic model that works for them.
There are many unanswered questions here and I am not the one to answer them. The process must develop with a lot of different participation and leadership. This is no simple endeavor and we should not be so naïve to assume everyone will be on board nor should be so naïve to assume that these two systems will be more similar than different. But the alternative is to continue to point fingers and stubbornly throw our hands up in the name of fidelity to the epistemological structures we inherited. We must leave those who perpetually bring cynical energy to pluralism on the sidelines for now. Compromise is the great mitzvah (Sanhedrin 6b) that our people has failed to yet achieve. Bridging our values and discourses is more crucial than ever before to ensure we can learn from one another and build synergy around the meta-goals of the Jewish people: to repair the world in partnered covenant with God.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder & President of YATOM, and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.