In last week’s essay, I pointed out that in the Orthodox world Halacha is an open market. While great halachic authorities spontaneously become accepted as the main arbiters, any knowledgeable person can write or say anything, so long as they adhere to the masoret. The arbiters, besides possessing a wealth of knowledge, must have — or develop — the flexibility that will allow the unpredictable to enter the halachic conversation. Maimonides, in his Thirteen Principles of Faith and his Mishneh Torah, codified Judaism into a fixed theology, while in his Guide for the Perplexed he hid the systematic theology behind a deliberately chaotic text. This caused a crisis that, to this day, has created problems for the future of a vigorous Judaism.
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The task of today’s halachists and philosophers is to reverse this phenomenon and allow Halacha to once again be what it has always been: an anarchic, colorful and unequaled musical symphony that requires room to breathe. Only a dynamic system of Halacha can guide the Jewish people and the State of Israel to a promising future. This is not just a matter of semantics. It is of crucial importance, because it will be impossible for the State of Israel to exist without being deeply influenced by Halacha. The great Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon said, “Our nation is a people only by virtue of our Torah” (Saadia Gaon, Sefer Emunot VeDe’ot, 3).
This is as true today as it was in the past. All attempts to define the Jewish people otherwise have utterly failed, no matter how many thinkers and sociologists have tried.
Nevertheless, a system of Halacha that cannot be true to itself, but is constantly plagued by dogmatism, stagnation and systematization, will cause not only its own downfall but also that of the Jewish people and the Jewish State.
In my opinion, Halacha is in need of more “chaos.” It must allow for many ways to live a halachic life unbound by too many restrictions of conformity and codification. It must make room for autonomy on the part of individuals, to choose their own way once they have undertaken to observe the foundations of Halacha. Acceptance of minority opinions will have to become a real option, and some rabbinical laws must be relaxed so that a more living Judaism will emerge. While some people need more structure than others, in this day and age we must create halachic options that the codes such as the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Yosef Karo do not provide.
Surely, those who prefer to live by the strict rules of the codes should continue to do so. For some, these rules are actually a necessity — even a religious obligation — since this may be the only way they can experience God. But they should never become an obstacle to those who are unable to adhere to them. Labeling these new approaches “non-Orthodox,” or “heresy,” is entirely missing the point. I wish to be clear: I am not advocating Reform or Conservative Judaism, which, as I stated earlier, have paradoxically become overly structured and agenda-driven. They lack sufficient “chaos” to make them vigorous.
While there is great beauty in attending synagogue three times a day to pray, we clearly see that much of it has become mechanical – going through the motions, but no religious experience. Yes, it’s better than not being involved in any prayer at all, but the price we pay is increasing by leaps and bounds. It is pushing many away. Codification is the best way to strangle Judaism. By now, Orthodox Judaism has been over-codified and is on its way to becoming more and more irrelevant.
This is made evident by the mere fact that in Israel more and more people are staying away from Orthodox Judaism, while becoming increasingly involved in Jewish studies and ritual. What Judaism needs is depth, God-consciousness, and religious experience, which is not offered by the codes but is certainly provided by a living, vibrant practice of Halacha.
I believe that one of Halacha’s main functions is to protest against a world that is becoming ever more complacent, self-indulgent, insensitive, and egocentric. Many people are unhappy and apathetic. They no longer live a really inspiring life, even though they are surrounded by luxuries, which no one would have even dreamed of only one generation ago.
The purpose of Halacha is to disturb. To disturb a world that cannot wake up from its slumber because it thinks that it is right. The great tragedy is that the halachic community itself has been overcome by exactly those obstacles against which the Halacha has protested and for which it was created. Halachic living has become the victim of Halacha. The religious community has succumbed to the daily grind of halachic living while being disconnected from the spirit of Halacha, which often clashes with halachic conformity for the sake of conformity. Many religious people convince themselves that they are religious because they are “frum.” They are conformists, not because they are religious but because they are often self-pleasers, or are pleasing the communities in which they live.
Large numbers of religious Jews live in self-assurance and ease. The same is true of the secular community. Both live in contentment. But as Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs notes: “Who wants a life of contentment? Religion throughout the ages has been used to comfort the troubled. We should now use it to trouble the comfortable…”
*With thanks to my students Anne Gordon and Yael Shahar for their observations.