Thinking Big about Halacha

It is time to start thinking big about Halacha. Great opportunities are awaiting us and too much is at stake to let them pass by. For too long, Halacha has been jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate it.

Most religious Jews are not aware that Halacha has nearly become passé. They believe it is thriving. After all, Halacha is very “in” and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage. We have fallen in love with – and become overwhelmed by – an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive halachic information, which does not get processed but only recycled. We have access to a nearly infinite amount of information via the Internet, books, journals, and pamphlets, providing us with all the knowledge we could ever dream of. The problem is that this easily accessible information has replaced creative thinking. It has expelled the possibility for big ideas, and we have grown scared of them. We only tolerate and admire bold ideas when they provide us with profit-making inventions – when we feel our empty pockets – but not when they dare challenge our hollow souls. We do not discuss big ideas because they are too abstract and ethereal.

Novelty is always seen as a threat. It carries with it a sense of violation; a kind of sacrilege. It asks us to think, to stretch our brains. This requires too much of an effort and doesn’t suit our most important concern: the need for instant satisfaction. We love the commonplace instead of the visionary, and therefore do not produce people who have the capacity to deliver true innovation.

It is only in some very small, secular fields that we see staggering ideas emerging (Hawking and black holes, Aumann and game theory). In the department of Halacha, with only few exceptions, we rarely find anyone who even comes close to suggesting something really new. This is all the more true within Orthodox Judaism. While in ages past, discussions within Halacha could ignite fires of debate, we are now confronted with an increasingly post-idea Halacha. Provoking ideas that would boggle our minds are no longer “in.” If anything, they are condemned as heresy. Since they cannot easily be absorbed into our self-made halachic boxes, and they don’t bring us the complacency we long for, we stick to the mainstream where we can dream our mediocre dreams and leave things as they are.

The Retreat of Creative Thinking

Most of our yeshivot have retreated from creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than push for daring ideas. We are producing a generation that believes its task is to tend potted plants rather than plant forests.

We offer our young people prepared experiences in which we tell them what to think instead of teaching them how to think. We rob them of the capacity to learn what thinking is really all about. The plethora of halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts of Jewish Law, hardly generate the inspiration for new ideas about these laws. In fact, they stand in the way. There is no time for anyone to process all the information, even if they want to. But instead of seeing this as a problem, they and their teachers have turned it into a virtue.
And that is exactly the point. We are faced with two extremes: either our youth walk out on or maintain a lukewarm relationship with Jewish observance, or they become so obsessed by its finest points that they are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees and they consequently turn into rigid religious extremists.

What we fail to realize is that this is the result of our own educational system. In both cases, young people have fallen victim to the disease of information for the sake of information.

Information is not simply to have. It is there to be converted into something much larger than itself; it is there to produce ideas that make sense of all the information gathered in order to move it forward to higher latitudes. Information is not there to be possessed, but to be comprehended.

Jewish education today is, for the most part, producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance, but think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers. Some are even talmudic scholars, but these very scholars don’t realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand. Just as a young child may think it is an act of kindness to lift a fish out of an aquarium and “save” it, so these rabbis may be choking their students while thinking they are providing them with spiritual oxygen. Doing so, they rewrite halachic Judaism in ways that are totally foreign to the very ideas that it truly stands for. They are embalming Halacha while claiming it is alive, because it continues to maintain its external shape.

Fewer and fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great halachic arbitrators of the past. They know little of their weltanschauung. And even when they do, the ideas of these great thinkers are presented to them as information, instead of as challenges to their own thinking or as prompts to the development of their own creativity. This is a tragedy. Our current halachic, spiritual, and intellectual challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backward and giving answers that once worked, but are now outdated.

The Quest for Certainty Paralyzes the Search for Meaning

Instead of new theories, hypotheses, and great ideas, we get instant answers to questions of the utmost importance, offered via a wide variety of self-help books, the authors of which seem to claim that their halachic information came directly from Sinai. Trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information replaces significant ideas. The information is reduced to a catchline – thus, too brief and unsupported by proper arguments – yet still presented as “the answer.” By delivering “perfect” answers, which fit nicely into the often underdeveloped philosophies of their authors, everything is done to crush the questioning of halachic conclusions. The quest for certainty paralyzes the search for meaning. It is uncertainty that is the very stimulus impelling man to unfold his intellectual capacity. Every idea within Halacha is multifaceted – filled with contradictions, opposing opinions, and unsolvable paradoxes. The greatness of the Talmudic Sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them, as when Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai, Rava and Abaye debated major halachic problems; their fierce disagreements were rooted in their outlook on life and how they saw Judaism. Students were made privy to their teachers’ inner lives, and that made their discussions exciting. The teachers created tension in their classes, waged war with their own ideas, and asked their students to fight them with knives between their teeth. They were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to take them apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions. These teachers realized that not all halachic paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is full of paradoxes. They also realized that an answer is always a form of death, but a question opens the mind and inspires the heart.

It is true that this approach is not without risk, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk-free. Nothing is worse than giving in to the indolence and callousness that stifles inquiry and leaves one drifting with the current. Such an approach shrinks the universe of the Halacha to a self-centered and self-satisfying ideological ghetto, robbing it of its most essential component: the constant debate about the religious meaning of life and how to live in God’s presence and move to higher levels.

The above are excerpts are taken from the forthcoming book Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage from Urim Publications.

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Dear Friends,

Every week I receive hundreds of emails and important observations on my essays, via many channels. Unfortunately, the volume makes it impossible for me to respond to every comment. Please know that I deeply appreciate every comment, and learn from them all. Thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I hope you will continue to do so.
— Nathan Lopes Cardozo