As an Orthodox Jew, who was raised without any knowledge of Halachah but now for most of his life is obedient to it religiously (pun intended), I must say that it is both rich and amazing. It makes most of my life so much better and prevents me from making so many mistakes.
Having said that, from the bottom of my heart, I also must admit that a general set of rules cannot always be a perfect fit. However, for that I have my rabbi, whom I call when I don’t know what the law is or how to implement it specifically in my case, at this time under these circumstances. Maybe (surely) I’m lucky that I have such a wise and friendly possek — I’m always happy to call him, and receive his guidance.
Yet, sometimes the law is a bit dated. By nature, law always is adjusted after a change in circumstance occurred. That’s not a problem. Happens.
But what is a problem is that the updating is stagnating because the rabbis are afraid to rule. They only thing they feel safe to do is to make rules more and more stringent – even until they sometimes become a caricature of Judaism.
Now, am I allowed to think and say so? Sure. I’m obligated to have respect for the rabbis. (I do.) I must follow their rulings. (I do whatever I can.) But I’m allowed to disagree.
What’s more, I MUST disagree. When my possek rules in a way that I cannot abide by, I must inform him, so that he can take my new information into account and see if that would make it possible to modify his ruling.
Yet, there is also such a thing as general halachic rules. Specialized posskim who create the body of Halachah. And especially that, is not updated enough. Here come a few examples:
- State of Israel. Many rabbis call it the beginning of Redemption (a halachic category), but hardly any of them dare to change anything. Rabbi Goren did his best and so did Rabbi Ovadia and others. But we’re still largely living Diaspora Law, even in Israel.
- Women. How come the best general or brain surgeon can be a woman but no woman can be chief rabbi? I’m all for acknowledging that men and women are not the same — they are not — and for protecting the gender that is less flexible, less healthy, less mature and too brainy — we deserve respect and a place too. But do we want our legitimate needs to legitimize the repression of others?
- Homosexuals. A mass problem not know in the olden days. Especially homosexual men have nowhere to turn. They cannot touch anyone but their first-degree family members, they cannot be secluded with anyone, they cannot even wink at any grownup. This is obviously wrong. No rabbi seems to care. (Or, most of them care but are too terrified.)
- Friends. for many (Western) people, friends are taken the place of family. Let’s give an example. At a shivva, the mourners are those who are first-degree family members. Did anyone else ever notice that there are people at shivves that suffer tremendously, but are excluded from being the official mourners. Why? When, Heaven forbid, one’s fiancé dies, one is not a mourner. When one’s best friend forever (BFF) dies, you’re just a bystander. When your favorite aunt or uncle passed away, you don’t sit on a low stool and you don’t tear your closing and you can shower the whole week of mourning, etc. Why? Why not permit other truly close ones to be aveilim miderabbannan (Baruch Dayan haEmet without Shem uMalchut): be less-stringent mourners?
- Seculars. Many religious Jews are so insecure that they feel that they need to look down on secular Jews. Where is the law that we need to not just honor secular Jews but also take the best of them as an example of how one should be pleasant and loving with others (including all nice Gentiles). How can we expect G-d to like us and our children to stay in the fold if we pretend to love Him more than all His children?
- Ecology. Saving the environment is a hobby of some people. Presently, no Jewish law obligates us to stop ruining our chances of survival. We’re not allowed to rely on miracles, but why then do the rabbis not obligate us to stop wasting the planet — the only one we have?
- Health. Why are we still allowed to eat white bread and 14 meat meals a week? Why is giving children a cigarette on Purim still a “joke”?
As I mentioned, law always needs to change after the fact, but what we are looking at here is not a delay in change — it is stagnation. More people need to be aware of this standstill and protest the fossilization of Jewish law, so that the rabbis must act, scared or not.
Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo is about to publish a book on the problem of rigidified Halachah, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage. May it be bold! I’m not optimistic, though, because no rabbi so far has come out to trash him, degrade him, call him an atheist, demand that he’ll be stripped of his title, etc.
Full disclosure: Rabbi Cardozo is a friend of mine. The above examples are mine only.