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The chaos theory of Halacha

Jewish law handles the whole host of unpredictable factors facing humanity -- it was designed for people, not angels!

Chaos is God’s signature when He prefers to remain anonymous. The same can be said about Halacha. Halacha is the chaotic way through which God wants Jews to live their lives, according to strict rules that seem to be part of a well-worked-out system. Upon careful analysis, however, it becomes evident that Halacha consists of “arbitrary” laws, which, on their own can make a lot of sense on a religious, ritual, or social level, but which are difficult to understand as an overall consistent weltanschauung (world view) with halachic methodology applied to them.

Many great thinkers have tried to impose logic or systematic structure on these laws, but they have been forced to admit that their overall systematic philosophy of Halacha doesn’t fit into the very structure of Halacha. This prompts them to put forth sometimes far-fetched and unconvincing arguments that make sense only within an entirely different classification, or by means of arbitrary reasoning that they would normally reject out of hand.

Austrian British philosopher Karl Popper, when discussing the logic of science, said: “Science is not a system of certain, or well-established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality. Our science is not knowledge: it can never claim to have attained truth, or even a substitute for it…. We do not know: we can only guess. And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover — discover…. The old scientific ideal of episteme — of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge — has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative forever” (The Logic of Scientific Discovery [London and New York: Routledge, 1992], 278, 280).

In his preface to Realism and the Aim of Science, Popper writes: “As a rule, I begin my lectures on Scientific Method by telling my students that scientific method does not exist” (New York: Routledge, 2000, 5).

Almost paradoxically, he writes two pages later: “I dislike the attempt, made in fields outside the physical sciences, to ape the physical sciences by practicing their alleged ‘methods’ — measurement and ‘induction from observation.’ The doctrine that there is as much science in a subject as there is mathematics in it, or as much as there is measurement or ‘precision’ in it, rests upon a complete misunderstanding” (ibid. 7).

Anyone who reads halachic literature — particularly responsa — will quickly realize that while some basic principles of interpretation (mainly found in the Talmud) are at work, there is chaos regarding how to understand them in terms of ideology, weltanschauung, and even the practical application of Halacha.

Famous halachic expert Professor Aaron Kirschenbaum, in his essay, “Subjectivity in Rabbinic Decision-making,” refers his readers to a remarkable book written by British scholar Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs: A Tree of Life, Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, “in which he catalogs innumerable changes in the halacha — drastic modifications as well as moderate adjustments. These changes are so varied — in subject matter, in geographic distribution, in historical period — that one is at loss to delineate the precise parameters of halachic development….” (Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, Ed. by Moshe Z. Sokol [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1992] 87)

One of the main reasons for this is that much depends on the personalities, emotional makeup, and weltanschauung of the given halachic arbiters. Their personal circumstances, as well as where and in what era they live, make all the difference. No objectivity can ever be achieved, because humans — no matter how clever — cannot escape their own soul forces, the environmental influences that they subconsciously internalize. Moreover, the type of halachic training the arbiters have received, the religious values in which they have been steeped, and even their secular education all play a major role.

Many would argue that this is far from ideal. After all, how can people gain an accurate understanding of the divine will when they are hampered by their subjective emotions, desires, philosophies and circumstances? But within the context of classical Judaism, all of this is considered a blessing. For people to be human and reach out to the Divine, they must maintain their humanness, and having emotions and desires is exactly what makes us human. Were we to relinquish those feelings (clearly, an impossibility), we would cease to be human beings and the Halacha would no longer have any meaning for us, since it was intended for humans, not for angels. This is what is meant by the Talmud in Bechorot 17b: “The Merciful One said: Do it [construct the Sanctuary] and in whatever manner you are able to do it, it will be satisfactory.” (See Ohr Yisrael: The Classic Writings of Rav Yisrael Salanter and His Disciple Rav Yitzchak Blazer, ch. 30)

Furthermore, if Halacha were to operate by clearly determined boundaries and criteria, it would not survive. Studies have shown that in ensuring the survival and productivity of an idea, movement, lifestyle or philosophy, biological and unconscious dynamics are much more successful than agenda-driven organizations and ideologies.

Clearly stated platforms and goals cannot develop and expand in ways that are conducive to real life. They are too confining to solve the many problems that we humans are asked to deal with. Overall strategies often create stagnation. Free association produces progress.

Within religious thought and experience, there is the awareness that we must allow God to enter via what appears to be chaos and chance. Were everything to be worked out and predictable, we would close the door on God and therefore on real life. Chaos is the science of surprises of the nonlinear and unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected.

This does not mean that anything goes and we can dispense with rules. That would cause a breakdown of society. What it means is we must allow for openings in the prevailing system, enabling the unpredictable to enter. Anything that rejects our conviction that all is predictable and bound by absolute laws is the sine qua non for a vigorous life. Certain things must be left to chance, in order to solve problems that we are unable to predict or resolve in conventional ways. They cannot and should not be forced into a carefully worked out plan.

We can’t always make accurate predictions, but we can suggest probabilities. This is true also because, as Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem has proven, in any axiomatic system, if the system is consistent it cannot be complete, nor can the consistency of the axioms be proven within the system, since the system itself is “part of the problem.” We can only know something to be true when regarded by an observer outside the system. While one cannot compare Gödel’s incompleteness theorem — which deals with mathematics and number theory — to the world of Halacha, we can surely use it to gain some insight into its nature. In Halacha, too, we find inconsistencies and a lack of completeness.

It is for this reason that Halacha has always developed on the basis of case law, and not because of overall well-worked-out ideologies. It is sui generis. Much depends on circumstances, the kind of person we are dealing with, local customs, human feelings, and sometimes trivialities. God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel explains, is concerned with everydayness. It is the common deed — with all of its often trivial and contradictory dimensions — that claims His attention. People do not come before God as actors in a play that has been planned down to the minutest detail. If they did, they would be robots and life would be a farce.

To be continued….

* With thanks to my students Anne Gordon and Yael Shahar for their

**In memory of my great friend Dr. Bloema Evers Emden z”l, one of the greatest women and leaders of Dutch Jewry,who passed away this week. May her ideas live on.

1. Georg Lukács (1885-1971) was a Hungarian Jewish philosopher, literary
historian and critic.

This is the first in a three-part exploration of the development of Halacha. 

See Part 2, Chaos, codification and Maimonides’ Guide.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy and the Bet Midrash of Avraham Avinu in Jerusalem. A sought-after lecturer on the international stage for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, Rabbi Cardozo is the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Rabbi Cardozo heads a Think Tank focused on finding new Halachic and philosophical approaches to dealing with the crisis of religion and identity amongst Jews and the Jewish State of Israel. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism. His ideas are widely debated on an international level on social media, blogs, books and other forums.
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