I finally decided to take the plunge…
For some time now, the Jewish Standard’s editor, Joanne Palmer, has asked me to consider joining the Standard’s roster of periodic op-ed writers. While honored by the request, I have hesitated, not only because of the press of time, but because I feel that the issues I might raise in such a forum are better discussed face-to-face.
So why did I change my mind? Because as time goes on, I find myself feeling more and more misunderstood. No, I am not about to reveal a deep, dark personal secret. My concern is not personal, but theological, not individual, but communal.
I sense a growing chasm between my own Orthodox community and the Jewish community at large. While I admit that part of this phenomenon emerges from the self-absorption of the Orthodox with our own issues and challenges, a good deal of the rift rises from the general community’s lack of understanding about Orthodoxy. In print, on the web, and over social media, misstatements about Orthodoxy and the Orthodox community appear in ever-growing numbers. The picture that invariably emerges is far from what I know my community stands for.
So, I have decided to take a small step towards bridging the gap. In this periodic column, I will set forward my own take, as an Orthodox rabbi, on specific theological, social, and communal issues and events. While I will be representing no one but myself, I am confident that my views and comments will be in sync with the majority of my own Modern Orthodox community.
The success of this effort will be greatly enhanced if it can be turned into a dialogue. I therefore invite you, the readers, to raise comments, questions and issues for discussion by emailing them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to be clear. My goal is not to change anyone’s personal religious practice, but to increase understanding between us. I would hope that our conversation will not only lead to a better understanding of the Orthodox on the part of the broader community, but to a better understanding of the non-Orthodox within the Orthodox world as well.
This week, I will kick off our dialogue by responding to an imaginary question that is not really imaginary at all. I have heard this question raised often, in various forms, over the course of my rabbinic career.
Orthodox tradition seems archaic, unchanging, and unresponsive to personal need. Shouldn’t the tradition adapt with the times? Can laws transmitted centuries ago truly be relevant to our day?
A full scholarly response to this question is well beyond the scope of this column. I would offer, however, a few critical observations that can lay the groundwork for further discussion.
The Orthodox approach to Jewish law begins with the acceptance of God’s authorship of the Torah. The mitzvot contained therein, whether we understand their logic or not, are immutable and eternal. Accompanying the written law, however, is an oral law, eventually recorded in the Talmud and in successive written works across the ages, as legal decisions continue to unfold. This oral law consists of numerous sections that when taken together, create a blueprint for the application of halachah (Jewish law) across time.
Through this blueprint, God takes divine law and hands it to man, granting rabbinic scholars the authority to apply and adapt the law, within the boundaries, to changing situations and circumstances. God does so recognizing man’s fallibility. God assures the halachic decisors, however, that the decisions they reach, if arrived at through loyal application of the law, will be deemed acceptable by God. The definition of “right” and “wrong” within the system thus is radically altered. As long as a decision is reached with loyalty to the law and its process, that decision is deemed right in God’s eyes.
It is this revolutionary step, equating correctness with fidelity to the legal process, that is the genius of halachah, allowing age-old laws to remain relevant to each cutting-edge circumstance.
Halachic application, from the Orthodox perspective, requires respect both for current need and for the law itself. The suggestion that the law should be changed at will, without respect for the halachic process, is considered not only dangerous but disingenuous. Such an approach shows no appreciation for the intrinsic value of the law, only respect for immediate perceived need. At the same time, the suggestion that the law should ignore changing circumstances is equally rejected. Halachah is meant to be a living law, relevant to each generation of Jews. Halachic response thus can be found concerning all current issues, providing ethical and legal guidance in areas ranging from genetic engineering to the definition of death; from space travel to the inclusion of LGBT individuals into the Jewish community.
An exquisite balance thus is struck between the timeless and the timely, allowing us to relate to our God consistently, over constantly changing terrain. This balance also has maintained our national unity and identity across the ages. When we consider the miracle of Jewish survival to this day, we must acknowledge the critical role that halachah has played in that survival. We would not be here today as Jews were it not for the loyal observance of countless forbearers, maintaining Jewish practice against all odds, in communities separated from each other across the globe, across the centuries. That concrete ritual and ethical practice united us as a people when all other contact between us was lost. That is why, when the walls came down after centuries of separation, we were yet recognizable to one another. That concrete ritual and ethical practice, I believe, must be respected and observed, if we are to survive, as Jews, into the future.
The application of Jewish law to the practical world is not an easy task. Speaking recently to my synagogue community I framed the halachic dialectic that faces each Jewish generation through the prism of two covenants enacted between God and the Israelites at the dawn of Jewish history: the brit avot, the communal covenant at Sinai, and the brit atzmit, the individual covenant contracted immediately before Moshe’s death. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains the vast difference between these two covenants. The first covenant, the Sinaitic covenant, is automatically granted to each Jew simply by dint of his or her affiliation with the community. The second covenant is personal, between God and each Jew separately, and is dependent upon the relationship actively forged by that individual with his or her Creator.
Why, I asked, were both these covenants necessary? Why doesn’t one covenant suffice?
Because, I responded, taken together these two covenants define the “Jewish task” in each era. On the one hand, we must optimize the brit atzmit, the individual covenant. It is the task of each Jewish community to enfranchise as many Jews as possible by making the Judaism of their day attractive, welcoming, accepting, and warm. At the same time, however, the communal covenant must be observed as well. The continuity of Jewish tradition must be preserved so that our Judaism will be recognizable as that of our grandparents and our children’s Judaism will be recognizable as our own. Only if each covenant is fulfilled in a way that recognizes and respects the validity of the other covenant, only if this delicate balance is struck and maintained, do we succeed in meeting our Jewish task in our time.
Enough said for now. I have started what will, hopefully, be an ongoing dialogue. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing the conversation….