Change in Halakha/Haskhkafa

So, the other day I decided that my need for feedback outweighed my desire for my thoughts to remain private, and I posted a link to this blog to my facebook. I’m not yet sure it was a wise decision. Part of what keeps me from writing is the duty I feel toward the public to get everything right, so subjecting my thoughts to public scrutiny may stop me from writing, which would defeat the purpose. On the other hand, I want good feedback. It becomes even more difficult considering I plan on covering my thoughts on some controversial subjects (biblical criticism and feminism being two noteworthy ones), so I am afraid that I will misspeak and give people the wrong ideas, not to mention someone in the future digging up my writings and trying to defame me. So I don’t know. All I can say is, Dear People of the Future: I was young and stupid, and look at the title of the blog for godsakes. 

Anyway, I’ve kind of decided to continue my posts as part of a series using my new philosophical foundation of Judaism, and seeing how far I can go in creating a philosophical system. As a general rule, I don’t like philosophical systems; religion is more often manifested in the brief but brilliant flash of insight than in carefully built structures. Nonetheless, I think I’m onto something that is at the very least original. 

Anyway anyway, continuing with our series. I spoke last time about possibly rethinking Judaism as being not a system of commands from an authority figure, but as the content of a loving and committed relationship between two lovers, complete with attendant responsibilities and duties. With this different paradigm in hand, we can come to an understanding of how religion can change. 

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that it does change. Judaism has changed over the course of its history, and the content of the Judaism we practice is different from that practiced by generations before it, different from the rishonim, from that of the talmud, and certainly from that of the avot. Denying this is, in a word, stupid, considering the mountains of evidence supporting this notion. (If this was a longer article or paper, I would present such evidence, but its not, so lets go ahead) This is not to say that everything has changed, or all change was accepted or accepted, don’t get me wrong. But things have changed. 
This, fact presents a philosophical problem: If we listen to the Torah, to Halakha, because it represents the command of God, how can we possibly change it? How can one disobey the direct orders of God, or weasel their way out of one by redefining the order? What kind of army or state can be run where laws can be changed?

If, however, we redefine our idea about the relationship between God and the Jewish People from Authority and Subjects to Beloved and Lover, we can better understand how this could happen. Relationships undergo change, as the people involved undergo their own changes. To give a likely bad example, someone who fell in love with another person due chiefly to their great beauty, the inadvisability of superficiality notwithstanding, could grow to love their partner’s sharp wit as the beauty of youth fades. Sometimes, relationships actually need change. If a guy is a slob, leaving random detritus around the house, then when he moves in with his wife, that’s going to need to change. As opposed to in an Authority-Subject paradigm, where the request for this change is laughable at best and insubordinate at worst, in this situation the wife is not asking for a divorce; she’s just asking he pick up after himself sometimes. On the contrary, this is an attempt to improve and preserve the relationship. This is not to say all change is acceptable. If one of the parties in the relationship ends up becoming, say, a serial killer, this is a drastic change, and one that jeopardizes the relationship. In much the same vein, if a guy asks his wife to wear a blonde wig, speak in a texas twang, and start calling herself “Beatrice”, that’s gonna jeopardize their relationship, particularly if his wife’s best friend is a blonde texan named Beatrice. This despite the fact that he is committed to continuing their relationship, so committed in fact, that he is willing to sacrifice his clear desire for Beatrice to continue being with his wife. Nonetheless, it is a bad change, signalling clearly that he does not really want to be with his wife anymore. Some changes are bad changes, because they undermine the very relationship they are meant

To bring it back to Judaism, changes in Judaism happen in response to changing realities. New philosophies have to be countered, and new societal developments have to be dealt with, so Judaism adapts to those changes both in hashkafa and halacha. The point of those changes is to improve and preserve the relationship between God and the Jewish people, to allow that relationship to continue in changing circumstances. What changes cannot do is undermine that relationship, to merely put God in a wig, so to speak. 

This is all wonderful, but quite a bit theologically problematic. Can it really be that we demand God, the almighty and all-powerful, change his demands of us in the face of new realities? And that we make him change, like a scolding wife nagging her husband?

So here, we need to step outside our metaphor. God is not bowed in the face of changing realities, because he is behind those changing realities, the hand that animates the myriad different forces of history towards an eventual goal, the force larger than any individual, school, institution, state, or power. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not parroting a mere simplistic “God brought the hurricane because of the gays”. I am saying that history moves forward in ways that transcend any simplistic explanation, and at a certain point, we may posit that there is someone or something pulling the strings. Reality has significance as a manifestation of God’s will. It is of course, not the only manifestation of God’s will. Revelation, the will of god revealed not through what is, but what ought to be, as conveyed to prophets and recorded in sacred texts, is the other way God has spoken to us.

Thus, we hear God in two different voices, the voice of revelation, and the voice of reality. Each must limit and temper the other. On one hand we cannot shut ourselves off from reality, retreating to the what we hear spoken by revelation, because reality has divine significance as well, and God means for us to interpret revelation within the confines of reality. On the other hand, we cannot just abandon the revealed will of God and throw ourselves fully into the tempestuous waters of current trends, not knowing where they will take us. Each must limit and constrain the other, and from this tension the true will of God, the combination of revelation and reality emerges. 
An important corollary of this is that the deciding factor of the correctness of any halakhic is not its consonance with the original texts, because those texts are missing the element of the evaluation of current realities. What decides a halakhic’s opinion’s correctness is its ability to combine truth to the original sources with feasibility in its current atmosphere. The only way to judge that is by evaluating its acceptance within the Jewish community, which, as a whole balances the need to adhere to the original sources with the need to stay alive in reality. The Jewish community, in possession of revelation and possessed by reality, thus becomes the filter through which God’s will is revealed on this earth, a laboratory of sorts where current trends are tested against texts, and the creations that emerge represent God’s will. 
This, of course, is an outsider’s view of the system. Within the system, though, it remains purely the relationship between God and the Jewish people, a desire to abide by the the terms of the relationship but also maintain it. 
I don’t really have a great way to end this. I hope this isn’t heresy. Good shabbos!

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3 Comments

  1. Very nicely written. I’m going to suggest that in discussing this we try as much as possible to avoid the “where do we draw the line” question, as I think we all know that that can easily detract from an idea without dealing with the idea itself; a disservice to everyone.
    The notion that I find most interesting in this piece is the idea that the changes in Judaism, such as responding to certain philosophies, etc. are intended to improve and make more relevant the relationship b/w HKBH and Klal Yisrael. It seems that the changes you are referring to are conscious reactions. In other words, aren’t you referring to the way leaders consciously react to changing Judaism rather than focusing on the change itself?
    For example, it sounds like you are more talking about the Aruch Hashulchan or Tosfot giving a svara to permit a prevalent societal practice that seems to counter the traditional texts, rather than talking about how that societal change came to be in the first place.
    Unless we say that this view goes even deeper – we should view Jewish changes in general as reflecting a desire to “improve” the relationship; after all, why would people accept or develop new practices unless they consciously or otherwise found them more meaningful or relevant that that which was passed down to them?
    In my mind, taking this approach means ascribing a very large amount of meaning to what others would see as natural developments. Think is Rav Soloveitchik on the Meiri. Is this where we want to go? It may lead to a heck of a lot of subjectivity rather than a view that unites us.

    What do you think?

    Reply

    1. These are good questions, and ones which probably should have been better addressed in the original post, so thanks for bringing them up.
      I see the change I’m describing here as mostly unconscious, actually. I think the question asked by the leaders making these decisions is not “Do we need to change Judaism now?”. Its more “Can this really be what Judaism wants?” The nafka mina is that in the latter, change is not described as such. On the contrary, its described as the “true” meaning of the texts. When the Aruch HaShulchan and Tosfos make their defenses for common practices, they do not say “Well, since common practice is this, we have to change the halacha.” They say, “since common practice is this, the halacha can’t be x, it has to be y”. (This is a topic that fascinates me, I’ve sort of touched on it in some papers I’ve written). The eternality of the system and the nature of the relationship needs to be maintained even as it undergoes change.
      Let me try to clarify a bit. Moshe Halbertal, in his book “People of the Book” has this great piece on what he calls “charitable reading” of religious texts (I don’t own the book so I can’t give you exact maarek mekomos). Generally speaking, religious communities assume sacred texts are truthful and good and represent the unchanging will of God. No chiddush there. However, when sacred texts are challenging to the reader, morally, practically, truthfully, etc, benefit of the doubt is given, but in either of two ways. Either “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, but it is a sacred text so I assume it knows better than me and I will thus accept it”, or “I don’t understand how this text can be true or moral or practical, and therefore, it can’t actually be saying that, it must be saying something else.” My idea is that change in Judaism occurs when the second approach is taken. Notice, that the validity or eternality of the text is never challenged in any way. On the contrary, its the very validity and eternality of the text that is responsible for the change in its interpretation.
      As for the challenge of fracturing the Jewish community, I don’t quite understand your point, admittedly. I see the opposite problem, personally. Once I’ve accepted the notion that the community is the one who actually implements halachic change, and does so unconsciously, its basically impossible to argue with anybody. Once everyone think something is wrong, its wrong, and nothing can be done about it. Sometimes, my theological liberalness leads me to practical conservatism, and I really don’t like it, to be quite honest. The best I can do is divide between past issues and issues still being discussed and still up for debate, but still, it bothers me. So, if you could explain your question further, perhaps in the balance we will solve each others dilemmas?

      Reply

  2. So this is fantastic. There’s a lot of stuff I really like here, but expounding on that is less helpful in terms of feedback, so I’ll get to the nitpicking.

    Mostly there’s just a few things that are unclear, which I understand is a function of speaking about concepts rather than practical situations, but in these cases I think the practical ramifications are important.

    1. “The Jewish Community”. This term, while a classical rabbinic way of putting things, is not helpful, because it’s definition is part of the discussion at hand. What changes put someone outside “the Jewish Community” cannot be decided by “the Jewish Community.” A good example is the recent controversy regarding women/tefillin/partnership-minyanim. Certain people felt that by embracing these changes they were positively responding to the times. Others felt that the embrasure of these changes had created “an Era of Apostasy”. All of these people considered themselves “Orthodox”.

    2. When you talk about responding to Historical changes, it’s not quite clear if you mean consciously or unconsciously. In the above comment you state clearly that you are referring to unconscious change, but at the end of the essay you discussed reading halakhic texts with the historical changes in mind, which would seem to be more conscious. There seems to be something here that I am not understanding, and I would love it if you would clarify.

    Other than that, I love the idea about Historical and Textual/Prophetic Revelation tempering each other (I was listen to a shiur by R’ Yaakov Elman on a idea in R’ Tsadok’s thought and he mentioned R’ Tsadok saying something similar), and “I hope this isn’t heresy”, is one of my favorite mantras.

    Reply

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