These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Some Initial Thoughts on Halakha

Posted on January 16, 2013 by David Bogomolny

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Aspect of Halakha that is Particularly Meaningful to Me

“Anyone who identifies as Jewish today only need go back three or four generations to find observant Jews in their family. And from there an unbroken chain of Jewish living that goes back more than three thousand years. Not that everyone has always been observant. There were plenty of unobservant Jews. But we don’t know their grandchildren. They have been lost to the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Aron Moss

I came across this quote on the Chabad website, and it speaks to a deeply-held belief of mine. Of course, this quote applies specifically to those of us who are of Jewish descent, and maybe it would be more accurate to claim that we “only need go back” four or five generations… but I agree with the spirit of R. Moss’ idea.

As with all cultures, there exists Jewish art, music, theater, literature, etc., but it is our halakhic system that has sustained our People since our exile from our Land. As I see it, Judaism ≠ halakha, but halakha is the backbone of the Jewish People. Most nations are unable to sustain their national identities for long beyond the borders of their homelands, but the Jewish People have remained a people with a distinct national identity thanks to their commitment to the halakhic system: our collective body of Jewish traditions, norms and wisdom.

I am a Jew with a deep commitment to my People and the values that we represent, and I want to be an active participant in sustaining my People’s existence and the integrity of our national Jewish identity. This means that I don’t always do whatever I happen to prefer doing; rather, I strive to act in accordance with the halakhic system, accounting for the collective wisdom of many Jewish generations. I act not only as an individual, but as a representative and proud, active member of the Jewish Nation.

Why Halakha is Slow to Change

R. Michael Feuer, one of my first teachers of halakha, taught me that any system open to change must be a conservative system, allowing only for gradual, incremental changes; else it could not preserve its integrity.

I have also become familiar with a commonly suggested contrast between evolutionary change and revolutionary change, particularly in the context of halakha. This terminology has been helpful for me in contextualizing R. Feuer’s teaching.

[expand title=”R. Gidon Rothstein writes on this, if you’d like to read more”]

From WebYeshiva:

… The greater the change to current practice being advocated, the greater the burden of proof and/or underlying authority it bears. Evolutionary change, which looks for the next step in the system’s slow unfolding, obligates a lesser level of proof than revolution, a completely new idea as to how Jews can serve God.

That halacha will evolve is clear from the recognition that the same system must apply to various cultures and eras…

… The distinction between evolutionary and revolutionary change focused on how related the new idea was to those that had come before. Within either of those categories, we can again differentiate changes by their impact on the system…


How Halakha is Determined

In essence, halakha is established by three forces: the Torah (God), rabbinic authority, and Minhag Israel (the Traditions of the People of Israel). Of these, God is not considered to have actively shaped halakha since our receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai; so halakha is shaped by the interactions between the Jewish People’s accepted halakhic authorities and their evolving customs.