The Role of Halachah in Liberal Judaism

The following is a few notes that I jotted down recently about the role of halachah in liberal Judaism, heavily inspired by Rachel Adler’s amazing book, Engendering Judaism. Reconstructionists often identify our movment as a “post-halachic” movement, but personally I don’t think we should be so quick to give up the term “halachah,” or the fundamental approach to religious life that it represents.

One of the things I’ve always apprciated about Judaism is that as a religion it sets itself the task of teaching us how to be human–that is, not to transcend our fundamental humanity, but to live as human beings in community with other humans and with God. As someone whose neurological makeup often makes it difficult to navigate a social world made up of nonverbal cues and unarticulated empathetic identification, it felt intensely liberating to immerse myself in a tradition in which the “rules” for interacting with and taking care of your fellow beings are articulated clearly in terms of concrete behaviors. The primary framework within which Judaism has historically pursued this project is halachah, and it is this framework which I see as valuable and worth preserving alongside more vaguely-framed “values-based” ways of understanding ethical obligation.

At the same time, liberal Judaism has brought a number of extremely important critiques to traditional halachah as it has come down to us, among which are:

  • That traditional halachah is overly rigid, having calcified to the point where it lacks the flexibility required to adequately adapt to changing social conditions.
  • That the framework of traditional halachah is fundamentally sexist, prioritizing male perogatives and experience and relegating women to the status of second-class citizens.
  • That the range of gender and sexual roles provided for in traditional halachah does violence to those who do not fit within those boundaries, forcing them to either painfully repress themselves to live within the roles that the system forces upon them or to leave the community altogether.
  • The power differential whereby halachic decisions are made by an educated elite of rabbis, invalidating and downplaying the contributions of Jews who are not part part of those elites (i.e. “Jewish folk religion”)
  • etc.

My thoughts on reconstructing halachah in light of these critiques are as follows:

  • First, it is important to point out that “Law,” or even “religious Law,” is a very poor translation of the word “halachah.” A much better translation (and much more in keeping with the word’s etymology) would be “procedure.”
  • In this framework, there would be no such thing as “halachah” in the sense of an overarching, internally consistent framework. To reconstruct halachah for a postmodern world, we have to abandon the project of “codes” which halachists have been engaged in since Maimonides and go back to the looser and more polyvocal world of the Talmud and Midrash. In place of Halachah we have halachot, “procedures,” which are related to each other and to the texts on which they are based but in a way that acknowledges multiple possible constellations rather than a sigle all-inclusive system.
  • What therefore is a halachah within this framework? One possible procedure for actualizing a mitzvah.
  • The Torah contains mitzvot, some of whicha re like case law, some of which are like values, many of which are mixtures of both. Each of these mitzvot reflect a certain aspect of the Jewish historical exprience and a certain aspect of the Jewish encounter with God, but to give them a voice within our own lives they need to be actualized in halachah, i.e. concrete procedures reflecting the values and experience contained within a mitzvah.
  • For any given mitzvah, there is the “what” of the mitzvah and its “how”: What are the values contained within the mitvah? What is the historical experience it expresses? How are we going to actualize the mitzvah in our own communities in a way that makes sense and in such a way as to forge a link between ourselves, our history, and God?

What I’m posting here isn’t anything close to well researched or thought out, but I thought it might be worth putting up here just the same. As always, comments and critiques are highly encouraged.

3 thoughts on “The Role of Halachah in Liberal Judaism

    • Thanks Marley! There’s been some amazing work on this in recent years (I’m thinking at the moment of Rachel Adler’s book, and of David Teutsch’s recent Guide to Jewish Practice), but there remains an awful lot to be done when it comes to hashing out the theoretical basis of religious obligation for the next generations of liberal Judaism. It’s an exciting time for us to be alive and involved in the conversation.

  1. Pingback: Reconstructionism Part 4: Activism and Halakhah, How do we Make Jewish Law Work for Us? « You Shall Pursue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s