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.

Shmoneh Esrei Part 1: Avot v’Imahot

Welcome to part 1 of my current pet project for the remainder of the summer, which is to go through each of 19 blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei and explore what kind of interesting things they have to tell us about the God they are directed toward. One of the neat aspects of the civilizational approach (see my previous posts on Reconstructionism) is that it throws into sharp relief one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism: that rather than upholding a single, coherent theology Judaism embraces an eclectic array of theological perspectives (often differing in emphasis, occasionally mutually exclusive), drawn from across the vast expanse of Jewish history. While from a certain point of view this can make it difficult to identify what, if anything, Judaism has to teach us about God, from another perspective it gives us an incredibly flexible toolkit for encountering a reality which by definition exceeds the capacity of the human mind to comprehend. Any truly Jewish attempt to understand the divine must begin with the humble admission of our inability to fully grasp the infinite.

With that in mind, let’s begin with the Avot v’Imahot. What’s really interesting about this blessing, and what makes it particularly appropriate that it should come first, is how it is at the same time so old and so new. Of all the alterations made to the Amidah in liberal siddurim, the most universally accepted is the addition of the names of the matriarchs–Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah–to the traditional patriarchal list of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This fairly simple addition is indicative of one of the most significant shifts in the Jewish community to occur in modern times: the slow, painful and hard-fought struggle of women to claim recognition as full members of the Jewish people, on an equal footing with men and with an equal stake in the ongoing evolution of our religious civilization. This struggle has made itself felt in all aspects of Jewish life, from the question of who can serve as leaders in communal organizations to differing resources and expectations in the religious education of children. As Judith Plaskow points out in Standing Again At Sinai, one of the areas which it has been necessary for women to reclaim for themselve has been that of history, which in the Jewish world as in most other societies has been up to recently almost exclusively a male-dominated discourse reflecting male concerns, in which women enter only peripherally as the objects of male desire, anxiety and control.

The Avot v’Imahot exemplifies this assertion by Jewish women of the right not to be erased from the historical narrative of their people by inscribing the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this traditional affirmation of the relationship between God and Israel. I’m some respects, the Avot may represent one of the earliest strata of Jewish theology, reflecting as it does a basically tribal world view in which God may indeed be the transcendent creator of worlds, adon olamim, but the significance of this idea is nevertheless eclipsed by the more local concern of the individual relationship between a particular god and that god’s particular people.

Rather than beginning with the more standard formula which emphasizes both God’s status as our god (eloheinu) and as “king of the world” (melech ha’olam), the Avot begins more simply by blessing God as “our god, and the god of our fathers (and mothers).” This perspective, also in evidence in different places throughout the Tanakh, is less concerned with the idea with God’s universal sovereignty than it is with the notion of God as elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel, whom we can rely upon for blessing and support on account of the covenant struck between that god and our ancestors. The omission in this context of the names of the matriarchs has always been significant because it reflected the patriarchal understanding of that covenant that saw it as a relationship between God and the privileged society of Jewish males, with women playing only a peripheral role if that.

It is this understanding of covenant which made it possible throughout much of Jewish history to regard the all-important realms of religious ritual and Torah study as the sole prerogative and responsibility of men, with the self-reinforcing result that men have historically had sole access to the language and symbolic vocabulary for describing God. By establishing a place for the matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in this ritual affirmation of covenental continuity, Jewish women have asserted their right to have a voice in the ongoing evolution of our collective understanding of that covenant.

The basic theological truth contained in this blessing therefore is that all our understanding of God ultimately arises out of our own experience, that before we can say anything else about God we must first understand hir as our God. Even this intensely personal experience, however, does not arise in a vaccum. We come into ourselves through the medium of a family and a community into which we are born, and we are shaped by the historical experiences of our people just as surely as we are influenced by our own experiences. Thus, before looking at the role God has played in our own lives we must first acknowledge the role God has played in the lives of those who have come before us, and in the life of the community of which we are a part, understood in the broadest possible sense.