The Nature of Halakha – An Appendix on ‘Meta-Halakha’

Rabbi Dr. Harvey Belovski has written an article against Partnership Minyanim which I have responded to in Haaretz.

I’d like to add a few further reflections based on his citing ‘meta-halakhic’ considerations in favour of his argument.

I am bothered by this move for many reasons, not least becasue I do not believe he has done justice to the richness of this topic.   I am thus outlining here 13 principles of meta halakha which seem to be relevant to the discussion.  There are links to where I have already written on some of them at greater length.  This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it can begin to help people think about some of the issues involved.

  1. A founding principle of all meta-halakha must be the conviction that there is a spirit and a set of principles which inform halakha, that rigid interpretation will never be enough.  This is the essence of the ongoing debate between Hillel and Shammai as depicted in the Talmud.  Hillel is capable of a more poetic reading, Shammai’s approach is rooted in anxiety and anger.
  2. In a similar vein, that Mishna teaches that we must reflect seriously upon our connection to the Divine before we submit to the rule of the commandments, the mitzvot.  Unthinking rule following is not the aim of halakha.
  3. There is a danger in being  too strict in the way we apply the law, doing so upsets the balance it is supposed to bring too life.
  4. The law should be approached with love, and not only fear.  Excessive caution and the erection of too many boundaries can undermine the purpose and spirit of the law.
  5. There will always be a need for engaged interpretation of the law, the text alone cannot provide definitive answers:      “The relationship between Oral and Written Torah is complex, their side by side existence seems to bespeak the realisation that any written text will always need a living and engaged interpretation, that truth can never be expressed unequivocally once and for all time.The famous story of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s lecture (Menachot 29b) embodies this spirit. Rabbi Akiva is innovatively expounding hundreds of new ideas from the written Biblical text and Moses doesn’t recognise any of them. He starts to weaken out of confusion and distress, before Rabbi Akiva explains to one of his inquisitive students that all of these ideas are ‘Halakha Le’Moses Mi’Sinai’ – ‘a tradition of Moses from Sinai’. Moses recovers his strength, and expresses newfound appreciation for the genius of Rabbi Akiva.          There is a paradox revealed here which lies at the core of Torah – there was a singular moment when God revealed something of his will and vision to Moses and the people at Sinai, but this truth could only ever be partial and would need, by design, to be constantly expounded and renewed by the intellect and creativity of human beings. There must always be variety, for the limits of language are such that no words can ever maintain consistent meaning and purpose across time, their usage and context are forever shifting.”  (from an article I wrote on Limmud, which has other things to say about the abuse of Rabbinic Authority.)
  6.  Compassion must play a major role in our approach to religious life and halakha.  Love and tolerance are vital for Rabbinic leadership, as shown by the failings of Rav Shimon bar Yochai.  (See the section on Shabbat 33.)
  7. Rabbinic authority must be handled with sensitivity and mindfulness.  Placing too many burdens upon the people misses the point and will result in a justified uprising.  This was the undoing of Rabban Gamliel.  His overthrow revealed how damaging his spirit of aristocratic disdain had been.
  8. In line with this, there is a democratic ethos at the core of halakha, it is not divorced from the ongoing and continuous unfolding of the human spirit.
  9. The principle of human dignity – kavod habriyot – is foundational .  It cannot straightforwardly be discarded or limited in scope as the Frimers have argued.
  10. The Halakha is not in heaven, but for human beings to interpret and live.  I have not written up my teachings on this topic, but will offer this quote from Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits.  I would only add that the famous narrative on Bava Metzia 59b is, for all its radicality, in some ways less shocking than the original formulation of the idea in Deuteronomy 30.  The suggestion there is that it is within reach of every human being, to be found in our hearts and in our mouths.  It is not necessarily subject to the filtering of any authority, Rabbinic or otherwise.

Not in Heaven – Eliezer Berkovits                The law has to formulate general principles; but life situations are always particulars, there is something unique about each of them.  In this sense, every law is to some extent “inhuman”.  The problem is much more serious when the basis of the law is the revealed Word of God, which by its very nature is timeless.  How can an eternal truth and command take notice of the forever-changing needs of the fleetingly uncertain human condition.  God’s revelation was not the absolute Word of God – which could not be received by any human being – but the Word of God addressed to man.   However, if that should have any sense, would it not mean the relativization of the Absolute?

The problem is further complicated by the fact that the process of the application of the Torah to life all through the history of the Jewish people had to be entrusted to man.  It had to be because “the Torah was not given to God’s ministering angels” but to mere man.  Once the Torah was revealed to the children of Israel, its realization on earth became their responsibility, to be shouldered by human ability and human insight.  That is, we suggest, the ultimate meaning of Rabbi Y’hoshua’s bold stand: “The Torah is no longer in Heaven!”  One pays no attention to the voice from heaven in matters of Torah realization on earth.  So it is intended and explicitly stated in the Torah itself.  It could not be otherwise.  The divine truth had to be poured into human vessels; it had to be “humanized”.  Having left its heavenly abode, it had to be accommodated in the modest cottages of human uncertainty and inadequacy.  This, in essence, is the task of the Halakha.  The “humanization” of the word of God requires that in applying Torah to the human condition, one takes into consideration human natures and its needs, human character and its problems, the human condition in its forever-fluctuating dimension, the Jew and the Jewish people in their unique historical reality.

11.  Midrash and Rabbinic interpretation does not always align straightforwardly with Biblical texts, but often radically undermines their meaning.  This should be kept in mind when we think about the ways we approach both Rabbinic and Biblical texts.

“Rabbinic Midrash initiates a subtle game that both pledges a certain allegiance to the biblical text and yet in places radically subverts its original meaning.  A good and pertinent example relates to the story of the revelation at Mount Sinai.  In Exodus 19 and 20 it is a thunderous, terrifying and life threatening encounter with God’s singular voice or presence appearing to annihilate the people.  In Shemot Rabba (5:9) and Shir HaShirim Rabba (5:16) the voice is no longer overpowering and singular, but it is heard differently by every individual, and God is suddenly very aware of the potentially destructive power of his communications.

Revelation is thus transformed from a fearsome encounter with an alien force into a more humane and measured encounter with a loving aspect of the Divine, one much more attuned to and aligned with our earthly experience and nature.  There is a deliberate attempt to render the text more human, to validate what every individual makes of his or her experience.  This should be read as a warning against singular and literal appropriations of the Bible:  if God Himself had to revise and recondition his presentation of the materials, surely it is incumbent upon us as readers and educators, and especially as leaders and politicians, to do the same.

The Rabbis are warning that the word of God can be deadly, that it must be handled with the utmost care and responsibility.  They did not appear to adopt the second option espoused in the Facebook conversation – ‘find another book’ – but in many ways that’s exactly what they did: they re-appropriated and re-constituted the Bible through their own readings in the Mishna, Talmud and midrashim, keeping the words of the text, but turning it into a different book.”  (from my essay on how to read the Bible)

12.   The rewards of adhering to halakha can be intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, something administered by a Grand Divine Adjudicator.

13.  The Rabbis of ancient times were not always able to fully transcend their environment – no one is – and think critically about the role of women in their world.  I have explored this in these four discussions:

(a)    Regarding time bound mitzvot

(b)   Regarding grace and inclusion

(c)    On the projection of all femininity into Torah, rather than actual women

(d)   On hysteria and the theft of female fertility


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