Friday, February 24, 2017

How And When Should Judaism Change?

Guest Contribution by Elliot Resnick

Who would sit on today's Sanhedrin? (Algemeiner)
Elliot Resnick is a writer and editor for The Jewish Press, as well as the author of Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape ( which I was honored to be included) and the editor of “Perfection: The Torah Ideal.”  As always the views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect my own. His words follow. 

Was halacha more flexible in ancient times?  Some Jewish intellectuals – even those who identify as Orthodox – claim it was.  They argue that our ancient chachamim made bold reforms to Judaism in response to changing times, and we should as well.  

I disagree.  Even if these thinkers are right that halacha was less rigid in ancient times, radically amending halacha in the 21st century would be a disaster in my opinion.  Here’s why:

To make major sweeping changes to Judaism without fracturing the Orthodox Jewish community, we would need a central rabbinic body – something akin to the ancient Sanhedrin.  Unfortunately, though, a contemporary rabbinic body of this nature would almost assuredly be politicized.  It would be widely suspected of deciding controversial issues – not based on halacha – but on the extent to which it accepts or rejects the modern liberal agenda.  It would resemble America’s Supreme Court, which half the country routinely accuses either of obscurantism or dishonestly interpreting the 

Constitution in an effort to be politically correct.  Do we really wish to introduce this state of affairs into our community?

Some would argue that cynicism towards, and disrespect of, poskim already plague Orthodox society. To some extent, that’s true.  But when Rabbi X gives a liberal psak, or Rabbi Y gives a conservative psak, he can be ignored – even dismissed – by those who dislike his worldview without harm to the reputation of halacha.  Not so a modern-day Sanhedrin.  

A Sanhedrin cannot be ignored any more than America’s Supreme Court can be ignored.  Orthodox Jews would be forced to follow its verdicts no matter how politically-driven they suspected them to be.  As a result, bitter resentment towards this rabbinic body would quickly develop and respect for halacha as G-d’s divine will would decline. 

Amending halacha nowadays, though, is problematic for another more basic reason.  Even if one assumes that Chazal routinely reformed halacha, their changes arguably flowed organically from the Torah itself; they weren’t enacted in response to values external and alien to the Torah.  In other words, the changes generally came from within, not from without.  And when they did indeed come from without, the external ideas to which our ancient chachamim responded were ideologically parve in nature.  

The same cannot be said of the ideas influencing those who wish to change halacha today.  These ideas are rooted in the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which consciously cast off the “shackles” of G-d and religion. The sad fact is that modern-day liberalism is not yesteryear’s liberalism.  Movements like abolitionism and the fight for women’s suffrage never attacked religion as “the enemy.”  

If anything, the opposite is true.  Modern-day liberalism, however, routinely does, evincing an almost instinctive disgust of religious tradition.  It believes G-d a pernicious delusion, traditional marriage homophobic, Judeo-Christian sexual morality repressive, and the belief that men and women should play different roles in society nothing less than bigotry and oppression of the highest order. 

That is why winning hearts and minds is not enough for liberals.  They are determined to crush the opposition.  People who disagree with them are not merely wrong.  They are racist, bigoted, xenophobic, misogynistic, and homophobic.  Thus, a private Christian baker, for example, must be forced to bake a cake for a gay wedding.  Mordechai must publicly bow before Haman.  Anything less is unacceptable.

Liberal Orthodox Jews are fond of quoting Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s comment that yirat shamayim should elevate, not supplant, natural human morality.  That might be true, but I doubt Rav Kook had in mind the “natural” morality of activists who consciously aim to expunge G-d and tradition as standards of behavior in society.  

To this “natural morality,” Judaism must take a firm stand.  Even if halacha may evolve at times, it can never do so to accommodate ideas and worldviews conceived in rebellion to divine values.  In the face of such ideas, we shouldn’t feel defensive or apologetic.  We should rather walk in the footsteps of the ancient Chashmonaim, proclaim, “Mi laShem eilai,” and not cede an inch.