Thursday, December 22, 2016

Jewish Culture and Halacha

Challah - a cultural yet Halacha based item (Jewish Journal)
Professor Steven M. Cohen’s assessment of the future of American Jewry has generated responses by many people, myself included. If I had to sum up my response in a couple of sentences, it would be the following: The perpetuation of American Jewry will depend on those of us that observe of Halacha. And our numbers will depend on how many of us do that and transmit it to our children.

In her very thoughtful piece in the Jewish Journal, Professor Roberta Kwall elaborates on Professor Cohen’s remedy for the preservation of the greater non Orthodox community: 
His recommendations include suggestions that non-Orthodox Jews marry younger, marry Jews, and “raise their children as Jews.” But the critical question is what does it mean to raise one’s children as Jews in a non-Orthodox context?  The answer really is quite simple even if its execution raises complexities. American Jews interested in preservation and transmission need to become more sensitized to making a greater number of affirmative Jewish choices, including choices perceived as more religious than cultural.  In short, they simply need to “do Jewish” more. 
She later adds that many of the things that are ‘doing Jewish’ are based in Halacha. So that even if it is done for cultural reasons it should be encouraged since that is a way to perpetuate non Orthodox Jewry in America. The sad fact is that most American Jews do not define Judaism in terms of following Halacha.  Even while many of them take pride in their Judaism.

Which begs the question, what is it exactly that they are proud of? Can it possibly be something like Yiddish theater? Is that what gives them Jewish pride? Or perhaps it’s their pursuit of social justice? But is that an exclusively Jewish value?

This being said, I agree with Professor Kwall’s suggestions for non O Jews to be more proactively Jewish in order to preserve their identity. But only as a means to an end... the end being becoming observant of Halacha, which in our day can best be described as Rabbinic Judaism. It is an inherently positive thing to do to follow Halacha – even if you don’t do it for the right reasons. The expression that captures that is ‘Mitoch SheLo LiShma, Bah Lishma’ . If one does a Mitzvah even for the wrong reason, eventually they will come to do it for the right reason. Which is - following the will of God.

As an Orthodox Jew, and based on my studies I believe that following Halacha is what Judaism is all about. What is Halacha today? Is it different now than it was 1000 or 2000 years ago? The answer is - it is and it isn’t. The basic laws are the same. But it is also very true that Halacha has evolved over the centuries into something that is largely unrecognizable from how it was practiced during the Temple era. 

But it did not evolve randomly to be interpreted by the spirit of the times. It was interpreted by the greatest rabbis of each era. It stands to reason that only those rabbis with sufficient knowledge create new law based on their Torah knowledge as impacted by the issues of the times in which they lived.

This does not mean a rabbi like me. I was ordained. But there are tons of people like me that were ordained and yet not sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to create new law for our times. For that we need to look to those rabbis that have studied all of the Talmud many times as well as all the relevant responsa over the generations all the way down to our day. There are not too many people like that to say the least. But there are some.

But even that isn't enough. These rabbis must either know the technicalities of the subject at hand by either studying it themselves or relying experts in the field. If - for example - a rabbi doesn't know how a computer works he can't possibly tell us whether it is permissible to use it on Shabbos or not - no matter how much Torah he knows.

I should add that most Orthodox Jews have been raised in the home to follow Halacha as we know it today. We do not require asking the great rabbis of our generation what the Halacha is in most cases. And if you have a decent Jewish education, you’ve also studied enough basic Jewish law to know it and understand it instead of relying on rote behavior.

It is in creating new law relevant to new developments where the great rabbis of each generation come in. That there may be differences of opinion by various great rabbis allows us a choice about who we should listen to for Halachic guidance on these new issues.

Getting back to Professor Kwall’s suggestion about ‘doing Jewish’ - not all customs are based in Halacha. As mentioned some are strictly cultural. The strictly cultural items therefore have no bearing on one's Judaism. Even as there are people that see such things as quintessentially Jewish and hang their much of their Jewish identity on them.

For me the bottom line is - Yes! ...Jews should be encouraged to follow Jewish practices even if they do it for cultural reasons. (This is kind of the new Modus Operandi of Reform Judaism. They encourage but do not require Mitzvah observance now. Whereas in the past it was anathema to them, they now realize that without it, their identity as seekers of social justice are hardly any different than the way secular humanists identify. They understand that social justice is not strictly a Jewish value. A Jewish identity must have a uniqueness to it - or it isn't an identifying feature of their Judaism).

But that can only work if eventually they accept these traditions as binding and pass them on to future generations. If everything remains optional, there is little chance that one's children will accept all the traditions they saw in their home - on their own. Let alone their grandchildren. Especially if there is no formal Jewish education.

Finally, it is confusing to mix those traditions which are purely cultural (and in my view meaningless in defining Judaism) and those that are based in Halacha. It is therefore important when reaching out to fellow Jews that are not observant to clearly distinguish between them and to focus on those that are Halacha based – even if it observed as optional. Because ‘Mitoch SheLo LiShma, Bah Lishma’.