The Case for Alternative Halakhic Systems

Many fitting and thoughtful tributes have been written since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) passed away on July 3rd, by his students and others who knew him well.  As I was not fortunate enough to count myself in that group, I offer instead some thoughts on his book Integral Halachah, which I finished reading days before his passing.

There is a widespread myth in Judaism that we would benefit from freeing ourself of.  It is the myth that halakha is the single code of Jewish law that of most commonly practiced today by Orthodox Jews.  This widespread myth contends that, just as the Talmud is the dominant surviving interpretation of the Torah, so too are the chain of legal codes, beginning with the Shulchan Aruch, the dominant (or only) interpretation of the Talmud’s legislative content for our time.

This myth has left many in the non-Orthodox world with what is ultimately a false choice: either we can follow (Orthodox) halakha, or we can live a Jewish life that in some respects might align with (Orthodox) halakha, but to a large extent is not governed by any system of Jewish law and ethics, in any codified sense.

This is a false choice, and a false myth, because halakha is not a unified, univocal system.  Halakha ought to be the ethical/spiritual/legal framework by which we organize our lives as Jews.  If this is ever to become reality, it is clear that the Jews alive today need more than one organizing system of halakha.  In other words, what is important here is not that there be one, and only one, system of halakha, but rather that a greater emphasis be placed in all Jewish communities on following a set of legal and moral precedents that each given community can abide by.  These legal and moral precedents should be derived from both Jewish canonical texts and modern experiences, living up to the highest ethical standards that we can realistically set for ourselves.

While this might sound nice, there are many reasons why the myth described above remains intact, and why most non-Orthodox Jews do not view themselves as being bound by any system of Jewish law (bound in the sense of being obligated, as we are obligated to follow local secular law).  There has been precious little work done in re-conceptualizing what halakha might look like outside of an Orthodox framework.  This is one of many reasons why I am grateful to Reb Zalman and Rabbi Daniel Siegel for writing Integral Halachah.

In the book, Reb Zalman speaks of halakha as a comprehensive way of drawing on the wisdom of our forebears while taking into account dimensions of our lives that are new, that represent the paradigm changes that have occurred since the major works of halakha were written.

I see there being two major obstacles to bridging the gap between the myth of univocal halakha and the vision that Reb Zalman is advocating.  First, halakha appears to most non-Orthodox Jews as being overly concerned with minutiae that do nothing (or next-to-nothing) to uplift us spiritually or lead us to leading more ethical lives (including the life of the planet that we so carelessly abuse).  Second, Orthodox halakha is a product of a time in which women were treated differently than men (not to mention LGBT Jews, or non-Jews), in a way that is anathema to many in the non-Orthodox Jewish community today.

These obstacles, in turn, leads to few Jews actually opting in to a halakhic framework, which leads to so many of us losing out on the tremendously positive affects such a system could have.  Reb Zalman talks about the ethical benefits of business practice and food consumption, to name just two examples, that would clearly do more to improve the lives of those we interact with if more of us bought into a system that we viewed as morally positive.

I think that one of the most powerful ways that we can live out Reb Zalman’s legacy in the area of halakha is to continue to experiment with new ways to live Jewish lives bound by halakhic systems that speak to us.  Reb Zalman repeatedly states in Integral Halachah that his own life, personally and as a Jewish leader, was marked by a never-ending process of experimentation with Jewish practice.  To make halakha a vibrant part of all Jewish lives, we owe it to Reb Zalman’s legacy, and to ourselves, to continue to experiment with creating alternative halakhic systems.

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