The Living Torah
Volume 3 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1989 | Tishrei, 5750)
Throughout the ages, Judaism has been interpreted, reinterpreted and restated. Whether the changes promulgated at any particular time or by any one group are ?acceptable? to all in the Jewish community, history records them, nonetheless. Like other aspects of the ?cultural world,? religion has always been affected by changes in the surrounding secular society. Within Orthodoxy, those changes have sometimes been an inverse reaction to the new freedoms of the ages as rabbis sought to ?build a fence around the Torah.? But even Orthodoxy, in spite of attempts to portray it as rigid and inflexible, has seen its share of change, at times, however, leading to divisiveness within the ranks. It is these changes, creative responses to different times and circumstances, that Aryeh Kaplan referred to as ?The Living Torah.?
But how much may be the laws be changed? To what extent? By whom? Under what circumstances? How much creativity may be brought to bear to solve difficult dilemmas. The biggest issue seems to arise when halakha imposes a solution which, to the uninitiated (and even to those who live by Torah law), causes inequity. How far should rabbinic authorities stretch to find equitable resolutions?
The problem of the agunah is an excellent example of such a challenge to our creative, halakhic intelligence. Responsa show that the uncertainty surrounding husbands not returning from war (are they dead or merely prisoners?) was essentially resolved, but what of the more difficult issue of the husband who fails or refuses to grant his wife a get (a religious divorce)? Should rabbis allow themselves to be coerced into halakhic change by changes in secular laws (e.g., the New York Get Law)? Early on in the Conservative movement, the marriage contract (ketubbah) was altered to obligate the groom to accept the judgment of a religious court if it instructed him to give his wife a divorce. Later, they gave Conservative rabbis the right to declare the nullity of a Jewish religious marriage if the groom refused to undergo the traditional procedures for religious divorce. What, if anything, can we do with these solutions? Can we provide solutions that truly meet the halakhic objections? The enlightening interview in this issue with Rabbi Shlomo Riskin provides some answers.
As difficult are the issues which arise where Torah seems, on the surface, not to provide comfort in a situation where human (and humane) principles demand it. How do we handle the kind of situation presented in Anna Kolodner's Community of One, a heartbreaking account of the death of an infant? How can we make certain that rabbis will be as creative as possible (within the bounds of halakha) so as to not turn people away from Yiddishkeit? We felt it necessary to present some answers to the important questions raised by Ms. Kolodner. In addition, we felt we owed it to her and our readers not to wait for a future issue; hence, the Response To Community of One by Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard. We hope that other rabbis will submit responses to The Jewish Review on this sensitive and difficult issue.
In an interview with The Jewish Review last year, Rabbi Marc Angel provided his own suggestions for dealing with these kinds of problems:
Judaism recognizes the need for chidushim, individual creativity and insights, but the balance which Judaism strikes is this: that while respecting tradition, it doesn't want us to be fossilized by tradition; it doesn't want us to live exactly the same way people did 2000 years ago, to dress the same way, think the same way, be the same way, but rather to take these universal or eternal principles of the Torah, of halakha, and to apply them in our generation as all of our predecessors have done in theirs ? To be able to apply Judaism in a way that is relevant to the contemporary generation requires a considerable amount of creativity and intelligence.?
We hope that The Jewish Review will continue to be a forum for the creativity and intelligence of the Jewish community; that all those who take our tradition seriously will feel comfortable to present their ideas; and that all opinions from within the halakhic community (as well as those from outside) will be greeted with understanding and not with the accusations and recriminations with which we have become familiar. It is only then that we can hope to begin to rid the world of sinat chinam (baseless hatred).
L'shana tova tikatevu v'taichatemu.
?Harris Z. Tilevitz