Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Problem of Orthodox Judaism and Excessive Codification

Although I am not an Orthodox Jew, I nevertheless enjoy Conversations, which is a publication from The Institute of Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a Modern Orthodox organization.  As their website states, they "offer a vision of Orthodox Judaism that is intellectually sound, spiritually compelling, and emotionally satisfying."  For those of you acquainted well enough with the Jewish community, these are all things that the Orthodox community severely lacks, and I applaud this organization for setting the example of what Orthodox Judaism should be.  With that in mind, I want to tell you that I received my latest volume of Conversations.  There was an article that I read that was of utmost interest.  It was written by Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, and the article is entitled "On the Nature and Future of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity."  In essence, what this article ends up being is a constructive criticism of the Orthodox community, most notably of how they inaccurately perceive the functionality of Jewish law to the point where the current halachic system has extinguished any notion of spirituality (i.e., a sincere, intimate relationship with G-d) for just about any "outsider" who is potentially interested in living a "halachic lifestyle."

Since the article is lengthy, what I will do is give you a bulleted list of his main points, most of which are given verbatim, and then I will give my reaction to the article:
  1. There are countless young Jews who search for an authentic Jewish religious way of life, but are unable to find spiritual satisfaction in the prevalent halachic system as practiced today in most Ultra- or Modern Orthodox communities.
  2. Jewish law is codified in much greater detail than ever before, making many wonder whether our ancestors were really observant.
  3. The majority of halachic literature today is streamlined, allowing little room for halachic flexibility and for the spiritual need for novelty.
  4. One of the Talmud's greatest contributions to Judaism is its indetermination, its frequent refusal to lay down the law.  As such, the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah are un-Jewish in spirit, as they oppose the heart and soul of the Talmud. 
  5. Elu v'elu, which means "these and those are the words of G-d (Eruvin 13b)."  Think of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.
  6. Such codices [as the S.A. and M.T] lead to intellectual laziness.
  7. The Torah, which is the word of G-d, can only be multifaceted.  Like G-d Himself, it can never fit into a finalized system, for it is much too broad in scope. 
  8. Each person receives the Torah individually, according to his own personality and exceptional circumstances.  Only one text was received [at Sinai] due to the fact that there was a need for unity and affiliation amongst Jews.  A fixed text was necessary to facilitate discussion, not agreement.
  9. We surely must move beyond the conventional way in which halacha has been applied.  If the existential predicament of blending autonomy and tradition is not resolved, it will ultimately distance many fine Jews from the Jewish tradition and religious observance.  This internal danger is greater than the external threat of secularism.
My Remarks: Before I begin, I just want to say that I do not have to be in the Orthodox community to be able to point out inherent flaws within a given system.  If you are Orthodox and decide to shoot criticism my way, just remember this--anything that shifts the criticism unto me personally will only be seen as a form of deflection and merely showing you skirting the issue at hand.  After all, the basis and inspiration of these sociological observances are that of an Orthodox rabbi.  With that disclaimer in mind, let us begin.

I find R. Cardozo's analysis of the situation to be precise.  The problems that Cardozo describes outline the very reasons why I have decided not to live in an Orthodox community, even in spite of my affinity for Jewish traditions.  Mainstream Orthodox Jews have reduced Judaism to an exceptionally narrow form of religious behaviorism in which the baseline is piety.  The over-codification of Jewish law violates the very spirit that Talmudic discourse was meant to transmit from generation, that being of דבר אחר (alternative opinion).

The regression of the halachic system that has made halacha what it is today began with Maimonides.  Prior to Rambam, Jewish law was multifaceted and flexible, and it somehow managed to consistently uphold Jewish values.  When Rambam came into contact with the ever-so codified Muslim law (shar'ia law), that all changed.  That influence caused Rambam to write Mishneh Torah, not to mention that most Jews during that time were lost as to how to best practice. (One has to note that even though there were attempts to codify prior to Mishneh Torah, this was the first codification with any form of gravitas in the Jewish world.) The fact that the title of his text was titled "Second Torah" not only reeks of chutzpah, but also come with an inherently authoritarian bent.  And it's no wonder there was a wide range of adverse reactions to the book when it first came out, from prohibition of reading the book to actually burning the book.  It was a violation of the Talmudic precept of דבר אחר.  Unfortunately, more codification was underway. The Shulchan Aruch came along, and the rest is history.

When asked for a reason why such a law exists, many practicing Jews fall back on the answer of "such and such text tells me so."  It's robotic, not to mention, as Rabbi Cardozo points out, a form of intellectual laziness.  The halachic system as practiced by most observant Jews lacks spirit and spontaneity. Halacha has become a mind-boggling complexity of nuances that have become so numerous that no one man can know all of them.  As such, it has become dry, insipid, and irrelevant for many who want to be observant while maintaining a sound sense of spirituality in a secular world.  Halacha is used as the proverbial stick that Orthodox rabbis metaphorically beat its congregants with in order to keep them in line.  It's no wonder that nearly 90% of Jews are non-observant!  

Rather than be an impersonal form of societal control in adherence to a skewed form of Jewish practice, halacha should inspire people to lovingly and willingly foster a relationship with G-d. Yes, there are certain principles and maxims that Jews should stick by, but on the whole, there should be a sense of autonomy to decide what is best for the individual.  As Pirke Avot 1:3 points out, the best kind of relationship with G-d is one with kavannah and a liberated volition, not one in which fear of divine retribution is your primary motivator.

I hope that many of the changes that R. Cardozo suggested in his article are actually implemented.  A paradigm shift is necessary for Orthodox Judaism to thrive in the long-run.  However, since the trend in the Orthodox community is towards the acquiescence of Haredization, I will not exactly hold my breath in anticipation for these reforms to occur.  A turn to an even more stringent, authoritarian practice as mainstream will surely be the death of Orthodox Judaism, that much I can say.  I just pray to Hashem that Orthodox Judaism pulls off a reversal in its trend towards ever more codification.


  1. I see the "over codification" of Halacha in the exact opposite light. Rather than restricting I think it is liberating.
    Take for example the Laws of Shabbos. These Laws are undeniably many and complex. Tractate Shabbos of the Babylonian Talmud is one of the longest in terms of pages. A formerly non-practicing Jew wishes to become Shabbos-observant. Not in 4 or 5 years after combing through tractate Shabbos and all other relevant passages in the Talmud, determining a method for weighing the various opinions, extracting the relevant laws from those opinions and extrapolating from those Laws to modern invention. He wants to observe Shabbos this week. Enter "over-codified Halacha".

    Take your average layman who works long hours and may not be scholarly inclined. He might complete the entire Talmud at some point in his life. But rendering halachic decisions for himself?

    The codification of Halacha is liberating. It frees time for us to spend in contemplation of the spirit without sacrificing commitment to the Divine Laws of G-d. And for those that are capable of more, the Talmud is at his disposal awaiting him to plumb its depths. Indeed there are many Rabbinical seminaries that focus on this approach: learning the Talmud with the objective of arriving at the Halacha. And thanks to over-codification, they don't have to wait for the conclusion to begin practicing these Laws!

    1. Dear Why Kay,

      I think it's great that you find meaning and liberation within the current halachic system. More power to you! I certainly think that Judaism should have values and standards because otherwise, what would be the point? My issue is that the codification of halacha has become excessive, and has resulted in a lack of spiritual innovation. Having "everything laid out" lulls people into a sense of complacency. Things change, and when they do, the halachic system should be adaptable to those changes while maintaining mesora. Is it an easy balance to maintain? No. But it historically has been done before, and halacha should revert back to that flexibility, especially given how fast things change these days.

      Also, going to your Shabbat example: The odds of a previously non-observant Jew to be able to grasp all of Shabbat observance in one try is next to nil. Even with the codification, it takes time to acclimate to Shabbat observance. Also, I've been doing Daf Yomi, and it doesn't take 4-5 years to get through the tractate. This brings me to another point, which is the idea that the codification will get you to the halacha. The whole premise behind Talmudic discourse is there is more than one way to approach halacha. While there are standards and certain norms, there are more than plenty of situations in which eilu v'eilu comes into play, which is why I prefer, in my humble opinion, to say that "this is a halachic answer" instead of saying "this is what the halacha says."

    2. I hear what you are saying and in a way, I agree with you: the adaptability of halacha is a key if not the key to the continuation of Judaism. For instance, the halachos regarding electricity are not new halachos, but based on extrapolations of halachos that were already in place. That is adaptability.
      The "flexibility" that you note in halacha of yesteryear I think is slightly different than what you make it out to be:
      One of the important parts to determining halacha is mesorah. The mesorah that Rav Yosef Kaaro received from his Rabbi or the Rambam from his. If we revert back to those earlier times, then we are also cutting ourselves off from the mesorah that was past time between then and now. That is counterproductive.
      Another important aspect I think is based on the idea of the decline of the generations (ירידת הדורות). In your studies of the Talmud, I'm sure you can appreciate the incredible wisdom of the Rabbis of the Talmud and the depth of understanding of the commentators of the Middle Ages. If we are like people, they are like angels (Shabbos 112b). The same way the Amoraim of the Talmud could not argue on the Tannaim of the Mishnah, we cannot innovate outside the framework set down by the Rabbis of the Middle Ages (Rishonim). That idea itself is part of the mesorah of determining halacha. Therefore it is imperative to learn their codices.

      Halacha itself has not suffered with the advent of modern changes. The proof of that is Orthodox Jews who still adhere to the same halacha. Spiritual complacency is a sin of the lay-person, no matter what religion or sect. But it is difficult for me to agree with you that condification RESULTS in complacency. I have only to look around me to see how many of my friends strive for and reach lofty goals. Maybe I don't understand what you mean by a lack of spiritual innovation.
      (Side point: משנה תורה doesn't actually mean 'second Torah'. It means a "review of the Torah", the same way that the משנה of the Tannaim meant to review. There is an allusion in those words to משנה למלך second TO the king, because the Rambam intended his work to be learned after Tanach as an overview of the salient points of halacha before entering the sea of the Talmud. But "second Torah" would be תורה שניה)

    3. I don't think that using electricity on Shabbat is the best example. The halachic ruling was made during the advent of electricity usage, which was problematic because a) rabbis in the early 20th century didn't have the foresight to realize the prevalence and influence of electricity, and b) those rabbis made a ruling based on an inferior understanding of the science behind electricity. Once there was new information that superseded our previous understanding of electricity, the rabbis should have changed the halacha according to the reality of the science, not based on the already-established perception thereof. The arguments for prohibiting electricity are not compelling. This is not to say that I automatically use electric objects on Shabbat. Quite the contrary! I can find other reasons outside of "electricity is prohibited," a lot of which are surrounded around the idea of shvut. A better example of halachic adaptation would have been the example of organ donation, in which eschatological beliefs were overridden by pikuah nefesh.

      As for the flexibility, I'm not asking to sever ourselves from mesora. What I am asking is that we continue the long-standing tradition of adapting and evolving when the situation calls for it, instead of saying "this is the way we've always done it" and sticking to the argument of "doing it for tradition's sake."

      As for the decline of generations, I do appreciate the wisdom of Chazal. But the issue is that those rabbis lived about two millennia ago. I don't subscribe to da'at Torah because rabbis are not omniscient, and I'm wary of the rabbinic periods (e.g., Acharonim, Rishonim). For instance, why is it that any rabbi after R. Josef Caro is put into an inferior categorization [of Acharonim]? It seems like a power play to solidify the legitimacy of S.A. I know that R. Norman Lamm talks about the misconception of "decline of generations" in his book Torah Umaddah. Rambam also took issue with the "decline of generations." I analogize the concept as standing on the shoulders of giants. Although I am not as well-versed as rabbinic greats such as Rashi, Rambam, Ramban, or Ramchal, I can take their commentaries and apply those in the context of what we know about various topics in modern-day times. Yes, we should certainly make sure we maintain mesora, but if our understanding of reality changes, the halacha should adapt accordingly. Otherwise, it would mean that we are living in a fantasy world.

      I probably should have phrased it as "spiritual inspiration" rather than "innovation." To reiterate, most Jews don't practice. I even know practicing Jews that wonder why they're doing what they're doing, and do certain mitzvot strictly out of keva (i.e., no kavannah). With codification, there is such emphasis on the mechanics (i.e, the what and the how) that many cannot understand the meaning behind why they're doing what they're doing (i.e., the "why") that goes beyond [at least what I would consider] the unsatisfying response of "because G-d told me to."

      And PS: Thank you for correcting the Mishneh Torah part. I would opine that it takes at least some chutzpah to say "I can provide a better version [that is more user-friendly]," but said chutzpah is considerably watered down from what I had initially suggested.

  2. The ideas and concepts of adaptability and relevance presented in these posts are a massive comfort to me. THANK YOU.