You Shall Pursue

January 14, 2013

Reconstructionism Part 4: Activism and Halakhah, How do we Make Jewish Law Work for Us?

Reconstructionism is in a bit of a strange place when it comes to halakhah (traditional Jewish law). When speaking about Jewish law, Mordechai Kaplan said that halakhah must have “a vote, not a veto.” But what on earth does THAT mean? Some Reconstructionist Jews would classify Reconstructionsim as a “post-halakhic” movement; one that cares about Jewish law but does not consider it binding. From a feminist perspective, many Reconstructionist leaders and thinkers have HUGE problems with halakhah, especially given the misogyny that governs standards of women’s behavior in the Oral Law. Still others feel that halakhah must be one of several religious and secular moral authorities employed when making a decision about communal practice. And still others (such as myself) are interested in having a conversation about how we can, as liberal Jews, use halakhah to our advantage.

One of the reasons for the debate about the place of halakhah in Reconstructionist Judaism is that, much as Reconstructionism cares about Jewish text and history, this is a movement that derives much of its identity from its social justice commitments. The second class of RRC rabbis was co-ed. We were the first rabbinical school to admit openly gay/lesbian students. The movement has accepted and welcomed interfaith families for decades. And we spend  a LOT of time and energy training clergy around issues of sexual violence, racism, trans* and genderqueer identities, and how to support and nurture people who may face discrimination from the Jewish community. Many Reconstructionist leaders have found from personal experience that traditional methods of halakhic interpretation shut out people who wish to find a place in Judaism. So how do we bring these two impulses to work together, the impulse for social justice and the impulse towards living in the bounds of Jewish Law?

Because my classmates are amazing, I want to link to this piece by Leiah Moser which encapsulates a lot of where I feel that our movement should be moving in regard to Jewish Law. I care about living my life in relationship with text; it is so important to Jewish history, culture, and identity. But our texts are changing and evolving, they always have been. If you read even a few pages of Mishnah or Talmud, you find contradictory opinions published all over the place. And the best part is that THEY DON’T TRY TO SOLVE THEM. Seriously. In the old days, the solution was often to plunk contradictory opinions down on the same page. Of course, there is legal interpretation, and the way that the law played out in the real world, but the real world application did not invalidate the fact that Judaism has a history of treasuring and preserving wildly differing opinions.

In addition, there are very old examples of rabbinic legal workarounds for religious issues that the rabbis found troubling. For example, the death penalty. The Bible is full of instances in which a criminal must be put to death (murder, certain instances of rape, persistent disobedience to parents) but the authors of later legal works write legal workarounds so as effect the practical abolition of the death penalty. The authors of the Mishnah and the Talmud were tremendous innovators. And I think that we, as liberal Jews, can follow in the footsteps of our rabbinic ancestors and reclaim Jewish law for ourselves.

I think that we as thoughtful, liberal Jews have the right and the responsibility to engage with halakhah in order to serve our ethical and moral obligations. Much of the reason that I was drawn to Reconstructionist Judaism is that it seems interested and willing to engage in issues of Jewish Law and text from a civilizational standpoint. These texts make us who we are; how can we make that work for us?

And there is much innovation around this area. Ideas such as eco-kashrut, that takes Jewish ideas about ethical and conscious eating and applies them to current questions about sustainability and the responsibility we have to both food workers and meat animals, Or groups like American Jewish World Service, which publishes curricula teaching the Jewish sources on world hunger, poverty, and other social justice topics. The more that we can thoughtfully raise up the work that is already being done in these areas, the more we can begin to reclaim Jewish Text and Jewish law as a powerful force for social good.

So many Jews feel a powerful connection to Judaism through their social justice commitments, and often they feel that they are secular Jews because that is the primary source through which they show their Jewish identity. However, their commitment to improving the world, to making sure that people can lead lives of dignity without want or fear is such a primal Jewish value. If we can show them that they are walking in the footsteps of the rabbis in terms of their social justice concerns, and if we can live up to the shining, justice-inspired parts of our own legacy, Judaism will be the richer for it.

1 Comment »

  1. Talk more about the issue of work arounds. Sometimes they feel like they make sense to me, as with capital or other penalties–it makes sense that without completely repudiating a severe penalty, we might require a higher evidentiary burden.

    But sometimes it just feels dishonest, and also feels less respectful to the text and our ancestors than more candid abnegation. An example that’s troubled me is the requirement that we stone women who are raped within the confines of the city. There is a lot of really interesting stuff in there to unpack about how our ancestors viewed the world, and even nascent glimmers of progress thought–we stone urban rape victims b/c they might have cried for help and therefore their failure to do so suggested consent and therefore culpability to our ancestors. We don’t stone rural rape victims, though, because their cries for help would have been futile in the empty countryside and therefore they cannot be understood to be culpable. Even setting aside the notion of capital punishment for consensual sex crimes, that understanding of consent and culpability is really pathetic and horrible. But remembering written Torah is thousands of years old, it’s an interesting seed from which a lot more sophisticated stuff can grow.

    According to the footnote in our chumash, the rabbis recognized it was horrible to stone rape victims and created evidence rules to ensure no one was ever punished for the ‘crime’ of being raped. It is obviously better that we not stone rape victims. But a selective evidence rule like that seems dishonest–if we take seriously the notion that halakhah is binding, why do we get to selectively invent stricter evidence rules for some crimes than for others? Shouldn’t we be honest and just say, ‘we think this rule is horrible and wrongheaded and have decided to strike it from living Torah’?

    I also don’t know how we can approach the rape victims in our community and say, we still believe you DESERVE to be stoned, we just don’t have enough evidence to prove it. So you’re getting away with it, but you still DESERVE to be stoned. That’s horrible! It’s obviously better than actually stoning people, but it’s still monstrous.

    [I’m liking the metaphor I inadvertently set up in the previous paragraph: maybe we can say the old rule contained the seed of a more progressive understanding, but that in bursting forth and flowering, the more progressive understanding has destroyed and eliminated/replaced the rule?]

    Comment by Dan — January 15, 2013 @ 12:18 am

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