The Jewish communal practice
Derived from the root meaning “to go” or “to walk,” this is hard to translate but some suggestions include “the act of going forward,” “making one’s way,” “the way to go,” “communal practice” – it is perhaps best untranslated.
The communal practice of Jews has always developed according to the age to create what is known as halacha. Halacha is responsive to the needs of the society and yet it also makes demands of that society. Some Jews today see halacha as having been given by God to Moses who then transmitted it down through the generations. This belief extends to the idea that even that which rabbis would in the future pass onto their students was given to Moses! However, this literal reading seems to directly contradict the Talmudic narrative (from Menachot 29b) in which Moses asks God to see the future sage Rabbi Akivah. When Moses is sitting at the back of Akivah’s classroom, he does not understand a word that is being taught. However, his heart is consoled when a student asks for the source of the teaching and Akivah replies, “It is a law given to Moses on Sinai.” Reform Jews follow this narrative in the understanding that Jewish law develops while nonetheless retaining an important link to the past.
Some believe that since halachah is the integral decision-making process of Judaism, all branches of Judaism develop their own unique halacha. As Rachel Adler states, “Halachah belongs to liberal Jews no less to Orthodox Jews because the stories of Judaism belong to us all. A halachah is a communal praxis grounded in Jewish stories.” Others feel that halachah is purely an Orthodox matter and that the Reform Movement is post-halachic. This opinion derives from the fact the halachah was based upon certain ways of reading Torah, for example, assuming that it was inerrant and that repetitions were allusions to hidden laws that needed expounding. Along similar lines, some hold that any system of law which diminishes the role and voice of women, as traditional halachah clearly did, cannot be divine and needs to be replaced.
If one were to suggest that Reform Judaism is a halachic movement, even if that halachah were greatly modified from the halachah as understood by today’s Orthodox Jews, the question needs to be asked as to the authority of that halachah. This question arises because halachah traditionally included matters of criminal and civil law and these have now been handed over by the Jewish community to the state. It is also a reality of modern Jewish life that Jews no longer live in shtetls where communal praxis can be enforced socially, further questioning the authority of any halachah as traditionally understood. Rabbi Louis Jacobs z”l held that “the ultimate authority for determining which practices are binding on the faithful Jews is the historical experience of the people Israel.” However, many Reform Jews hold that halachah is binding on us by virtue of the belief that Revelation is ongoing and that through a shared endeavour of study and discussion, we can uncover the halachah for the age and enforce it within our own community. Different rabbis in the Reform Movement hold differing opinions on the authority and development of halachah, and it is recommended that you ask a local rabbi their opinion.
If Reform Judaism is to be seen as a halachic movement, then as that halachah develops it needs to have input from everyone in the Jewish community, not just the men as happened in the past. It also needs to be informed, respecting the right of the individual to choose while also respecting the need of the community for a sense of definition and communal boundaries. Rabbi Dr.Tony Bayfield, Head of the Reform Movement, urged that halachah not be abandoned but transformed in a post-halachic epoch, and states that the vehicle through which such transformation is to take place is through “responsible autonomy.” As Rabbi John Rayner z”l says, the key to evolving a new, modern halachah is for us all to “take up again, with earnestness and dedication, that most characteristically Jewish of all tasks: to answer, and to answer in detail, the question, ‘What does the Eternal require of you?’ And let us be undaunted by the knowledge that we, in our generation, can only hope to make a modest start.”
Perhaps the most telling story relating to the development and authority of halachah is the story of the Oven of Akhnai, in which Rabbi Eliezer engages in a disagreement with the rest of the Rabbis. He calls on a series of miracles to prove his case but in each case the Rabbis retort that no proof can be brought from miracles. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer calls on God to prove his case, and a Heavenly Voice attests that he is correct. The Rabbis retort “It is not in heaven,” which is explained as meaning that since God had given the Torah to human beings and since the Torah says that we should always follow the majority opinion (Ex. 23:2), we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice that contradicts the majority! The end to this remarkable story is that at that hour God laughed with joy, saying “My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.” (Babylonian Talmud: Bava Metzia 59b).
The appeal to logic and its appropriate use is made clear by the above story. Unfortunately, many individuals hear of the concept of Jewish law and mistakenly believe it to be an oppressive and unchanging burden, whereas in actuality halachah should be a liberating and fluid search through varying avenues of logic (and some would also say emotion). One commentator from the 14th century writes that “whenever a sage is called upon to render a decision and he is able to find adequate reasons for permissiveness without having his decision attacked by a reliable authority, it is improper for that sage to be excessively pious, seeking overmuch to be stringent and discovering reasons for it.” Another commentator from the 16th century states that in order to fulfill the Biblical verse ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness,’ (Prov. 3:17) “it is necessary that the laws of our Torah should be in full accord with reasonableness and common sense.” In other words, the spirit of halachah is best served by educated leniency in line with tradition.
Ultimately, halachah is that which renders the static text of the Bible fluid and relevant in our lives – the implementation of the ancient written word in our modern world. It is part of the life of the everyday Jew, either as the ancient basis for their current practice or as the reformulated but nonetheless continuing chain of traditional interpretation of word to deed.
- Sinai, Law and Responsible Autonomy, Tony Bayfield, RSGB, 1993
- Progressive Judaism – A Collective Theological Essay and Discussion Paper, Tony Bayfield, MANNA Magazine, Spring 1990
- Here Comes Skotsl: Renewing Halakhah, Engendering Judaism, Rachel Adler, JPS, Philadelphia, 1998
- A Tree of Life – Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, Louis Jacobs, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, 2000
- Towards a Modern Halachah, Reform Judaism, John Rayner, RSGB, 1973
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.