Dear friends,
וזאת הברכה - And so we reach the end.
I want to thank you all for being such diligent and engaged readers. It has been a joy to learn with you, receive your questions and critiques (and to look forward to having time to respond to some of the questions I did not get to respond to!) and for your generosity in allowing me to share these reflections with you this year.
I also want to offer special thanks to Jeremy Tabick, who diligently edited these essays week after week and ensured that they were presented in an attractive and accessible format. If you enjoyed this series, feel free to thank him yourselves.
Thank you to my colleagues at Mechon Hadar who have supported this work; we are serious about producing meaningful Jewish content for the broader public and it has been an honor to be at the center of that endeavor this year.
As we move on to a new year of Torah reading, I will look forward to sharing pieces from time to time, and hope that our opportunities for conversation and learning will continue. My blessing for you is that you leave our learning together with renewed passion for Torah - הפך בה והפך בה דכלה בה/"Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it." May this be a year of renewed study and insight for us all.
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Sincerely yours,
Rabbi Ethan Tucker
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מורשה קהלת יעקב/ An inheritance for the community of Jacob

Closing Reflections II: Halakhah and Community
Rabbi Ethan Tucker

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Each week, these emails will include  a full essay on a halakhic issue and  thoughts connecting that topic to the weekly parashah.  You can enjoy a shorter abstract, read the full essay on the topic, and educators are invited to download a source sheet with the primary sources discussed in the essay.  To download, click the links below:
Previous divrei Torah from Rabbi Shai Held on parashat VeZot HaBerakhah:
A long time ago, the great Sage Reish Lakish observed that even the Jews who were seemingly the most removed from the tradition were full of mitzvot like a pomegranate is full of seeds. אפילו ריקנין שבך מלאים מצות כרמון (Eruvin 19a). Not only does he describe a word full of observance, but he models what it looks like for rabbis and leaders to see commitment and connection in unexpected places. Today, by contrast, we live in a Jewish world that is commonly bifurcated into the observant and the non-observant, the halakhic and the non-halakhic, a world in which perhaps the greatest spiritual deficits that we face are those of trust and respect. Most rabbis engaged with halakhah don't trust the average contemporary Jew, seeing emptiness, worthlessness, laziness, and a lack of commitment. And most contemporary Jews don't deeply value and engage the halakhic tradition they have inherited and, whether for reasons of ignorance or ideology, can often hardly be said to be as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is of seeds.
Reish Lakish shows us, however, that it was not always so. How did we take leave of that world, where rabbinic figures felt responsible for the wider Jewish community, who trusted and respected the people as a part of the halakhic conversation, who thought halakhah was a מורשה קהלת יעקב/"An inheritance of the (whole) community of Jacob" as we read in this week's parashah, and end up in our present moment? And is there any way for us to get back to that world of trust and respect? As we bring the year of Torah reading to a close in this final essay, we will explore this question, striving to understand the genesis of our present moment and begin to chart a way forward.
Throughout the middle ages, rabbinic authorities and Jewish communities were responsible for all Jews. With the exception of those who actively converted out or those who actively took steps to separate themselves from the community, even Jews who might not have bought fully into rabbinic halakhah were nonetheless under the purview of the political structure in which rabbis played a critical role. Sometimes, this was aided by the small sizes of Jewish communities; it was always abetted by Gentile power structures that empowered rabbis to have privileged roles in governing their Jewish constituents. As a result, halakhah was bound to the entire Jewish community and responsible to it. Emancipation allowed Jews, for the first time since the crystallization of rabbinic authority in the middle ages, to leave the Jewish community without serious consequences. Instead of being consigned to membership in vassal rabbinic states embedded within their European hosts, Jews were now invited to be citizens of the general society. Jewish political authority largely disappeared, though Jewish communities still administered funds distributed by the state to the various religious communities. But Jews in Europe steadily acculturated and assimilated, adopting patterns of living much more similar to their Gentile neighbors than to those of their ancestors. And rabbis and Jewish communities lost control over Jews, and thus lost formal responsibility for them as well.
This dynamic would quickly present rabbis with a fateful choice: To what extent would they continue to live out the medieval model, imagining themselves to lead the entire population of Jews, despite the fact that the gulf between rabbinic expectations and common practice continued to widen? Or would they instead retreat into a smaller slice of the Jewish community, those who actively and publicly elected to sign onto the rabbinic project in their daily lives, speaking only to the audience that seemed keen to hear what they had to say? The split was particularly acute in late nineteenth-century Germany. You can see the longer essay for some of the context, but put simply, the anti-Reform camp in Germany broke into two parts. Some remained within the traditional communal structures that contained all Jews and sought to advance their own agenda of traditional observance, even as Jewish institutions were increasingly controlled by advocates of Reform. Others decided to secede and form their own Orthodox community, essentially separating politically and communally from their co-religionists. They were dividing over a key question: Does the discourse of halakhah and the community it is attached to need to stay in dialogue with those who are potentially leaving it?
Ultimately, the European communities that grappled with these difficult issues, in Germany and elsewhere, were washed away by the flood of the Shoah. But the core questions remain with us until today. Indeed, the model of a truly secessionist, independent Orthodoxy remains with us as the dominant form of Orthodoxy until today. While America's strict separation of church and state makes religion a highly voluntaristic affair, the notion that Orthodoxy must look out for Orthodoxy, and that its halakhah must look out for Orthodox Jews and largely ignore those outside of that political grouping, deeply defines the contours of halakhic discourse in the United States up until the present. Even in Israel, where there is a Jewish government responsible for all Jewish citizens and where religion and state remain intertwined, the dynamics of secessionist halakhah remain very strong and preserve a discourse where halakhah looks out for the needs and assumptions of "religious" Jews, who are presumed to be halakhah's main relevant audience. This leads to crises on issues of marriage, divorce, and burial, to name just a few, where the entire population is subject to decisions formulated from a religious stance that is foreign and alien to them.
The raison d'être of a secessionist halakhah is fairly obvious: It hopes to preserve religious commitment and integrity in the face of overwhelming apathy and antipathy. How can halakhah engage with those who don't care about it or who scorn it? And if it did engage with those people, wouldn't it be hopelessly compromised, always shifting in the wind in order to make fair-weather fans and destroying itself in the process?
However we might assess the responses of 19th century German Jews to these questions, we must reevaluate them in our own time and place. And a close examination reveals that secessionist halakhah has serious drawbacks as well, drawbacks that, today, outweigh any of its benefits. These dangers are, briefly:
  1. Halakhic myopia. Because it only engages with the self-selected community of the halakhically faithful, secessionist halakhah narrows its field of vision and highly limits the scope of issues it will deal with. When you see your constituency as made exclusively of those who already buy into a robust commitment to mitzvot, the scope of vision inevitably narrows. Isn't it amazing, given all of the endless numbers of teshuvot written by contemporary poskim, how relatively few of them address some of the toughest and cutting edge issues that are religiously consuming for huge numbers of contemporary Jews? Where are the detailed teshuvot from the scholarly giants of the day that can really help people navigate issues of gender, sexuality, consumer responsibility, and fundamental questions of Jewish-Gentile boundaries? The relative quiet, or even silence, on these issues can be deafening, and reveals the ways in which halakhah has largely been blindfolded and had one hand - if not two hands - tied behind its back as it is largely shielded from serious engagement with the most difficult issues of the day.
  2. Scaling down the covenant. By writing off most Jews as irrelevant to the conversation, poskim stop looking for ways to understand their behavior and simply move to a stance of despair. It is a short step from there to giving up altogether on the Torah's mission to all Jews and the broader covenant of mitzvot and its claim on the entire Jewish people is thus compromised.
  3. Freeing people from the covenant; unmooring halakhah from its constituents. Finally, the last weakness of secessionist halakhah, which is essentially a cousin of the previous weakness, is the way in which secular Jews buy their freedom from the halakhic conversation at the price of losing any input over its content. On a surface level, Jews who describe themselves as secular, non-halakhic, or non-observant love secessionist halakhah, which claims only to look out for halakhic Jews and largely leaves them alone. Orthodox secessionists are generally uninterested in bringing secular Jews back to Jewish practice. And secular Jews are, for this reason, often fans of the dynamics of secessionist halakhah, which offers them the benefit of being left alone. Indeed, many Jews would fight tooth and nail any sort of halakhic regime that made a claim on them as imperialist and coercive. In reality, however, it rarely works out that way. Jews end up confronting the legacy of halakhic choices and dynamics in one way or another, whether it be through the State of Israel, through relatives, or through the people their children fall in love with, and thus end up returning to the table of halakhic conversation in one way or another. Secessionist halakhah conspires to leave them out of that conversation and deprives them of any internal voice in shaping it. Which more deeply respects autonomy, to exempt someone from taxes, or to grant them representation in Congress? It is really more respecting of a given Jew's religious choices to grant them freedom while writing them out of the halakhic language of covenant? Or is it actually more respectful to articulate expectations and obligations of all Jews and therefore assume that their questions and concerns must shape the kinds of issues poskim must grapple with. Paradoxically, making a more imperialistic claim of the obligatory scope of halakhah makes it more responsive and gives it a broader constituency.
For all these reasons and others, the current state of halakhah is in trouble. The discourse of halakhah has become unmoored from the people it is trying to guide, and most Jews are not sufficiently committed to make a claim on halakhah and to expect that it ought to respond to their reality. Or, to put both of these points together in a single thought: Halakhah and the Jewish people have become deeply, mutually alienated one from the other. We must move away from the secessionist halakhah that has reinforced these dynamics and find a way to return to the world of Reish Lakish, in which mitzvot are ubiquitous, and those engaged with the language of halakhah can see that reality and take it seriously. How do we do that?
I want to suggest six critical steps for making this a reality: Three devoted to ways in which we reimagine the halakhic enterprise, and three devoted to ways in which we reimagine our expectations of the Jewish community. Please see the longer essay for a fuller articulation of each of them. Let's begin with the ways in which our halakhic discourse must change:
  1. A halakhah that is real, not just ideal. For too long now, in an effort to preserve an idealized vision of the past and in the name of riding out the storm of modernity, halakhic sources have been used to construct an abstract ideal space of practice and commitment into which the messy details of the real world must be shoehorned. Too many contemporary thinkers advocate applying halakhic strictures to the world from behind a veil of ignorance. Rather than seeing the world and life as a mere shadow of the idyllic space of Torah, we must return Torah to its rightful place as the guide for navigating the lives we actually lead. This is the way rabbinic sources always worked, with their enthusiasm for responding to bediavad, or post facto situations. Teachers and preachers of halakhah should respond directly to our challenges and our realities, pushing us to advance the cause of Torah within the world we live in.
  2. Learning to respect religious instincts. Teachers of halakhah must take seriously the religious assumptions and instincts of any sincere person. Why? Well, for starters, they are often grounded in something real, a kernel of wisdom that might at first be overlooked but, upon second inspection, unlocks a deeper truth heretofore unrevealed. I remember, years ago, hearing someone talking about how they tried not to lie on Shabbat. When I first heard this, it sounded silly to me, completely unmoored from the discourse of melakhah that defines Shabbat prohibitions. But then, I later discovered that the Talmud Yerushalmi asserts that this practice was common in its own day and that this entitles someone to rely on an otherwise untrustworthy person if they attest to the kashrut of a given food on Shabbat! And indeed, on further reflection, not lying on Shabbat is part of a quest to create a more perfect space in time, one in which deception takes a break for a day along with all the other toils of the week. To ignore those gems of wisdom and insight is to be religiously and halakhically impoverished. But even more centrally: If we hope to recapture a world in which all Jews are full of mitzvot, we must begin in part by seeking out the halakhic instincts of average Jews. Those instincts must be engaged, probed and often challenged, but also used as fulcrums with which to leverage a deeper investigation of halakhic discourse. אם אינם נביאים בני נביאים הם: All Jews are the disciples of prophets; their religious insights are thus ipso facto commanding of our attention and respect.
  3. Avoiding sectarianism. A healthy halakhah that seeks a broad base of support will cultivate an allergy to legal formulations that leave too many people comprehensively shut out of the conversation. Religious leaders surely must work to inspire deeper commitment and to change behaviors, but there is a wide gap between increasing and intensifying observance and constructing a halakhah that could only ever plausibly be followed by a tiny minority of the Jewish people.
Even if practitioners of halakhah reorient themselves along the lines I have suggested so far, the contemporary Jewish community must still do three things, and this is the tougher part to hear. The first relates to questions of tone, the second relates to curriculum, and the third relates to self-respect and integrity.
  1. Embracing normativity. The Jewish community, particularly in North America, would be strengthened by coming to terms with the fact that we are all free individuals who are at liberty to lead whatever kind of life we want. The Emancipation is complete and there is no real obstacle to the fullest expressions of individual autonomy. Against that backdrop, it should always be assumed that anyone has the right, and more importantly the power, to disagree with any rabbinic or communal pronouncement on any topic without any real consequences other than those that are self-imposed. And therefore, given that there is no vestige of medieval coercive power - at least in the Diaspora - it is responsible and necessary to build communities that unapologetically embrace and advocate knowledge and observance of mitzvot. If you want halakhah to be healthy, responsive, and vibrant, it must be allowed a space to be articulated without irony and without apology. The notion that I can only protect individual autonomy by censoring the notion of normativity is toxic to reviving a normative language that can guide us through life's challenges. I desperately want to live in a world where I never hear someone express discomfort about the fact that someone offered a normative opinion. That energy and discomfort, to the extent it exists, should be channeled into discussing the substance of the norms in question. Too many too often assume that normative statements are cudgels wielded against deviant Jews, labeling them as bad, guilty, or unfaithful. We could be so much stronger as a community if we would embrace the notion of norms as articulated and projected expectations that in fact take people seriously and invite them to aspire to more thoughtful and directed forms of behavior. Rules need not be seen as an opportunity for rebellion. Instead, in an autonomous culture, they are invitations to step into Jewish normative discourse, into halakhah, as full citizens and participants in its conversation.
  2. Reviving halakhah by teaching it. It is uncomfortable to say it, but it is undeniably true: Outside many - though not all - Orthodox institutions, the North American Jewish community simply does not teach halakhah, whether to its congregants, to its school children, to its educators, or, sadly, even to its rabbis. Curricula and competence are stubborn facts that are not easily evaded. Most North American rabbis have never been trained to read sources like the Beit Yosef, the Shakh, the Pithei Teshuvah, or a responsum of R. Ovadiah Yosef with confidence and fluency. Their voices are thus sadly excluded from the deeper aspects of halakhic conversation and they have not been empowered to say something creative in its rich language. This obviously reflects nothing about abilities. It reflects curricular choices that assume that the discourse of halakhah is for someone else and therefore not worth investing in. Only by insisting that all of our leaders enter into this discourse can we refresh and reanimate it.
  3. Taking Jewish life seriously. Finally, and this is where all of us play a critical role, we must vote with our feet and restore through our actions the omnipresence of mitzvot in the Jewish community. If we expect halakhah to respond to our lives as lived, those lives need to be full of commitment and worthy of respect. We are all constantly called upon to answer the charge of the prophet Malakhi (1:8): הקריבהו נא לפחתך הירצך או הישא פניך/"Offer [this sacrifice] to your local governor! Would he accept it? Would he show you favor [on its account]?" We must honestly ask ourselves: Would we put the quality and intensity of our Jewish lives on a par with what would pass for excellence in the secular world? Don't we need to meet that standard if we expect generations past - as embodied in halakhic sources - to take us seriously enough to admit us into their timeless conversation?
    Contemporary Jews disagree on a host of ideological points. But we ought to be able to be honest about what levels of commitment exude a sense of bearing the weight of Jewish culture and practice in a way that would be respected in hindsight generations from now. Can my community point to a strong prayer space that functions on a daily basis? Can my community provide a home for someone seeking peer reinforcement for consistent, weekly observance of Shabbat? Do those who lead services in my community know their craft and inspire confidence and religious aspiration? Do people punctiliously tithe their incomes for tzedakah, understanding, as did all prior generations, that their income is not truly theirs? Is my community a sustainable model of religious commitment, whether by training true scholars or by baking matzah, such that I would be confident for the future of Judaism if it were up to me and those in my community? In short, can I look myself in the mirror and honestly say when compared to committed Jews and Jewish communities of the past, "Yes, I measure up. I am a proud member of this storied community of history." Because only if we can answer these questions in the affirmative will we ever be able to have the self-respect to demand respect from those who preceded us. We must aspire to a level of integrity that we would expect others to be able to see. We can only fairly demand things of the conversation of the ages if we take full ownership of our place within it.
These are the standards that motivate me. As a contributing member of Jewish communities, and as a parent, I am always asking myself whether I am measuring up. And when I make my contributions to halakhic discourse, I do so with the goal of advancing a halakhah that can match Reish Lakish's vision of Jewish community. Throughout this year, we have explored so many different texts and issues. My hope is that this final essay has offered some second-order reflection on why so many of those texts were important to me and how we might think of them in ways that implicitly advance a vision of Jewish community as well. No question is too tough, no text is too far afield, no personal instinct too idiosyncratic not to demand our attention. We are accountable to our texts: To read them precisely, to answer to their demands and, to the extent we think about something differently than they seem to, to ask ourselves why that is so and to craft a narrative that will account both for what we have inherited and what we experience. And we have always placed values at the center, insisting that our foray into halakhah is always a quest for a life of meaning. All of these commitments are in fact implicit corollaries of a commitment to a covenantal vision of Jewish community. All Jews are commanded, and therefore all texts are accountable to them. There is no easy evasion of religious obligation, just as there is no avoiding the Torah's accountability to all Jews. I firmly believe that this is the pathway forward to a world in which mitzvot once again are the unifying anchor of our people. אפילו ריקנין שבך מלאים מצות כרמון - Let us work hard towards a vision of community where even seemingly empty places are full. Full of values, full of purpose, full of integrity, and full of commitment.
Shabbat Shalom.
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To read the full essay:

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