“Why not change Halacha, Jewish law?” is a refrain commonly heard. “If Judaism was more inclusive there would be more Jews.” As Americans we have learned that democracy empowers us to make out own choices, times change, even the Constitution can be modified – so why not the Torah?
The pivotal question is how we view Torah and its system of law, known as Halacha. Was Torah created by great scholars? If so, it can and should be changed when new innovative ideas emerge.
Classical Jewish belief is that Torah is not a human creation. It is a guidebook to life, divinely transmitted to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Kuzari, the great philosophical work of Torah written a millennium ago teaches that millions witnessed and participated in the event, then taught this to the next generation, and this continued through the ages. Torah is not the subject of belief it is a historical event. On Sinai the written and Oral Torah was given. The written is what we know as the Bible, the oral became embodied in the Talmud, and legal codes. Commonly known as Halacha, which literally means, “to walk” – it is the pathway of life for a Jew. Torah is the embodiment of Divine wisdom in the world.
Halacha empowers Rabbinical courts to create legislation that bolsters Jewish tradition. For instance, during the time of the Prophets, the courts legislated that poultry would be considered as meat since people were saying, “If I can eat chicken with milk why not meat?” However, Jewish tradition does not empower rabbis to change the principles of Jewish law. These laws are divinely given and not subject to human modification.
Today, the Jewish community is split. The modern liberal movements have rejected the central concept of Divine gift of Torah. There is a variety of liberal opinions, some argue it was inspired, some say it was just the written Torah. This perspective creates many questions: What are the limits of change? What makes that change still Jewish? How can anyone demand that all Jews agree with unilateral changes when the majority of the Jewish communities in the world do not support those changes (the majority of synagogues in the world are orthodox)?
The argument is not new. The Dead Sea Scrolls, written four hundred years before the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud) was compiled, have numerous references to Jewish practice according to Halacha. The Essenes, the group who wrote the scrolls, believed Jewish law should be changed. Sounding like Jews today who kvetch about those who are “too religious” the Essenes complained in the Scrolls, “those people in Jerusalem practice like this, and they do this,” referring to their observances of Halacha. It’s clear from the scrolls that Halacha was observed long before the Oral Tradition was memorialized in the Mishnah and Talmud.
History teaches us that many groups like the Essenes rose in Jewish history, and eventually faded. It was Halacha that unified the people through the ages and gave meaning to their lives, teaching them the Divine truths given at Mount Sinai to the Jewish people. Α
Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.