Category Archives: halakha

What makes Judaism Jewish?

What makes Judaism, well, Jewish?

Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible read through the lens of our oral law.

Koren Mishnah closeup of page

While originally transmitted orally, the oral law was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the classical Midrash compilations, and later extrapolated on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

Why do we need an oral law? The Torah wasn’t written in a vacuum; it existed within a culture, so cultural/historical context is necessary to understand it.  Reading a book through the lens of a culture’s context, their oral law, in broad strokes is agreed upon as necessary even by secular historians. All the more so, then, for Jewish people who want to live by Torah.

Separate question: How much of the oral law came from the time of the Torah itself is debatable, but whenever the Torah was redacted into its current form, it absolutely had a context.

Joseph Telushkin writes:

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (Deut 6:4).
…Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

There are other benefits from realizing the existence of context: The oral law rescues us from biblical fundamentalism. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18–21 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son… and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town…Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.”

Only fundamentalists imagine that one should do this. In contrast, rabbinical Judaism teaches that this text was never meant literally: It was a divine rhetorical device, explaining the seriousness of such a transgression. In practice, if there was a rebellious child, one would follow the oral law, written down in

* Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה
* Tosefta תוספתא
* classical Midrash מדרש compilations
* Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud)
* Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud)

The Mishnah, Makkot 1:10 says that capital punishment should almost never happen. Jeremy Kalmanofsky translates:

סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע נקראת חובלנית. רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה.
רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין לא נהרג אדם מעולם. רבן שמעון בן
גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל.
A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called bloodthirsty. R. Elazar b.
Azariah said: even once in 70 years. R. Akiba and R. Tarfon said: had we been in
the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Shimon ben
Gamaliel said: then these sages would have created more murderers in Israel.

Investigation must following certain rules of evidence, and if certain standards are not met then the death penalty may not be given.

Even if one witnessed an armed man chase another into an enclosed space, then later saw him, bloody sword in hand, standing above the corpse of the other man, dead of stab wounds, this would constitute inadmissible conjecture, not hard enough evidence for conviction [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b; Midrash Mekhilta d’Kaspa #20].

Excerpted from Participating in the American Death Penalty,  by Jeremy Kalmanofsky.

This isn’t a modern day reform – according to Judaism, these evidentiary laws were part of the Torah’s system by design. That’s why we can’t “just read the Torah.” People advocate this have never actually read the Bible, for if they did they would find hosts of laws that they personally would find unfulfillable or objectionable – and almost all of the prayers, songs, ceremonies and rituals that they do enjoy, would not even be found there.

 

The truth about agunot and annulment in Jewish law

Jewish law – halakhah הֲלָכָה – like any legal system, provides norms for marriages and divorces.  Yet there is a crisis in the Orthodox Jewish community on this issue – through an unfair legal loophole, men can leave their wives, marry another women – and yet still leave their original wife technically married to them.This problem has grown to the point where thousands of Orthodox Jewish women are functionally divorced – and may even have state/civil divorces – but they are still married in the eyes of the Orthodox Jewish community, and as such they are unable to move on with their lives.

A belief among today’s Orthodox is that halakhah forbids annulment; even agunah advocates are usually not well-versed on the subject, and as such, even the best-intentioned Orthodox advocates for agunot have been ineffective. As such, this resource is meant to educate Jews on the legal remedy that has always been available within halakha:  hafka’at kiddushin (annulment of a valid marriage) and kiddushei ta’ut, annulling a marriage conducted under false pretenses.

Agunot and Annulment

Eliezer Berkovits

Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was a rabbi, theologian, and educator in Modern Orthodox Judaism.

The core of his theology is the encounter as an actual meeting of God and human at Mt. Sinai. The encounter is paradoxical in that it transcends human comprehension, yet it demonstrates that God cares about human beings. He teaches that once human beings know God cares for them, they can act in ways that seek meaning, accept responsibility for their actions, and act with righteousness toward others. This implies the keeping of the commandments, ethical concern for others, and building the State of Israel.

In Berkovits’ view, Halakhah is determined by (1) the priority of the ethical in the value system of Judaism as reflected in the entire range of Jewish sacred literature, (2) common sense, (3) the wisdom of the feasible in the light of reality. In Not in Heaven he states that “in the spiritual realm nothing fails like compulsion” Yet, “Autonomy degenerates into everyone doing his own thing. The result is social and international decadence” (p. 83). Berkovits sees Judaism and halakhah as being inextricably intertwined, halakhah and our relationship to it having indeed shaped Judaism. “Through Halakhah the Word from Sinai has become the way of life of the Jewish people through history” (p. 84). He therefore sees a normative role for halakhah even in the modern world: “There has never been a greater need for Halakhah’s creative wisdom of Torah-application to the daily realities of human existence than in our day”

How to argue Jewishly

Argumentation is an essential part of Judaism. We see this in the Mishnah and Talmud, in every student’s education in a kollel, yeshiva or Jewish religious school. Arguments are aimed at reasoning and conclusions, not ad homenim (aimed at a person)

In a typical deductive argument, premises guarantee the truth of the conclusion: Sure, that’s pretty hard to do in religion, in general. So we usually see a combination of deductive argumentation, with some amount of inductive argument (one in which logic provides reasons for supporting the conclusion’s probable truth.)

In rabbinical Judaism, our premises are not secular atheism, or Christian texts, or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist texts.

Our premises start with the Torah (five books of Moses) and Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and read them through the evolving tradition of our oral law – including the Mishnah, Tosefta, Midrash, the two Talmuds and the responsa literature.

Responsa (Hebrew: She’elot u-Teshuvot,  שאלות ותשובות , questions and answers”) comprise the body of written decisions given by poskim (“deciders of Jewish law”)

A good overview of this topic may be found in History of responsa in Judaism (Wikipedia) and in Responsa in the Conservative/Masorti Jewish movement.

Timeline_Books_Judaism - Copy

 

The image below is really good; it shows the sources we use.

One note – it does imply primacy to a late medieval code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh. But the idea of it’s primacy is a post-1700’s belief, and not quite traditional.  For more on that see The Shulchan Aruch in perspective

rlgenremaphi

Sephardic Jewish views in the modern era

THE LEADERSHIP AND TRADITION OF SEPHARDIC SAGES IN THE MODERN ERA

Note: This article uses the term Sephardi colloquially; in this context it is inclusive of the three major Jewish ethnic groups distinct from Ashkenazi Judaism, namely Sephardic, Mizrachi and Maghrebi Judaism.

by Rabbi Yitzchak Chouraqu

Hamerkaz, Fall 2014

Sephardic culture throughout the ages developed in concurrence with general culture, thus continuing the tradition of the Golden Age of Spain, in which the internal Jewish world recognized the wider world without losing its own uniqueness.
The Sephardic Sages of recent generations were aware of current events and
changes in the world around them. This is especially true in more recent years,
since modernism in its European version arrived in the Eastern lands.

The Sephardic reaction to the changes of the new age was quite different from the Ashkenazic response. On the one hand, the educational model of the Sephardic sages approved of general studies, and even considered them as worthy endeavors in addition to a Jewish education; and in the spirit of this approach, the Sephardic sages did not withdraw from modern society in the way that some Ashkenazic Orthodox elements did. On the other hand, with the deepening of European rule in Muslim countries, the pull towards secular culture was in opposition to tradition.

Yet interestingly, the response of the Sages to protect the community’s traditions was not to develop the model of strict, isolationist Orthodoxy. Instead, they emphasized the principles that strengthen faith — especially those that have guarded Jewish identity and communal unity — all with the goal of keeping the members of the community connected to the Jewish world as much as possible.

What characterizes the legal/interpretive methods of the Sephardic sages as it relates to halakha (Jewish Law)?

One of the characteristic principles of the Sephardic sages is the way they determine
halakha. Sephardic Sages utilize the basic legal principle known in rabbinic language as kohah dehetra adif – the power of the lenient path is the preferred. This principle praises the greatness of the Hakham (wise sage) who delves deeply into an issue and finds a lenient halakhic solution.

Knowledge of life experience often accompanies and guides halakhic decision-making, together with a realistic viewpoint, according to which a harsh position would apply to only a small part of the public. In the view of Sephardic Judaism, the responsibility of the Hakham is to the whole community, to all of the Jewish people, perhaps for all future generations. Therefore it would not be responsible to set an excessively stringent standard of halakha that would cause a great portion of the community to be lost if they cannot abide by it.

Deciding halakha stringently does not reflect the greatness of a Hakham, and many times it attests to some theoretical educational theories taught in yeshivot, or to an outright fear of deciding the halakha. Such concerns prevent the Hakham from choosing the lenient path over the stricter one. Harsh halakhic decisions and the desire to accommodate all opinions have caused an accumulation of stringencies that makes it difficult for a later posek (Rabbinical decider) to weigh, maneuver, and navigate the halakhic process in the directions needed for a specific case that comes before him. Thus, fear of God pushes aside the true dynamic force of halakha.

Thus, between the strict and the liberal positions, the Sephardic Sages established a third path in which their great humility before God and their commitment to serve God brought them to adopt original halakhic stances in order to deal with new situations, without fearing lenient decisions, rulings or originality in the halakhic process.

Rabbi Yitzhak Chouraqui is the Director of MERHAV, the Joint Rabbinic
Leadership program of Memizrach Shemesh and the SEC. He also serves as
the Rabbi of Yad Ramah Synagogue in Jerusalem

Hamerkaz-2014 full issue (PDF)

Recreational sports and exercise on Shabbat

May one exercise or play recreational sports on Shabbat?

If so, what kinds of sports and exercise are compatible with Shabbat observance and what kinds are not?

May one pay golf on Shabbat ?

These practical and philosophical questions are discussed in RECREATIONAL SPORTS AND EXERCISE ON SHABBAT
Oreh Hayyim 301:2, by Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner

This is a responsa accepted by the CJLS (Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly)

The religious imperative of oneg Shabbat (enjoyment of the Sabbath) and the duty to differentiate the Seventh Day by refraining from activities associated with the work week — even when they do not violate per se any prohibition of the Torah — first finds expression in the book of Isaiah:
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call the sabbath “delight,” the Lord’s holy day “honored”; And if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains — Then you can seek the favor of the Lord. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, and let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob — for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
-Isaiah 58:13-14
The Hasidic master, Rabbi Ya’akov Yitzhak of Przysucha, once observed, “It is almost impossible not to desecrate Shabbat in some minor way, unless one were bound hand and foot. Yet this would offer no solution since it would prevent oneg Shabbat.”
There has always been a dialectical tension between the commandment to enjoy Shabbat while consciously avoiding activities associated with the workaday world. It is this polarity which furnishes the matrix of our discussion in the following pages.
Notwithstanding that the character of specific recreational activities ipso facto render them incompatible with Shabbat observance, many kinds of physical exercise do not entail actual violations of Shabbat law. Indeed, one could credibly argue that
certain types of athletics fall within the rubric of oneg Shabbat; their enjoyable character
enhances rather than detracts from the joy of the day. It remains an open question, however, whether or not such activities compromise the rabbinic concept of shevut, i.e., behaviors to be avoided because they are not in the spirit of the Day of Rest (mishum uvdin d’hol) or because they may lead to actual violations of Shabbat (mishum gezerah).2
To answer the above questions requires an examination of the halakhic literature both
broadly and narrowly. A global understanding of the concepts of oneg Shabbat and shevut as they have evolved through time will afford us the critical context in which to locate generally the permissibility of exercise on Shabbat. At the same time, given the intrinsic differences between various types of athletic activities, it may well be that some are entirely permissible, while others are highly problematic. Accordingly, this teshuvah will explore the larger issues of oneg and its relationship with shevut. A series of separate responsa will follow, each focusing on a different type of recreational activity and its permissibility on Shabbat. Given the common practice of washing after exercise, the final responsum will deal with the halakhic issues of bathing on Shabbat