Go West Halachik Woman and Man

Posted by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

As soon as the calendar turns to Tammuz, my mind turns to the 17th of Tammuz, and the period of national mourning and introspection that it inaugurates. While the Talmudic passage that instinctively comes to mind is the one which ascribes the destruction of Jerusalem to the prevalence of “baseless hatred” among Jews, there’s an alternative passage that is equally important and, on the face of it, even more intriguing. Rav Yochanan provocatively attributes the destruction of Jerusalem to the fact that the law of the Torah was practiced therein. Anticipating the bewilderment that this statement would provoke (“Should they rather have followed the law of the Magians?!”), Rav Yochanan responds with his punch line, that the Jews of Jerusalem practiced only the letter of the law, and never went beyond it. They never explored the world of lifnim m’shurat hadin, the possibilities for human behavior that are not found in a book of law, rather transcend the books of law. (Bava Metzia 30b) 

While the Talmud provides several examples of how one acts beyond the letter of the law, (for example, by returning a lost object that  according to the halacha one may actually keep for oneself), it makes no attempt to provide a sweeping characterization of what the category entails. Perhaps the closest we can come to one can be found in the Ramban’s commentary to the Torah’s general imperative that we should practice the “straight and the good” in God’s eyes. Ramban explains that since the Torah can’t possibly provide specific instruction for every sort of commercial, communal and political interaction that a human being will ever have, the Torah must suffice by providing numerous specific laws which demonstrate how God wants us to behave, and then implore us to view these laws as examples of the “straight and the good”, from which we are to extrapolate how God wants us to behave in situations that the Torah says nothing specifically about.  It is through these words that God states His expectation that we will behave rightly also in realms that are beyond the law’s explicit purview.

And this is why we’d be religiously lost today without the moral categories of contemporary Western thought. For it is these categories which  enable us to do “the straight and the good” as we encounter modern social and political circumstances, and which sketch out the realms that are beyond the explicit Torah law, yet are charged with Divine expectation for right behavior. Here are two examples of such moral categories:

Equality: There are of course numerous legal indications in the Torah as to the desirability of equality for all before the Law. The Western moral/political value of Equality illuminates for us how we are to move beyond the Torah letter today, and how we are to do the “straight and the good” in previously uncharted waters.  It demands that we align ourselves with civil rights movements, and oppose discrimination of any kind on the grounds of race, ethnicity, or gender.  It also means that the holiest and most serious religious questions we must face have to do with the real or perceived tensions between the value of equality and the requirements of halacha. We face these tensions as we consider the role of woman in synagogue and ritual life, and as we think about today’s most pressing civil rights arena, that of Gay and Lesbian civil rights. The integrity of Jewish community can be measured by whether it seriously and meaningfully grapples with these tensions, or chooses to ignore them. Nothing less than doing the “straight and the good in the eyes of God” is at stake.

 Universalism: Here too, we have sufficient Biblical and rabbinic evidence as to the basic premise of this Western moral category, namely that God considers all of humanity to be His creation, and that all of humanity is the subject of God’s compassion and concern. What is new is the way in which Jews can actively involve themselves in alleviating the suffering of, and bettering the lives of God’s beloved creatures, wherever on the globe they may be. There is no question that the Western value of Universalism points us toward the “straight and the good”, the pious behavior that lies beyond the letter of the law. This too of course, generates vitally important religious questions that must be addressed and not ignored. There are questions concerning how we are to balance our responsibilities to our own community, with our responsibilities to humanity at large. And for our Israeli brothers and sisters, there are questions as to how to balance the responsibility to secure Jewish life and a Jewish State, with the imperative to not turn a blind eye to anybody’s suffering.  Holiness can only emerge from the grappling with the tension.

Numerous other Western moral categories enter this discussion. These include, for example, Tolerance of Difference, and the Consent of the Governed. When Jewish communities dismiss Western moral categories as alien or threatening to Judaism, they are making the same error that our ancestors in Jerusalem made 2000 years ago.  It is certainly easier to stick only to the letter of the law. But it turns Judaism into a shadow of itself. The Judaism through which we will, with God’s help, be redeemed, is the one that understands the importance of moral insights and categories, no matter their place of origin.

5 Responses to Go West Halachik Woman and Man

  1. Ah yes, the old rallying cry of the non-Orthodox: well maybe we don’t keep kosher, and maybe we go shopping on Shabbos, and maybe we don’t even know what taharas mishpachah is, but goshdarnit, we’re honest and moral and isn’t that more important?

    Western values? Please, like affirmative action which demands quotes favouring disadvantaged groups, political correctness which permits reverse racism and sexism against supposedly advantaged groups, and a sexual culture that celebrates teenage pregnancies and the wanton killing of fetuses?

    I’ll stick with staying within the letter of the law if this is the alternative.

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      Hi Garnel
      You’ve set up a false dichotemy. The alternatives are not “sticking to the letter of the law” OR “embracing teenage pregnancy and the wanton killing of fetuses”. This is false fear-mongering. Rav Uziel knew this when he argued (against Rav Kook) for women’s suffrage, and Rav Moshe knew this when he argued for communal funds to be used to educate children with special needs (though they might never fully qualify as “obligated in Mitzvot”), and the Knesset knew this when it voted overwhelmingly to admit hundreds of refugees from Darfur who had illegally crossd into Isarel. There is a lot of important ground beyond the letter of the law, and it’s hard to understand how you can simply ignore it out of featthat you are somehow endorsing teenage pregnancy.

      It is true that thinking in broader moral terms generates tensions, and that tension is hard to navigate. But what are we left with when we prohibit our religion from delaing with the serious human issues of the day?

      • Where’s the boundary line? The minute you give value to secular things independent of Torah you open a can of worms. If we like the Western concept of human rights, then why stop at equal opportunity? Why not progress into discriminatory quotas? Where’s the guide once you leave Torah behind? Your own personal conscience?
        In fact, most of the serious human issues of the day can be dealt with from a Torah perspective. However, for many people the answers such a perspective brings clashes with trendy Western liberal thought (which is itself a possible oxymoron). For those people, this conflict becomes very uncomfortable and forces them to choose between being “civilized” and being “religious”. But an observant Jew should not feel that tension. He should recognize that the values du jour of the West are nothing compared to the timeless values of the Torah.

  2. Josh says:

    Great piece, Rabbi. I have enjoyed reading and thinking about every one of your posts so far. I struggle with this particular topic a lot and I wanted to raise an issue:
    I feel like whenever a topic like this comes up, we are being slightly disingenuous. For instance, when you talk about tolerance of difference, the Torah certainly makes clear that all difference is not to be tolerated (wayward city, Amalek), and likewise with equality. Gays are not equal, nor are women- not that this is a bad thing, but more that since women and gays cannot be rabbis, Orthodoxy is de facto unequal. It is de facto intolerant. Not frequently, but enough so that to say that we are always tolerant and equal, or that we strive to be, would be just untrue. I wonder if by trying to sweep these ideas under the rug, we are either creating an ideological framework to ultimately ‘right’ these inequalities eventually. And if so, doesn’t this violate the point of orthodoxy?

    What is really going on here, I think, is the tension between Western (which is really just a more positive word for secular) morality and Judaism. If we aren’t careful to discern the difference between the two, I feel that some within the left wing of the MO movement will slip into conservative Judaism, and it will be because we were not vigilant enough about drawing clear lines in our philosophy.

  3. ed says:

    i would like to make a side point here. multiple authors of this website repeatedly use the word ‘halachik.’ the suffix here is a normal english -ic suffix, and the word should therefore be ‘halachic.’ such an enlightened branch of orthodoxy should at least be worldly enough to be able to accurately refer to the legal system they are following.

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