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Stop Citing Halachah

Using the term "Halacha" for policies which are not in fact Halacha, delegitimizes those who differ and causes ill-will towards Jewish law.

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Photo Credit: Yori Yanover

One can well imagine the “danger” facing a Rabbi walking into a room of very tired and overworked Jewish women just days before the onset of Pesach. And yet, perhaps in a moment of temporary amnesia, I agreed to a lecture on the topic of Chametz at that very moment.

Needless to say, the women in the room were not the greatest fans of Rabbis/Jewish Law that week. While listening attentively to the multitude of tasks these fine women were doing during the prior weeks, it was hard for me to find Jewish law as the cause of their justified fatigue and frustration. After hearing about the many windows cleaned, together with closets of clothing and bookshelves that were dusted, I felt compelled to state; “Ladies, you have been working very hard. I am sure that you have more on your list this coming week and I wish you luck to reach your objectives. But please, don’t blame Halacha. If you have decided to engage in Spring cleaning days before Pesach, don’t fault Jewish law that doesn’t obligate it. It’s not the accepted and established Halacha governing the abolishment of Chametz that is obligating the cleaning of windows and bookshelves, but rather your own agendas for your homes!”

While the statement above didn’t go very far at changing their cleaning plans, even after an entire lecture as to what exactly Jewish law demands of a home prior to Pesach, the distinction above between the dictates of Jewish law versus one’s personal or communal agenda seems to have been once again misused during these past few weeks.

Certain parties running for Knesset have stated that having women run on their ticket is “against Halacha.” Another organization recently stated that only men would be speaking  at their upcoming conference as “women speaking before men is against Halacha.” Going a step further, a prominent leader stated that forming more parties within the limited religious world “is against the Torah.”  From the above examples, all occurring within the recent short period of time, it seems that there are endless outright violations of Halacha that it would be a challenge to form a minyan of non-Sinners in a typical religious neighborhood!

Halacha” has colloquially been understood and utilized as the term that stands behind the obligations of what a Jew must do and those that a Jew must never do. When utilizing this term today, we should be speaking about those areas in Jewish law where there is no or hardly no controversy. Such obligations are those directly commanded by G-d, in addition to the many later enactments of the sages that Maimonides clams “Hiskimu Alehem kol Yisrael,” meaning “the entirety of the Jewish people have acquiesced to their obligation.” [See Rambam, Introduction to the Yad-Hachazaka.]

But the above examples are a far cry from the definition. No matter how important private or public policies and agendas G-d fearing Jews would like to see advanced, even those items that have certain bearings of Jewish law, they are far from being “the Halacha“! While halachik sources are, and sometimes should be quoted, when speaking of the character of the public thoroughfare, how can an opinion of what it should look like be the unequivocal Halacha?!

I wouldn’t bat an eyelash if one would state that, based on their understanding of Jewish law, or based on the Rabbinic leaders they adhere to, women should not be on a Knesset ticket. I would greatly respect those that buttress their respective point of view on sources from our Torah. But stating that this or that view of Jewish hashkafa (Jewish Thought) is the Halacha, is creating three drastic consequences in the Jewish community.

Firstly, it delegitimizes opposing views. While there is no dispute that eating meat and milk together is forbidden, and there will not be a controversy on the fact that the Sabbath day has restrictions, machloket (controversy or a difference of opinion) is almost synonymous with Jewish law in so many areas, and much more so when dealing with Jewish lore, thought and public policy. It would be virtually impossible to find one cohesive point of view within the Gemara on how our sages viewed working for a living, women, sexual relations and so much more. Sources exist various sides of the coin, and we should be prepared that a difference of opinion will exist within the legitimacy of adhering to Jewish law.

Moreover, using Halacha as the term to promote a point of view is placing all that don’t agree, relying on their own Rabbinic leaders, in a camp of those that don’t adhere to the dictates of Halacha. While I respect anyone that has a personal, communal or national agenda to promote, using the term Halacha places all those not in favor in an anti-Halacha camp. Aside from this being a false and destructive submission, this creates a terrible feeling amongst wonderfully, G-d fearing Jews that their point of view is against Jewish law, and thus they are, at best, second rate Jews!

But finally, if a legitimate point of view, amongst many, is branded as Halacha, we will, G-d forbid, see many Jews begin to despise Jewish law. Like the example quoted above, when a personal agenda of pre-Pesach cleanliness [not Chametz-free, per-se] is sounded as a dictate of Halacha, the enmity towards the beauty of Jewish law will grow in a disastrous way. In place of a Jew priding his or herself in being part of a religion “who’s ways are pleasant and all it’s paths are peaceful,” [Mishlei 3/17,] they will begin to see Jewish law as a bitter pill that they must swallow, and worse yet, one that they will not want to be part of!

Let’s try to promote a community where, many who keep the dictates of “Halacha,” have different, and sometimes opposing views, as to how to lead the community beyond its dictates. And when we argue as to which way is the correct one, let’s not use a non-Kosher tool of demagogy in the process.

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein

About the Author: Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is Director of training and placement at The Straus-Amiel Institute at Ohr Torah Stone.

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