Title: Divine Will and Human Experience: Explorations of the Halakhic System and Its Values
By Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Divine Will and Human Experience: Explorations of the Halakhic System and Its Values, the provocative new book by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership is, in truth, three separate books bound together under one cover. The greatest praise and the greatest criticism of this thin volume is that I hope each of those three books is written and published soon.
Modern Orthodoxy, so I understood as a young yeshiva student, shares a common religious worldview and basic lifestyle with all other forms of Orthodox Judaism with a few elements of modernity tacked on. We are Orthodox Jews who earn college degrees and wear modern clothing. Our Religious Zionist cousins are Orthodox Jews who serve in the IDF and live in neighborhoods alongside others, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, who do so as well. The conceit of this understanding was that our Orthodoxy was unchanged by the Modern and Zionist additions, like a computer that operates with the same essential hardware and software even if a new keyboard or monitor is added. Then I met Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, currently the dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, who introduced me to an entirely different understanding of what Modern Orthodoxy could represent. According to Rabbi Klapper, that which distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy from other forms of Orthodox Judaism, from the superficial (e.g., modern clothing) to the sublime (e.g., opening the gates of the beit midrash to women as both students and as teachers), are not a series of ad hoc concessions, but flow from foundational commitments to freedom and human equality.
The first “book” spreads over thirteen chapters and offers a description of the primary foundational commitments of Modern Orthodoxy and sources them in Tanakh, Chazal, and their interpreters. Over several short chapters, Rabbi Klapper paints a picture of a form of Orthodox Judaism whose foundational beliefs include a commitment to the ideal of human freedom and human equality. These commitments are a more helpful grounding for understanding what precisely is modern about Modern Orthodoxy and how our modernity interacts with our Orthodoxy.
If a commitment to freedom and human equality is the foundation of the modern components of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Klapper grounds our Orthodoxy in a commitment to a halachic process in which poskim and a community of faithfully observant Jews exercise joint responsibility over the shape of halacha. Rabbi Klapper mostly avoids an elaborate discussion of ikarei emunah, foundational doctrinal beliefs of Judaism, perhaps recognizing that grappling with faith principles is for many Orthodox Jews secondary to their commitment to Orthodoxy. According to Rabbi Klapper, what distinguishes those who identify as Modern Orthodox from non-Orthodox Jews is a willingness to abide by the decisions of poskim broadly recognized as such by the larger Orthodox community despite ethical qualms or plausible counter-arguments.
Orthodox Jews, for example, pray in synagogues with mechitzot, only count men towards a minyan, and refrain from electronic communications on Shabbat and yom tov. Any argument on behalf of Orthodoxy needs to emphasize why the outcome of the Orthodox halachic process is the most authentic and faithful response to the covenant at Sinai. For Rabbi Klapper, the covenant at Sinai both demands that an observant Jewish community submit to its poskim, while paradoxically empowering that community to endorse the poskim to whom they will submit.
Understanding our modernity as a commitment to freedom and equality and our Orthodoxy as a commitment to an Orthodox halachic process can offer contemporary Modern Orthodoxy a way out of decades of stale arguments pitting innovation against tradition. Core foundational beliefs can help us discern what sorts of innovations are consistent with our understanding of G-d’s will and what kinds of halachic discourse is an authentic continuation of the Jewish people’s covenant with G-d. For example, chapter 8 discusses the theoretical halachic position that converts will be eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin in the messianic age and presents that position as a redemptive repair to a dissonant element of halacha as it currently exists. In chapter 26 Rabbi Klapper condemns an innovative new stringent practice of some batei din that discriminates against converts and which is based on weak textual precedent.
The second “book” is a series of essays by Rabbi Klapper on halachic topics in which he ably demonstrates his virtuosity, creativity, and humanity as a posek. Chapters 14-19 comprise a teshuva offering guidance for someone suffering from long covid and worried about fasting on Yom Kippur. Neither the Talmud nor the Shulchan Aruch discuss whether someone may eat and drink “less than minimal quantities” on Yom Kippur if they are facing a non-life-threatening health risk, despite the fact that such situations regularly arise. Rabbi Klapper fills in that lacuna by delineating and defining criteria that could justify such individuals eating and drinking by shiurim on Yom Kippur. In this section of the book Rabbi Klapper refers to manuscript evidence of slightly different versions of a key Talmudic text circulating in medieval Europe and traces its influence on some rishonim. He interrogates the logical basis for the halachic state of uncertainty or “safek” as it pertains to the maxim that we are lenient even with an uncertain risk to life when confronting a novel virus and an unknown syndrome. And he shows by example how a posek can act with compassion towards a Jew struggling with a frightening set of symptoms of uncertain severity while also acting with responsibility to the halachic tradition.
The third “book” is a collection of essays on parshanut each of which explores some facet of the unfolding stories of Sefer Bereishit and Sefer Shemot rounded out with two essays on Nach. These chapters are playful even as they deal with weighty topics of parshanut with serious contemporary implications. For example, a chapter titled “The Avraham Accords” investigates the treaty between Avraham and Avimelech and contrasts Rashbam’s condemnation of the treaty with Rav Kaminetzky’s praise recorded in his Emet l’Yaakov. Rabbi Klapper explicitly connects this question of parshanut to contemporary questions of Israeli diplomatic ties and weapons sales to despotic regimes.
Each of these three “books” is thought-provoking and has great merit, but the essays comprising them are too short to do justice to the fullness of Rabbi Klapper’s thought. Each chapter is derived from short weekly emails that Rabbi Klapper has been sending for the past decades. Although it is impressive that Rabbi Klapper has managed, over the course of many years, to distill complex thoughts on weighty topics into essays that can fit on a single double-sided page, the subject matter and Rabbi Klapper’s analysis deserve the space that the format of a normal book would allow. Indeed, Rabbi Klapper has now recorded 45-minute or longer audio shiurim developing these ideas; a book-length treatment should have allowed him to build conclusions from first principles, along with analysis and discussion that could extend over dozens of pages. Minimally, even in its current format, the book demanded a more thorough editing, removing URLs appropriate for their digital origins but which serve no purpose in printed form and adopting a consistent style of how and when to quote Hebrew primary texts.
Only the third “book” on parshanut is well-suited to short chapters, but it represents only a small fraction of Rabbi Klapper’s insights into Tanach. Rabbi Klapper’s pithy but profound perspectives, formulated piece-meal over time, have changed my understanding of numerous episodes in Scripture. These commentaries deserve to be brought together in a single volume covering at least the entire Chumash, so that they can be shared with a larger audience.
The Modern Orthodox community is in desperate need of creative and original talmidei chachamim who can help define and refine our distinct approach to Torah and mitzvot. Rabbi Klapper is such a talmid chacham, and this volume is a worthy introduction to his attempts to chart Modern Orthodoxy’s future path. But it is only a beginning, and we may hope that future presentations of his Torah take greater advantage of the possibilities of print to give ideas room to grow and expand. Each of these three “books” is thought provoking and has great merit, and I hope that Rabbi Klapper publishes each of these “books” as separate expanded volumes, so that each topic and genre of his writing can be presented in the format that it deserves.