Toward New Jewish Practice - Toward a New Halakha?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Toward New Jewish Practice/Toward a New Halakha?

New Menorah editorial by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Spring 2001

Since the first waves of what we now call Jewish renewal emerged in the late 1960s in havurot, there has been an uneasy relationship between the traditional rabbinic law-code, called halakha (which literally means "the walking," the path") and the life-path of those who were renewing Judaism.

Perhaps the earliest contradictions appeared in the gender roles of women and men. Over the ensuing thirty years, some halakhists have gone far toward removing what seemed toi be halakhic barriers between women and the exercise of major Jewish religious roles — but in 1971, many such barriers seemed (both to egalitarians and to halakhists) to be immutable.

The havurot did not wait; they began acting at once on the basis of their own commitments to equality, and left halakha to catch up if and when it could.

The movement for Jewish renewal has followed similar patterns on issues of the full presence and legitimacy of gay and lesbian Jews, on the use during communal prayer of names and metaphors for God other than "Adonai" and "melekh," and on various other questions.

Yet on many subjects and issues, many renewal folk have shown much less willingness to ignore halakhic rulings, even where they have a strong sense of ethical objection.

The movement as a whole has not clarified what all this means about its basic stance toward halakha, and toward the practice of a life-path that may seem contradictory to halakha as we have known it.

In this issue of New Menorah we are beginning an examination of these questions. Our first full article is by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who has both encouraged some daring departures from halakha in some areas and has urged great deference toward it in others.

In my own experience, the range of attitudes within the broad movement to renew Judaism includes the following approaches: (Please note that some are directly contradictory to others; some are quite distinct from others; some may overlap.)

  1. Halakha is a stultifying system of rules that almost inevitably squash spiritual growth.
  2. All communities, even those that call themselves "secular," need to live by some agreed "halakha." Jewish communities should do this in some living dialogue with the Jewish past, and Jewish-renewal communities need to do it in dialogue with God as well as the Jewish past.
  3. The specifically Rabbinic version of halakha is no longer appropriate to our era of Jewish life because its basic foundation was laid by men who lived under utterly different conditions — just as the specifically Biblical version of "halakha" about Temple offerings and priesthood were no longer appropriate for Jews who had been deeply affected by Hellenistic-Roman civilization. But we should still wrestle with both these older patterns as we shape our own — a new halakha for a new era of Judaism.
  4. Some areas of Rabbinic halakha are still valid, but others are so deeply rooted in ethical and spiritual choices we don't hold that these areas must go by the board. For instance, we do not hold by most of rabbinic halakha about gender roles and sexual ethics, about relationships with other communities, and about metaphors of God.
  5. No matter whatever other areas of halakha we may dismiss, we must continue to embrace rabbinic halakha about the personal status of Jews, so as to be able to hold the Jewish people together as a unity of diverse streams. At the same time, we should use all the creative possibilities available for incremental change on such issues as mamzerut, who is a Jew and who not, what Jews are married and which not, etc.
  6. Rabbinic halakha was shaped by a small elite in Jewish life. In the next Jewish paradigm, the whole community should be involved. Certainly those with greater knowledge of the Jewish past should be heard with great attention, but ultimately the very idea of a privileged rabbinate should defer to the views of Jews who have all been shaped by a new generation, many of whom have scientific, psychological, and spiritual knowledge that many rabbis don't.
  7. Only those with deep expertise in the Torah can shape the spiritual future of the Jewish people. That means rabbis. Once we have cleaned out the blockages that barred women, gay people, converts, modern professionals, etc., from the rabbinate, we should trust the new rabbis to develop halakha.
  8. We should honor many areas of our Jewishly informed practice — sexual ethics, eco-kashrut, meditation, for example — without elevating them to the level of halakha.
  9. We should be conscious that every time we make a basic decision about what to eat or consume, how to treat sexual abuse, what forms of prayer are valid for the community, etc., we are shaping what our forebears called halakha — and we should treat what we are doing with that degree of respect by giving it that name and making such decisions with that sense of responsibility.

New Menorah will be asking specific people to write articles on these questions — especially, though not only, on specific life-path issues that have arisen, and how local communities or our international institutions have addressed them. In addition, we welcome inquiries from anyone about possible articles along these lines.

You are welcome to write me with such an inquiry or suggestion at


Rabbi Arthur Waskow,



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