When we speak about halacha, we tend to subscribe to a set of binary assumptions, a web of either/or’s about Jewish law. “Is this according to halacha or not,” “is it a chumrah or a kullah,” a stringency or a leniency, “is this passage in the text halacha or aggadah,” law or narrative? In many ways, these binary options are true to the heart of the halachic process, which is oriented towards making sense of the world we live in through radical categorization. The study and practice of halacha helps us come to terms with the multifarious aspects of a multipolar world and put it into understandable, digestible realms of understanding.
At the same time, this categorization of life can lead to complications for us, as our experience of life occasionally pushes back against our attempts at understanding it. This can happen in myriad ways, each challenging as we come to terms with our own religious lives. It is deeply important to remember that no matter how much we think of the binaries of religious law, it is not for nothing that the word halacha is related to the word הליכה (halicha), which means walking. This suggests that we can think of halacha as a way of going through the world, more than just a way of seeing the world. Halacha can be part of life, or outside of life, depending on how we choose to view it; it can be immanent or transcendent, immediate or ambitious.
We can think of three places that are of importance in any journey: the starting point or origins, the destination, and the path. We each come to halacha with a sort of origin point, a set of assumptions about religious structures, consistency, and legalism. We also have a sort of destination—albeit one that is often subtle and subconscious, but present nonetheless—which is a goal in mind for our religious life, for what endpoint the endeavor of our Jewish engagement might lead us towards. And yes, we do all have a path as well, the space that is always in-between, in transit, as we think and rethink and rererethink our lives and observances. This need not be a binary between where we come from or where we are going, as there is also the simple fact of where we currently are, where we stand today.
This month, we are exploring the topic of halacha. Halacha is many things to many people: a language, a process, a set of laws that are freeing and challenging to different groups of people. We will be thinking together with you about the journey of halacha in contemporary life, guided by several guests with whom we are honored to speak. No matter where you come from, or where you are going, we are here to think together about the place in-between: the path. Let’s walk together.
1. Halacha & Contemporary Life: Has the purpose or process of Halacha changed over time?
2. Halachic Coulds & Shoulds: Is Halacha descriptive, prescriptive, or something else entirely?
3. Halacha & Healthy Living: In what ways do Halachic observance and well-being interact with or against each other?
This foundational text seeks to understand the shifts in our understanding and practice of halacha that occurred in the world of observant Judaism over the last century. Soloveitchik, a lucid and compelling writer, sees in the break from the old world to the new a shift from a mimetic tradition to a textual tradition, as people moved from learning in and of the home to learning from texts. This is a must-read, and one that offers criticism, commentary, and fascinating insight into how change in a community is reflected by changes in our attitudes towards halacha.