Worldly Judaism 

By: Dov Pfeiffer  |  October 16, 2022

By Dov Pfeiffer, Staff Writer 

As students in Yeshiva University, we engage with ideas associated with both the Jewish and secular worlds. This joint exposure to two different systems can reveal fractures in our beliefs. 

For example, we view the analytical techniques employed by Ba’alei Tosafot (authors of the Tosafot commentaries), such as Rabbeinu Tam, as being of purely Jewish origin. This is perplexing, however, as these methods appear to have been influenced by Christian interpretation, something already noted in the Sefer Chassidim, and criticized as “dialectics of goyim (non-Jews).” Additionally, while we believe in the Torah’s Divine origin, we cannot deny the presence of remarkable parallels between the laws in the code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king who reigned during the 18th century BCE, and those in Parshat Mishpatim.

Related rifts often and especially express themselves concerning values. We proclaim that freedom is a Jewish value (See Orthodox Approaches to Biblical Slavery, Gamliel Shmalo, Torah u’Maddah Journal, 2012; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “I Believe”, Parshat Behar, pages 181-185), yet the Torah permits slavery. We exclaim our eternal commitment to equality of the sexes (See Rabbi Mayer Twerski, “Masorah and the Role of the Jewish Woman”, published on Torah Web; Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:49), yet our history often challenges that notion. While we genuinely consider these principles to be authentically Jewish, often viewing them as implicit in scripture, it seems undeniable that the motivation to uncover these views, frequently reading them in between scriptural lines, comes from the outside world. These issues are not just academic: many of them seemingly suggest practical consequences. If we declare Tosafist dialectic to be authentically Jewish analysis despite its Christain roots, perhaps we should incorporate academic methodology in our discussion of current halachic issues. If we accept that women were discriminated against in medieval times, shouldn’t that indicate re-evaluating how decisions from that era are cited as precedents in current deliberations?

The two easiest go-to reactions are to decide ahead of time which system to prioritize, instinctively dismissing the one deemed lesser wherever they conflict. However, regardless of the direction one chooses, the suggestion seems flawed. To say that any innovation differing from current Judaism is to be rejected, we must presuppose that the Judaism we practice now is so pristine and pure a manifestation of Judaism such that it must not change and that any addition would subtract, a proposition that seems absurd. Is it not plausible that there are some points where change is warranted? At the complementary extreme, should we alter Judaism wherever it contradicts contemporary culture, what form of Judaism would we conserve? 

While I do not believe that there exists some total framework from which we can easily resolve any dilemmas that arise, I do believe that a shift in worldview can benefit us greatly in regard to many issues, including the examples I highlighted. Often, it seems we like to conceptualize modern Judaism as essentially unchanged from its earlier iterations. An alternative model can be suggested where we view Judaism as always having been lived in a historical context, always reflecting engagement and influence with contemporaneous cultures, and changing in accordance with them. By adopting such a view, we, in our modern context, naturally possess a degree of flexibility in how to manifest Judaism in our cultural environment. While such a suggestion opens new questions, such as what acceptable reasons for practical change are, how to distinguish fundamental and non-fundamental elements, and the degree to which we must distinguish active change from passive reinterpretation (questions I do not feel qualified to iron out), I believe this framework can still be of use. 

As an example of the use of a similar framework to resolve one of the issues presented above, Rabbi Lamm, in his essay “Amalek and the Seven Nations: A Case of Law vs. Morality”, suggests that in cases where there are clear halachic principles identifiable in Biblical and Rabbinic tradition that can be seen as expressing sentiments either limiting or suggesting an alternative to a particular, problematic, law, we are licensed to rely on that tradition to abrogate that problematic law. He applies this in the case of slavery suggesting that the principle of “ki avadei hem,” (that all humans are servants of the Creator) indicates a general discouragement of human masters, justifying slavery’s total abolition. Rabbi Lamm further attempts to spell out guidelines for distinguishing authentic Torah traditions discovered through developed morality from simply attempting to force modern secular norms into scripture.

While to fully analyze the relevant scriptural dictates in light of Hammurabi’s Laws in a theologically satisfactory manner is beyond my ability here, I do believe such an effort offers rigorous and meaningful interpretive channels. To provide one example of such interpretation, we may note that while many of Hammurabi’s Laws are given in three different forms for three classes, roughly elites, commonfolk, and slaves, the parallel laws in Mishpatim only distinguish between slaves and free-men, which we can read as implying an egalitarian ethos in Torah law.

While seeking resolutions to such problems will likely raise many other new issues, I believe that such an endeavor would help create a more robust, sensible, and meaningful Judaism. Further, I believe that as a community living in constant exposure to the modern world, passivity is not an option. Instead, I feel that it is necessary we maneuver the rapids of modernity in order to create an orthodoxy suited for thriving within it.