Challenging the fundamentalists

Nonagenarian Rabbi Jack Cohen tackles the misdirected passion and political agendas that digress from the pure core of Jewish tradition.

Challenging the Fundamentalists 521 (do not publish again) (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Challenging the Fundamentalists 521 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Judaism In a
Post-Halakhic Age
By Jack J. Cohen
Academic Studies
217 pages; $35
The evidence that Judaism is in crisis is plentiful: lack of spiritual leadership, massive problems in education, the rise of fundamentalism on the one hand and rampant assimilation on the other, tensions between Israel and the Diaspora, and, perhaps above all, a total lack of consensus or unity as to what remedies should be applied.
Among those now proffering suggestions to remedy this parlous situation is the nonagenarian Rabbi Jack Cohen in a book that suggests a summary of his life’s work as a pulpit rabbi, a student of the founder of Reconstructionism, Mordechai Kaplan, author and teacher.
Perhaps it comes as a surprise for a non- Orthodox writer to tackle an area of Jewish experience at the very heart of the Jewish tradition – halakha. But Cohen is serious about his chosen topic. In fact, the sense his book gives is that the topic chose him.
Towards the end of his polemical book, Cohen observes: “Halakha, like other humanly devised systems, has taken the Jewish people a long way toward fulfillment, but, as I have shown in the case of Israel’s pluralistic society, it stands in the way of restructuring Jewish tradition to match the ethos and the social and political structure of a democratic state.”
The very title of Cohen’s book should shake not a few people out of their metaphysical slumbers.
“Post-Halakhic?” It is a difficult phrase to pin down. Indeed, for much of the book, the author seems to be arguing against himself.
For each attempt to claim that halakha has run its course, and is no longer relevant to the vast majority of contemporary Jews, he himself shows how, in its very essence, halakha has been, and continues to be, a dynamic framework of obligations and norms that is forever renewing itself. It is clear from this study that even among the non-Orthodox (or at least the Conservatives and Reconstructionists), there is a powerful urge to sustain some sort of halakhic framework.
This ambivalent attitude is well demonstrated in Cohen’s summary of contemporary approaches to halakha. His preferences, perhaps naturally, are to highlight more liberal interpreters of halakha – such as David Hartman, Ze’ev Falk, Eliezer Berkovits, Reuven Hammer, and Zvi Zohar. Although he spells out his own disagreement with each of these modern Orthodox/Masorti sources, he demonstrates his own commitment to a halakhic mindset.
At the end of the day, any form of Judaism that takes itself seriously must adhere to some form of halakha, albeit in a way that is more varied and flexible than in its classic, and mainly diasporic, phase. In this sense, although the book is ostensibly written for non-Orthodox Jews, it can just as easily relate to a large sector of the thinking Orthodox world.
It should not be too surprising that Cohen should frame the argument of this controversial book inside sociological and historical parameters. An heir to the American-born Reconstructionist branch of modern Judaism, Cohen challenges the entirety of contemporary Jewish life with his assertion that halakhic-based Judaism has to change or become increasingly irrelevant to our contemporary situation.
Unlike his sometime fellow Reconstructionist, Arthur Green, who addresses more theological issues as to the contemporary relevance of the God of the Jewish tradition – Cohen confronts tangible examples where applied halakha seems to him to have failed.
One of the major areas where this is an issue is that of conversion. It is here that Cohen shows his sensitivity to the major force characterizing this “post-halakhic” world, namely Zionism and the rebirth of the sovereign state of Israel. In the diaspora, the conversion debate typically revolves around the dangers of intermarriage and the lack of any substantive sense of Jewish identity by an increasing number of biological Jews. In Israel, the issue is no less practical – what to do with 300,000 non- Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, many of whom have no religious background or inclinations of any sort. The fundamentalists have no answer – and seem to care even less. Suggested solutions have so far been stymied by the official rabbinate, which increasingly is in the hands of these fundamentalists.
Cohen suggests, among other things, an across-the-board body that would judge each candidate for conversion by far wider criteria than are currently employed. He admits that this will not be easy, though he points to examples where such cross-denominational boards have worked both in Israel and in the diaspora. Even by his own admission, his vision sounds somewhat idealistic: “The standards [by which converts are accepted] will have to be democratically legislated by an international Jewish body, as yet unformed... there will have to be a worldwide Jewish community embracing Jews of many religious, spiritual and social persuasions and practices.”
This same approach is again apparent in his discussion about contemporary Jewish identity. It is inconceivable to him that such a crucial dimension of our core self-image should be limited to the most extreme views of what being Jewish means. “Rabbis,” he cautions “must come to grips with the principle of unity in diversity.” Continuously referring to actual situations that arise in our midst Cohen is sometimes overtaken by actual facts.
One example is that of homosexuality. He quotes the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York announcing its willingness to ordain homosexuals as rabbis, a practice opposed by the parallel Schechter Institute in Israel. He observes that homosexuals “will remain outcasts among the extreme Orthodox” leading to further fracturing of the Jewish people.
But this raises another problem which Cohen attempts to address; namely the legitimacy of using fundamentalists as a yardstick by which to measure everyone else. He is obviously against such a move – continuously observing that fundamentalists are living in another era, if not, indeed, on another planet.
However modern Orthodox rabbis in Israel and elsewhere did recently publish a manifesto stating clearly that the attitude of halakha-observant Jews towards gays has to change: such people should be welcomed into the community.
This is not to say that Cohen’s observations are less valid, but rather that issues such as these are very complex, and that so far no one body has come up with a solution acceptable to the majority of, let alone all, Jews.
Remember Jewish-American feminist writer Blu Greenberg’s trenchant and withering observation of some years back: “Where there’s a rabbinical will, there’s a halakhic way.” The classic halakha has retained its force precisely because those in control of its development have known where to be flexible and change where no other reasonable option exists. Ask Israel’s banks regarding the Biblical ban on taking interest! Other ideas raised by Cohen include the return – as he calls it – to patrilineal descent in order to guarantee a larger number of people that would be definable as legitimate Jews. Personally I’ve been surprised by this suggestion, which has gained increasing popularity in recent years. The principle of matrilineal descent is, at the least, a clear acknowledgment on the part of the sages of the centrality of the feminine element in Judaism. According to Cohen, a Jewish man who rapes a non-Jewish maiden could claim that any offspring was Jewish. Or perhaps I’m missing the point here.
The importance of Cohen’s book, however, lies not just in its content, but also its context. The Jewish world is today riven by deep divisions rooted in historical, religious and sociological factors. So a summary of “where we are” is a welcome perspective. Yet even if some or all of Cohen’s well argued suggestions were taken up, there would be no guarantee that they would be acceptable to the increasing numbers of traditionalists, let alone fundamentalists, out there. The contradictions and inner conflicts within contemporary Jewry are so severe that it is difficult to see how they can be resolved in the ways suggested here.
Cohen’s cogent and forthright challenge is not to be ignored. It is in some ways a desperate call for clarity and sobriety in our spiritual thoughts, so often characterized by misdirected passion and political agendas that have nothing to do with the pure core of Jewish tradition, which the fundamentalists claim they are guarding.
The question is whether anyone is listening to him.