Is Jewish law frozen or flexible?

In each generation, the author repeatedly stresses, the decisors of that era have the right and responsibility to rule on Jewish law vis-à-vis the specific needs of their communities.

ORTHODOX JEWS study Talmud in Budapest in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
ORTHODOX JEWS study Talmud in Budapest in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Does Halacha adequately address the pressing issues of contemporary society? Who are qualified to decide Jewish law, and must they be blindly followed? Do rabbis make mistakes? How does the Internet and social media impact on Jewish life today? Does the Torah represent absolute, indisputable truth?
These and numerous other fascinating issues are explored in a powerful and panoramic groundbreaking new book, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age.
Employing more than 1,000 sources, Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth has woven together a comprehensive view of both the history of halachic decision-making and the drastic need to make it relevant for all aspects of Jewish society.
While maintaining a deep respect for the law and an abiding loyalty to Jewish tradition – “Halakha redeems a person from the frailties of humanity, offering him hope for a life of meaning and sanctity in this world,” says Neuwirth – he argues that Jewish law is in existential danger due to its authoritarian control by a disaffected minority of rabbinic figures, particularly those heading yeshivot.
Neuwirth passionately endorses expanding the development and stewardship of Halacha and moving the center of decision-making to local, community rabbis and the Jewish nation at large:
“Halakha does not belong in a spiritual, elite ivory tower,” he writes, “nor in a humanities faculty in a university. Halakha does not belong to the geniuses and the prodigies, but to simple people who are connected to real life, to those whose opinion is acceptable in the eyes of the people.”
In each generation, the author repeatedly stresses, the decisors of that era have the right and responsibility to rule on Jewish law vis-à-vis the specific needs of their communities, for “you have only the judge and the posek of your own time.” Quoting Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “It is not for nought that the Torah postulated that judges are to be posted in virtually every hamlet. It ensures spiritual leadership that is organically related to its ambient society, aware of its problems and sensitive to its needs.”
Neuwirth is uniquely qualified to write a book of this nature, having impressive rabbinic experience in both Israel and the Diaspora. He served as spiritual leader of congregations in Petah Tikva and Ra’anana, as well as director both of Tzohar’s overseas department and its training program for communal rabbis. As the founder and first executive director of the Beit Hillel rabbinical organization, he pioneered efforts to build bridges between Israel’s secular and observant sectors while creating consensus in centrist Orthodoxy.
The book draws extensively from the works of numerous rabbis throughout the ages, in particular rabbis Abraham Isaac Kook, Moshe Feinstein, Joseph Soloveitchik, Aharon Lichtenstein and Ovadia Yosef.
Neuwirth maintains – borrowing a phrase from Rabbi Nahman of Breslov – that, like the world itself, Halacha is a “narrow bridge” linking our glorious past to a promising future, while at the same time connecting Torah to the human condition.
He stresses the need for inspired and intelligent “guides” to lead us gently but firmly along that bridge, at a unique moment in history. The renewed State of Israel, he believes, has created an extraordinary opportunity to unite the disparate Jewish communities around the globe and, for the first time in 2,000 years, forge an “able and audacious” rabbinic leadership that will respect diversity while returning “the crown of Torah to its former glory.”
Neuwirth tackles some of the thorniest issues in Jewish life today, including civil marriage in Israel, the conversion and Aguna crises, the place of women in the synagogue and Judaism’s attitude toward the LGBT community. On all of these fronts, he shows a deep sensitivity to “the other,” the marginalized and the disaffected, offering novel approaches to each challenge that respect the Halacha while opening doors and increasing inclusivity.
This is an important work, one that will undoubtedly spark intense debate and discussion. Neuwirth fully acknowledges that some readers will dispute his observations and opinions. But that does not frighten him; in fact, it is exactly the reaction he is hoping for. As he says clearly, “Dispute that is truly for the sake of Heaven, responsible dispute that occurs within a context of mutual respect, love and appreciation for the importance of every opinion, can build bridges and reestablish that which we long ago destroyed on account of gratuitous hatred.”
An ambitious, yet admirable mission.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.
By Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Urim Publication
509 pages; $30