Halakhah and Social Change

Halakhah and Social Change

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Yosef Blau

Rabbi Yosef Bronstein has written an important article about responding to societal change, focusing on male and female roles in marriage. His observation about recognizing the differing mentalities of Rabbis Soloveitchik and Kook, even when they came to the same conclusions, is critical to understand why their disciples view religious Zionism from fundamentally different perspectives.

I want to raise some points that will hopefully enrich the discussion. On the quote from the Rambam about the subservient role of the wife and its halakhic ramifications, I would add three points:

1) Prior to the Rambam, though not known in the Sefardic world, the herem of Rabbeinu Gershom, which both prohibited polygamy and required the wife's agreement to a divorce, already changed the dynamics of marriage apparently in response to societal change.

2) There is another statement of the Rambam about marriage which hasn’t been taken as binding halakhah. The Rambam (Hilkhot Geirushin 10:21) writes that a husband, when in a first marriage, should not divorce his wife unless she is guilty of immoral behavior (essentially the view of Beit Shammai).

3) The Rambam, when faced with a halakhah which conflicts with his ethical sense, tries to neutralize it. For example, his concluding remarks on the proper treatment of an eved kena’ani (Hilkhot Avadim 9:8).

In understanding the approach of Rabbis Soloveitchik and Lichtenstein one should not rely only on the formulations of Ish Ha-Halakhah. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in a number of places, points out that when having to render a halakhic decision he incorporated ethical considerations. Unfortunately, since he didn't write a work of responsa, there hasn't been any serious analysis of the patterns of his actual psak. Rabbi Lichtenstein's religious humanism plays a significant role in his rulings, as well.

The use of kabbalistic and messianic motifs in the rulings of Rabbi Kook opens up a new way to create halakhic innovation. However, it is unclear what direction it would be utilized to transform current Halakhah. For example, should we begin to reverse present halakhic practice and begin to rule in accordance with Beit Shammai against Beit Hillel? Rabbi Shapira's position, to apply this approach to the changing status of women, is unusual among the disciples of both Rabbi Kook, and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda, and is against their expressed views. Rabbi Zvi Tau, possibly the most influential pupil of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, recently published a pamphlet against women learning, denying any intellectual role for women.

In general, there is a need for a full analysis of halakhic responses to social changes in society which are often related to modern scientific, medical, and psychological approaches. When modern society appears to demonstrate greater concern for human rights than traditional Jewish practice, Orthodox Judaism faces a serious challenge. The Rambam's codifying marriage wherein the husband controls his wife's behavior is a clear example of the problem. What tools—halakhic, ethical, or kabbalistic—can be used to modify what appears to be Halakhah so that it corresponds with modern marriage of equal partners is an open question.

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