“Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Exodus 24:7)
We had just left Egypt. We just experienced the most earth-shattering dramatic and transformational moment of our lives in receiving Torah from Sinai. But the pyrotechnics and dazzling displays are over now, and it’s time to get to the fine print. Just as soon as we accepted Torah we were inundated with rules, laws, precepts, and commandments instructing us how to live our lives and how we should set up our society.
Altogether, Parshat Mishpatim contains 53 mitzvot—23 imperative commandments and 30 prohibitions, serving as the Parsha with the greatest number of rules to follow. These rules include everything from laws of indentured servants, penalties for murder, kidnapping, assault, and theft; civil laws pertaining to damages, the granting of loans, are the rules governing the conduct of justice by courts of law. We are told of laws warning against the mistreatment of foreigners; the observance of the seasonal pilgrimage festivals, and agricultural gifts that are to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem; even the prohibition against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk, and the mitzvah of prayer!
While this legal framework became the basis of Jewish religious practice, our Reform Movement rejected the notion of a binding halakhic system espousing the importance of individual autonomy. As Reform Jews, we generally identify Halakhah NOT as a set of crystallized rules or as the consensus opinion held among today’s Orthodox rabbis. We see halakhah as a discourse, an ongoing conversation through which we arrive at an understanding, however tentative, of what God and Torah require of us.
As far as we are concerned, this conversation cannot be brought to a premature end by some formal declaration that “this is the law; all conflicting answers are wrong.”
As Rabbi Dr. Mark Washofsky explains, “In Reform Judaism, religious decisions are arrived at by individuals or communities who take into account all the factors that seem relevant to them and then choose accordingly. Decisions are not imposed upon individuals or communities “from the outside,” whether by rabbis or lay leaders.”
Washofsky explains the conundrum of our position in that “we liberal halakhists occupy a middle ground between two groups of Jews who respond to our work with a mixture of apathy and disdain. To our left stand those Jews who dismiss traditional Jewish law as at best irrelevant and at worst positively injurious to our most deeply cherished liberal values.
And to our right are those in the “orthodox” camp who, deeply devoted to the halakhic process, reject our liberal halakhic conclusions as uninformed, misguided, or just plain wrong. As they see it, our “evolving” or “sane” halakhah is not halakhah at all but a pastiche of liberal political and cultural values masquerading as halakhah. The decisions we render in its name violate the correct interpretation of the sources and texts of Jewish law. And since no authentic Jewish practice exists outside the framework of halakhah, it follows that our practice is not and cannot be considered as authentically Jewish.”
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Zemer arrived in Israel in the early 1960s and began to both build Reform institutions and re-imagine what halakha could look like in a liberal Israeli context. He pushed back strongly against the early Reformers, arguing that as serious Jews we could not wholeheartedly reject the framework of Jewish law, but needed to understand this system for what it was and resist the increasing rigidity of the Orthodox world.
To Jews who sometimes see no choices but those of fundamentalist rigidity on the one hand, or total rejection of tradition on the other, Rabbi Zemer argued instead for awareness of the inherent flexibility of the halakhic system. Halakhah, he argues, has had many voices, and has changed to meet every generation’s needs.
Equipped with this view, liberal Jews can reclaim their tradition from a conservative rabbinic establishment that all too often―especially in Israel―has seen the voice of strictness as more authentic than the voice of lovingkindness.
This is playing out before our eyes in contemporary Israeli society, as we are witnessing an increasing stringency imposed on two specific issues: the laws of modesty, and the public observance of Shabbat.
In fact, last fall the government came close to collapse over the issue of construction of a footbridge in the Tel Aviv area on Shabbat, and recently several municipalities took the courageous step to begin offering free public transportation on Shabbat. We must understand that the Jewish legal framework was NOT created to impose a neurotic, oppressive burden on our people. We even have checks and balances that the system refers to as tircha de-tziburah—”burdening the public [unnecessarily].”
We understand that part of the increasing stringency, on behalf of the Haredi world is a direct reaction to the perceived threat to their way of life – and we have even begun to see campaign messages on behalf of other WZC Slates using scare tactics threatening that Reform Jews are taking over Israel!
This was the case going back to the early 19th century when Rabbi Moshe Schrieber (aka the Hatam Sofer – 1762–1839) taught that Judaism as previously practiced was the only form of Judaism acceptable. In his view, the rules and tenets of Judaism had never changed — and cannot ever change. This became the defining idea for the opponents to Reform, and in many ways, it has continued to influence the Orthodox response to innovation in Jewish doctrine, practice, and law.
Sofer applied a pun to the Talmudic phrase חדש אסור מן התורה hadash asur min haTorah, “‘new’ is forbidden by the Torah” (referring literally to eating hadash, “new grain”, before the Omer offering is given) as a slogan heralding his opposition to any philosophical, social or practical change to customary Orthodox practice.
As Reform Jews, we must not reject halakha outright but rather treasure the laws and precepts handed down to us as we work to interpret them and adapt to the reality and circumstances of modernity. At the same time, we must resist the radical imposition of a specific interpretation of halakha on the public looking to override the basic principles of freedom as laid out in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (for more on Mishpatim and Israel’s D.o.I. read this by Rabbi Jason Bonder!)
Our Movement in Israel walks the fine line looking to adapt the laws and mitzvot transmitted in the Torah while fighting staunchly against the coercive and autocratic authority of the ultra-Orthodox establishment who opposes multiple interpretations.
Your vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections will not only go to support our Movement’s efforts , but will help say that our interpretation of Halakha is as good and as relevant as others, and that Jewish law is, and always has been, dynamic, evolving and changing.
We need our Movement worldwide to say loudly and clearly that our rabbis must be recognized as legitimate religious leaders and authorities, and that no one body has that singular claim or authority on Jewish law. As we read about the laws and commandments in this week’s Parsha, let us study together, evaluate our own personal practice and ensure that we can continue to have the freedom to make choices and interpretations as we have always done.
Join our efforts and Vote Reform today!