A broadside at the halakhic process

I posted earlier about Professor Joshua Berman’s essay in Mosaic Magazine, “What Is This Thing Called Law?,” about the reduction of flexibility in Jewish law. Mosaic has started (as is its format) to post responses to Berman’s essay, and the first one is from Rabbi Gil Student, entitled “The Art of Halakhah.” Accepting Berman’s common law/statutory law dichotomy, Student argues that the loss of flexibility is a result of both what those adhering to halakhah have actually wanted and the hybrid process by which poskim and dayyanim arrive at their decisions.

I like much of what Student says in response, even though, as I noted in my post on Berman’s essay, I don’t think the common law/statutory law distinction is particularly apt. But I like the response not merely for what it says, but for what I think it lays bare.

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Halakhic Cargo Cult?

Driving into work today, I was listening to yet another podcast episode of classes on the Mishneh Torah, and the class is (or the recordings are) discussing some very early chapters discussing the foundations of halakhic observance–specifically, the commandments that require individuals to love and fear God, and what it means to do so. In explaining what it means to love God, Maimonides sets forth the prevailing view of the composition of the universe in his time, with the earth suspended in the middle of a series of nine concentric spheres, in which are lodged various celestial bodies (i.e., the moon, the sun, planets, constellations, etc.).

The rabbi teaching the class acknowledges that this is really not an accurate view of the universe, but that the view of the universe we have should make us that much more appreciative of God, because look at how complex it is!

I’ll set aside the tangled questions of modern science, intelligent design, and the accuracy of the Bible’s account of history. (The rabbi teaching the class moves seamlessly from talking about the big bang to assuming the biblical flood occurred about 3500 years ago, which is kind of whiplash-y.) Listening to these classes brings to mind a question that also troubled the students in the class: Maimonides was wrong about the science, so was he wrong about other things? The rabbi said, no, the science isn’t there to prove the law, but rather as an illustration; halakhah is one thing, the science another.

On the one hand, this is probably right as far as it goes–but I hesitate to take it too far, because it seems to me important to recognize that in some ways, individual pieces of knowledge in different subject areas are somewhat interdependent. We risk behaving like a cargo cult if we strip from our understanding of one area of knowledge the other areas that underlay the one.

So I think it’s important, as a humanist Jew, to stop and look at the ideas that appear before me and ask: can this make sense without the conceptual basis that underlay and gave rise to the idea? That is, is the idea independently valid apart from its conceptual basis–or will I be like a cargo cultist, turning knobs on a radio and expecting an airplane to land, without knowing how any of it should actually work? And after making that decision, supposing the idea stands on its own, ought I still adhere to it?

It’s a challenging question for a humanist Jew. Because even rejecting revelation as the source for things like kashrut doesn’t necessarily mean we are free to stop recognizing those practices in at least some contexts–because they remain practices that are culturally integral to Jewish identity, if not to the actual practice of most modern Jews.