Correspondence: Eli Haddad and Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo on Reviving the Halakhic Process

To Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo:

Dear Rabbi:

Your article the Spring 2010 issue of Conversations on “The Nature and Function of Halakha in Relation to Autonomous Religiosity” has inspired quite a bit of discussion in our family. Your comments have hit squarely home and crystallize the religious anomie of several of our recently married children. You issued a passionate call for responsible rabbinic leadership to meet the challenges of a less-than-dynamic halakhic process. This is vital to the authentic continuity of our traditions. Please grant me a few moments for a layman’s reflections on this matter.

“A Spirit of Inquiry:” Grace Aguilar’s Private Spirituality and Progressive Orthodoxy

One of the most influential writers of Jewish philosophy, theology, and fiction during the early Victorian period was Grace Aguilar. A traditional Spanish and Portuguese Jew, Aguilar spent most of her short life living outside of a structured Jewish community. Yet her vast knowledge of biblical, and even some rabbinical, texts—as well as her highly Romantic prose—brought her works to a wide audience of both Jews and Christians. Her popular novels were read all over England and the United States, as were her works of history, theology, and biblical criticism.

The Idealist and the Pragmatist: Rav Benzion Uziel and Rav Ovadia Yosef

Rav Benzion Meir Hai Uziel (1880–1953) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (b. 1920) are two towering figures of the twentieth-century Sephardic rabbinical world. They seem to share much in common: Both are tremendous talmidei hahamim; both are prolific authors of halakhic Responsa; and both held the position of Rishon leZion—the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.Yet a closer look at their worldviews marks a sharp distinction in two important areas: 1) the definition of a posek (rabbinic decisor of Jewish law), and 2) the Sephardi-Ashkenazi divide.

In 1934, Rav Uziel delivered an address entitled “The Posek in Israel.” He opened with the following statement:

Out of the Depths I Have Called Thee: The Vow of Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk

In an interesting footnote to Jewish History, we find the triumph of the human spirit.

Rabbi Yaakov Yehoshua Falk (1680-1756) was born in Krakow, the scion of a rabbinic family. Newly married and working as the inspector of the local school, Rabbi Falk became a respected community leader in Lemberg, Poland. But in 1702, the trajectory of his life was irrevocably altered. A powder keg explosion took the life of his wife, daughter, mother-in-law and her father. Trapped under debris, Rabbi Falk narrowly escaped himself. While still threatened by the specter of death, he vowed to compose an original commentary on the Talmud. He swore to find meaning and purpose in this tragedy.

The Discourse of Halakhic Inclusiveness

Since the beginning of the modern era, the halakhic community and its decisors have had to grapple with the question of what halakhic status to give to the majority of Jews who were now non-observant. The Talmud (Eiruvin 69b) had ruled that a public desecrator of Shabbat was considered invalid to perform certain halakhic acts and Rambam (Laws of Shabbat 30:15; Laws of Divorce 3:15) declared that he was categorically invalid, going so far as to state that such a person was to be considered like a non-Jew in all areas of halakha. What, then, was to be done in the period following the Haskalah, when most Jews were no longer Sabbath observers? Were the large majority of the Jewish people to be considered halakhically as non-Jews?

The Power of Foresight

“Who is wise? One who sees the future outcome.”
?Talmud, Tractate Tamid 32a

This famous talmudic statement challenges us to critically examine past and current issues, identify patterns and trends, conduct a thorough analysis, and if wise enough, act to achieve future desired outcomes. However, this approach demands that we be honest and realistic in our assessments, and not be encumbered or influenced by nostalgia or Golden Age thinking.

A More Jewish and Democratic State of Israel

The Orthodox-secular rift has threatened the Zionist movement from its outset. To facilitate cooperation despite the deep differences, the "status quo" was established, so that it would not be necessary to deal comprehensively with the place of religion in Zionism and the State of Israel. Piece by piece, various "arrangements" were established in order to avoid making fundamental decisions.

Balancing Halakha, Jewish Peoplehood, and Democracy in Israel

During the last decade, the State of Israel has struggled to refine policies related to conversion to Judaism on multiple levels. There have been a number of conversion annulments, even more attempted annulments, some of which were rejected in Israel’s rabbinical courts. Others were dealt with by Israel’s Supreme Court. There have been hundreds of cases of converts who were unrecognized by local rabbinates, hundreds more who converted overseas and were denied entry into Israel under the Law of Return, and finally, thousands who sought conversion in Israel but were unable to convert through the national system, either because the process was too burdensome, or alternatively, because they were rejected out of hand by the Ministry of Interior.