How Much Autonomy Do You Want?

How much legal autonomy—and how much exemption from otherwise applicable laws—ought religious groups to have?
When government grows larger and more ambitious, laying down the law in more and more areas of life, these questions arise more often and more urgently.

It is a common motif that without some “special accommodation” or exemption from various laws, it would be difficult for religious communities or even individuals to live religious lives. If public law forbids employment discrimination on the basis of religion, for example, religious groups have an obvious claim for exemption when choosing their clergy, and a claim for autonomy to decide who qualifies to be rabbi, priest, or pastor.

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.

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.

Religious Jews Leaving Religious Life

“Then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie ... and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
—Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Going off the derekh is one of the greatest epidemics facing the religious Jewish community today. You would be hard-pressed to find a frum family untouched by this phenomenon, whether it is a child, sibling, spouse, cousin, friend, or schoolmate who has left religion behind. In the wake of the individual leaving is a tempest of emotions—confusion, guilt, anger, hurt, and sadness.

Rabbi Hayim Palachi (1788-1868)--Rabbi of Izmir

The Jewish community of Izmir was an important center of Sephardic Jewish life during the centuries following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. It boasted vibrant synagogues and communal institutions, as well as a host of learned Torah scholars and a respected rabbinical court (Beth Din).

Izmir’s Chief Rabbis enlightened the Jewish community by answering hundreds of questions in Jewish law. They answered the questions not only from ?zmir but also from the distant Jewish communities. Rabbi Shemuel Yitzhak Modeliani from Thessaloniki noted that the Jewish community of ?zmir was led by respected people.

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.

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.