The Noble Path of the Modern Prophet

Originally posted on jewishvaluescenter.org

To be completely honest, I do not think that Halacha is something that must be followed in every instance. There are plenty of areas including LGBT rights, the Agunah problem, and many other moral imperatives that I believe override any Halachic consideration. However, one of the interesting things about not having Halacha be the only ethical system that I follow, is that I feel that I can have a much more objective view than someone who is completely committed and engulfed by it.

Halacha is one of the most complicated and intricate law systems in the world. I have written many articles about the fact that there is seldom any one Halachic or (Jewish) view on any issue.This is a point that cannot be overly stressed. However when it comes to classical Halacha, there are many general trends that can perhaps be more easily deciphered by someone viewing Halacha from a historical or objective perspective.

In other words, it is one thing to think about Halacha while you yourself are within the system, but a whole other thing to try and piece together the various components in search of a more objective picture. What is even more fascinating about Halacha is that I feel that the history of Halachic evolution, along with some contemporary problems, are great examples and parallels to many of the other problems afflicting our society.

Max Weber, the prolific German sociologist, posited a dualistic notion of religious evolution centered around two actors, namely: the prophet and the priests. Prophets, Weber argued, are the innovators, inventors, and individuals who have a disregard for boundaries and rules. The prophets are the founders of religions, or their sub sects, and have a deep disdain for the status quo, as they are always trying to progress and make things better.

Conversely, the priests, who are much larger in number, are those that begin to follow the prophet, and, after his/her death or departure, they strive to keep the status quo. The priests are change-averse and will try and shut down and quiet down any subsequent prophets. However, over time other prophets will inevitably arise, reforming various aspects of the religion, only to be followed by another group of priests, and so forth.

Halacha has undoubtedly worked the same way for the vast majority of Jewish history. From the nascent Israelite prophets and priests, all of the way to modern Poskim (halachic decision makers), there are always those individuals who are trying to progress against the overly conservative and stagnant masses. As stated earlier in explaining Weber’s main thesis, this evolution was by no means unique to Halachic Judaism, but rather it is the common thread among all religions. Thus, some form of this evolution has existed throughout all forms and sects of Judaism throughout history.

However, given that this process was predominantly unconscious, very few people were actually able to realize that it was happening. The most obvious example is certain Jewish thinkers who have argued that the Halacha for all time was revealed to Moses at Sinai. Additionally, many in the Orthodox camp will dispute the point that Halacha is malleable or evolves whatsoever. Now this would generally not be a problem, as this would be the standard view of the priests that made up a large percent of any religious group.

The real problem with Orthodoxy is that the prophets have been unable to play their role. In contemporary times, there are many new options for those individuals who question and would potentially reform their communities. They can simply leave the community and join other ones that better fit their values, something that would generally be unheard of in antiquity. If a person in the mainstream Orthodox community has a fundamental issue with, say, the inferior status of women in ritualistic participation or with homosexual rights, they can simply leave and go elsewhere. Unlike classical history, there is no need for prophets to remain and reform their initial community.

The issue with this situation is that various communities will become increasingly polarized – given that anyone who has a problem or challenge need not stay. When individuals like Natan Slifkin and Joseph Dweck are nearly forced out of mainstream Orthodoxy (and instead opt to join more welcoming and liberal communities) for speaking about evolution and homosexuality respectively, the prophets are unable to do their work. This is true not only in Orthodox Judaism when speaking about Halacha, but can apply equally well to a wide array of communities, including political groups

There is obviously no immediate or easy solution to this problem. The only potential fix that I can think of is that people who are upset with the views and actions of their communities should not be so quick to abandon them. Now this would, of course, be different in every unique situation and no one should ever remain in a group in which they feel unsafe. However, it seems that an increasingly growing amount of individuals are seeking out homogeneous groups where everyone agrees, and controversial views are shunned. This is happening not only in Orthodoxy but also within academia, on college campuses, in political parties, etc.

For both the Halachic system and society as a whole to survive, criticisms and progressive opinions must be able to be heard. Individuals must not be afraid to critique the wrongdoings and moral shortcomings of their own communities and instead opt for the noble path of the prophet.

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