Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Jews and Judaism should be well aware of the fractured nature of the religion. Some may be able to identify a denomination or two, and the differences between them. Certainly most would recognize the superficial differences between Orthodox, “ultra-Orthodox,” and everyone else.
There are of course many more nuances within each denomination, with a seemingly endless supply of labels to classify each of them. Some Orthodox are “modern” others “yeshivish” and varying shades of “frum.” Not surprisingly, the definitions for these terms are elusive and will vary depending on your background and biases.
There is however one common theme to these distinctions; the labels, camps, and denominations, all reflect differing religious practices and/or ideologies. This of course is not surprising considering that we are discussing sub-groups within a religion. What is notable however, is that within the Orthodox camp, there are fundamentals to which all people allegedly adhere. Specifically, Orthodox Jews tend to believe in the religious authority of the written and oral laws.
Here is where everything breaks down, and again, not surprisingly, the problem is one of conflicting definitions. What is considered part of these canons of Jewish law? Furthermore, assuming one can define these canons, what are the correct, legitimate, and plausible interpretations of these sources? The answers to these questions will most likely determine your religious practice and thus your place in the Orthodox spectrum.
Despite the importance of simply defining halakha, there are few if any coherent and descriptions for how halakha works. There are numerous codes, collections, and letters, but each author is usually working with a different set of assumptions or perspectives – not all of which will be articulated, or even written as an objective model applicable to all Jews at all times.1
The consequence of such ambiguity is that effectively how Halakha is interpreted does change from time to time.2
Furthermore, resolving such issues will inevitably lead one back to the questions of canon and authority. Some would argue that the Halakhic system allows for changes to be made to Jewish law. However, if changes are not regulated somehow, the result could easily be anarchy. Others prefer to restrict any changes by creating a myth of an uninterrupted chain of authentic tradition dating from Moses to contemporary times, ignoring or suppressing any uncomfortable historical data.
There is of course an alternative, and conveniently enough, it is found in the oral law itself.
The oral law does not only contain random acts of jurisprudence, but it also outlines the system of how Jewish law ought to work. It describes the nature of rabbinic authority and the rights and limits of personal freedoms within the law itself. Granted, most Orthodox Jews do not follow this system in practice and some reject it outright and we will deal with the reasons in due time.
However, one could assume that as Orthodox Jews, we would first know how the universally canonical Torah Shebe’al Peh defines Halakha, so that we can intelligently apply Jewish law to our ever changing world. For the sake of efficiency, the next post will focus specifically on the role of custom and the role of Jewish society in determining Jewish law. This will help elucidate not only individual practices, but what role a communal consensus plays in determining Jewish Law.
1. One notable exception would be Rambam’s introduction to the Mishnah Torah. However, many disregard that halakhic system saying, “that’s only for Sephardim” and “we don’t pasken like that.” It is also no coincidence that most of Judaism’s socio-religious divisions developed within the Ashkenazi communities.
2. By “Halakha,” I do not refer to the specific interpretations and rulings, but of the rules and system through which such rulings are formed and evaluated.