Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Reform

Law & Linguistics (which even though it sounds so, is not the title of a University course)

Progressive Jews refer to Jewish law/Halacha relatively frequently. For a quick and imminent example, check out today’s Mishnah Day email from the URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah series.

For those playing the home game, progressive/Reform Judaism (at least institutionally) does not accept Halacha as theologically binding. As Rabbi Mark Washofsky, one of the foremost scholars on Judaism and Jewish Law notes, “we do not regard halakhah as a process which yields mandatory conclusions.

I don’t want to debate whether or not Jewish Law/Halacha has merit as an institution. I happen to think it does. But I was struck today with what I think is an odd realization…

Question: Is it contradictory – or at the very least, confusing – for progressive Jews to acknowledge that there is an institution called “Jewish Law,” while simultaneously stating that it is not mandatory?

When we call something a law, we implicitly indicate that it is mandatory. Yet Washofsky writes that Reform Jews have their own “unique approach to halakhah.” Hmmm.

I can think of no other example of a group of people that has a body of optional laws, or laws that can obeyed or not obeyed depending on the unique approach to them by individuals. If such a group exists, they certainly don’t wouldn’t call such an institution “laws”.

Of course, civil courts have laws which can be challenged, updated, appealed, repealed, and interpreted in different ways by judges so as to set legal precedent. But in any given moment, for example, Canadian Law as a body isn’t open for individual interpretation. That’s why it’s called “The Law” and not “The Suggestion”. A citizen can’t decide for themselves (without legal ramifications) that theft is justified, even if they’ve studied criminal law ad nauseum.

This is not all to say that Reform/progressive Jews should follow Jewish law in its entirety. That’s not my place to suggest. This is also not to say that Halacha – as a humanly created system – shouldn’t be open to interpretation by humans. I think it should. I also think that any humanly created legal system that is held to the immutable standards that halachah is by Orthodox Jews borders on idolatry and more often than not misses the point of having the legal system in the first place.

What I am suggesting is that there is a linguistic difficulty in calling something that is not binding “The Law”. If, as Washofsky suggest, Jewish Law is “a discourse, an ongoing conversation through which we arrive at an understanding,” then perhaps we shouldn’t be calling it “Law” (at least in English). Perhaps we need another term.

In Hebrew, “Halachah” means “The Way” or “The Path.” Even these translations imply a singular reality, and not the pluralistic approach Washofsky suggests.

If we agree that Jewish Law has a role within progressive and Reform Judaism, it’s time to give it an appropriate name that reflects its role. I’m not a legal scholar or a linguist, so I’m not sure yet sure what is the right word/phrase to use, but I am certain that the language we’re using now doesn’t reflect the praxis that exists on the ground by the majority of progressive/Reform Jews.

An additional thought – a new term may even encourage more people to study and engage with what we call Halacha. Jewish Law as a term is heavy and can be scary unless you’re open to accepting that Law = a binding system.