Thursday, June 11, 2009

Religious Zionist Halakhah

When I look at the halakhic writings that have emerged from the Religious Zionist sector in Israel, I am sometimes highly uncomfortable. In a recently published Orthodox Forum book, Religious Zionism Post Disengagement: Future Directions, there is an article by Dr. Aviad Hacohen that helped me understand what has made me uncomfortable and why it should not bother me. (The article is in the book [link] and available for download here: link)

Dr. Hacohen does an excellent job of outlining the unique Religious Zionist approach to halakhah and has helped me to articulate what I consider to be the right way to do Religious Zionist halakhah and the wrong way. Religious Zionist authorities are different for a number of reasons that are not important for this discussion: the topics they generally discuss, the media that they use, the language they utilize. What is relevant to our discussion is that they recognize that halakhah has to be practical for an entire country, including its government. This is something generally ignored by Charedi authorities.

However, the way I see it, there are two ways to do this.

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However, the way I see it, there are two ways to do this. One is to decide in advance what the country needs and then to back into the halakhic reasoning. This approach essentially hijacks halakhah and forces it to reach political conclusions. I see this as an invalid process. The other way is to incorporate that national need as one of the concerns in the question. When any authority addresses a practical question, he has to look at the entire situation and take into account all of the details that might not be directly relevant but can influence the outcome. In the case of a national question, the national needs have to be incorporated as a factor.

The difference is usually minor because in most cases the national need will be an overriding factor. However, in terms of process, the difference is large. In the former approach the national need is the output while in the latter it is an input. After reading Dr. Hacohen's article, I can now look back at the Religious Zionist halakhic writings and see that what made me uncomfortable was the appearance of backing into halakhah based on national needs. However, with the recognition of the above distinction, I can see that the national needs was generally as an input and not as a foregone conclusion.

The difference between an ends-driven halakhic process and an honest search for truth is not always readily apparent. But whether we are dealing with issues of Israeli national concern or American liberal politics, the validity of the process itself is crucial. When you decide the conclusion based on external issues and only then find a halakhic way to reach it, you not only risk falsifying the Torah based on your personal politics but you actually falsify it already by using an invalid process.

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