Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book review: Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew

Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew
Edited by Rabbi Daniel Mann
Eretz Hemdah Institute, 2007
Reviewed by Shalom Z. Berger

Before you read this review, I have a confession to make. I do not like books that present Jewish law as a simplistic set of rules. When my children bring home their halakhah texts from the local Mamlakhti Dati (the religious stream of the Israeli public school system) school, I am always frustrated that the nuance of tradition and the rich historical development of ritual practice have no place in the rote behaviors presented in their school books. From my perspective it appears that Jewish law is presented as an arcane system with little rhyme or reason.

When I saw the recently published Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew, my fear was that this would be a similar type text, albeit aimed at a more mature audience. The book is made up of responses to questions that were submitted to Eretz Hemdah Institute in Jerusalem, at least some of them via the OU's vebbe rebbe website form, with most queries answered in the space of two or three pages. While some of my concerns remain with this type of presentation of halakhah, there are several redeeming features that make this volume valuable to both the interested layman and the classroom teacher.

What is truly innovative in this book is a companion CD (that the publisher will send you upon request) that contains source sheets with background on each of the questions. The introduction to the book presents this CD as useful enabling "the advanced learner to come to his or her own conclusion and/or deepen his or her understanding of the topics." The very fact that the people at Eretz Hemdah recognize that their decisions are not the last word on the subject is a refreshing revelation in the realm of English language halakhic texts. Perhaps they were inspired by the words of Rav Moshe Feinstein who writes similarly at the end of his introduction to the first volume of his Igrot Moshe.

For the educator, the source sheets can be very useful, as they bring together a good collection of relevant sources on each question that can easily be used in a classroom setting.

Two more unique aspects of the book deserve mention. The first is an important introduction that presents the building blocks of how halakhic decisions are reached by the Rabbis of the Institute. While some of the information is very basic (e.g. definitions of Written and Oral Torah) the idea of sharing the inner workings of the process of pesak halakhah is innovative and will be eye-opening for students who were taught that halakhah was simply a collection of rules. The second is a clear decision to include topics that engage the reality of the contemporary State of Israel and its place in the world of Jewish law. The Eretz Hemdah Institute makes no excuses about identifying with the values of the Dati Le'umi (National Religious) community, thus questions about getting married on Yom ha-Atzma'ut (i.e. during Sefirat ha-Omer) or purchasing Israel bonds (and potential issues with forbidden usury) are treated as issues of real concern for the committed Jew.

Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew
is available from http://www.eretzhemdah.org

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lessons from Jacob and Esau

While there are pedagogic lessons to be learned from every line in the Torah, the lessons from Parashat Toldot are particularly straightforward. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote a powerful essay entitled "Lessons From Jacob and Esau" in which he analyzed the educational message of this story.

I first was introduced to this essay in an article by Dr. Joel Wolowelsky that appeared in Ten Da'at that is accessible at http://www.lookstein.org/articles/moral_ed.htm; I was reminded of it today when Professor Yitzchok Levine emailed me, suggesting that it be shared on Lookjed. He has posted it at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/lessons_jacob_esau_col_vii.pdf

Here is an excerpt:
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Down to our present day we have been able to observe the disastrous consequences of a one-sided approach to the unique task of being a Jew. Many a son of a pious talmid chacham has been totally lost to Judaism because his father insisted on training him to become a talmid chacham without considering whether his personality and inclinations truly lay in that direction. Thus he is exposed to Jewish life in only one context: that of a quiet existence of study and meditation for which he has neither talent nor desire. What attracts him instead is the busy, colorful life of the world outside. But as a result of the narrow view of life in which he has been trained he gets the impression that in order to participate in the active, variegated life for which he yearns, he must give up his mission as a Jew. He consequently abandons his Judaism in order to fling himself into the maelstrom of excitement and temptations offered by the world outside.

The story of such an individual might end quite differently if only, instead of forcing him into the mold of a talmid chacham, his father would raise him from the very beginning to become a man of the world who, at the same time, is faithful to his duties as a Jew; if only that father would teach this son that the activities of the world outside, too, have their place in God's plan, that it is possible to preserve and to demonstrate one's complete loyalty to Judaism even as a sophisticated man of the world. He should make his son understand that, as a matter of fact, many, if not perhaps the most important, aspects of Jewish living are intended primarily to be practiced amidst the conditions and aspirations of everyday life, in the midst of the world and not in isolation from it. He should make his son understand that the Taryag Mitzvos are not meant to be observed in the klaus [Judeo-German equivalent for a small synagogue. (Ed.)] or in the beth hamidrash but precisely in the practical life of the farmer or the public-spirited citizen. If only that father would make it clear to his son that the spirit and the happiness of Judaism are just as accessible to a Zevulun "in the world outside" as they are to an Issachar "in the tents,"—who knows whether that son might not stand by his father's deathbed and gently close his father's eyes as a loyal, pious Jew?
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The above is from RSRH's essay "Lessons From Jacob and Esau" that appears on pages 319 - 331 of his Collected Writing VII. This volume deals with his thoughts on Jewish Education. For the rest of this most insightful essay on Chinuch, see http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/lessons_jacob_esau_col_vii.pdf