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

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