Throughout the centuries, the primary function of a rabbi was not to give sermons, conduct marriages or bury the Jewish dead, but to rule on issues of Halachah (Jewish law).
Ordination traditionally consisted of an established rabbi empowering a new rabbi to answer questions of Halachah, thus assuring questioners that they could comfortably consider the new rabbi’s rulings to be authoritative.
Most rabbis who followed or follow that traditional model of rabbinic work would give short answers to questions posed (generally “yes” or “no”), accompanied by a pep talk when appropriate, but almost always without footnotes. In general, the assumption was that lay questioners lacked the textual acumen to appreciate the intricacies of the halachic process.
Many great rabbis have published their “responsa,” collections of questions they received (or, occasionally, pretended to receive) and answers that they gave, with learned discussion about how the halachic conclusion they arrived at was supported by the hallowed texts of the past. The target audience for responsa literature has always been other rabbis (and rabbis-in-training). Accordingly, responsa were almost always written in a difficult blend of rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. Reading, appreciating and evaluating traditional responsa requires either knowing talmudic texts well or, at the very least, looking up and studying the texts that are cited.
An innovative development has emerged over the last half a century: some rabbis are now writing and disseminating their detailed answers to various legal, ritual and ethical questions in a way that is accessible to an audience less learned in halachic texts. The most fascinating work of this nature is being done in Israel, where a number of “Internet rabbis” are posting their rulings on the web, with an imagined target audience of any interested reader of modern Hebrew.
Here in North America, the innovation consists in part of writing up responsa in English, thus making the answers accessible to a wide audience. This new sub-genre of vernacular responsa for non-specialists is not confined to the Orthodox. For a few decades now, Reform and Conservative rabbis have been publishing articles and books that are spinoffs from the traditional responsa model.
Toronto’s own Rabbi Wayne Allen has now written such a volume: Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, published in Jerusalem in 2009 by the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. The volume consists of 85 short chapters, each dealing with an issue (practical or theoretical) that arose at Beth Tikvah Synagogue, where Rabbi Allen has been spiritual leader for the last few decades. The volume is handsome, well-written and interesting.
While one may always quibble with someone’s understanding of rabbinic texts (e.g., when Rabbi Allen renders the Hebrew word zaken in a talmudic passage as “elderly,” when it seems to me that the Talmud is referring to a Torah scholar of any age), the level of erudition is impressive. It is also refreshing to see how Rabbi Allen brings texts from historical, medical and scientific works to his halachic discussions. Sadly, this is rare in halachic literature.
The range of issues discussed in the book is also remarkable. Of course, it includes the kind of questions that one might find in any responsa collection, for instance, should the Yizkor prayer be recited in the first year of mourning, or may a cantor repeat words when chanting prayers. But Rabbi Allen also addresses non-standard contemporary issues, such as may a Jew own a Mercedes, are genetically modified foods kosher, may a lesbian convert to Judaism or may a Jew pierce her or his ears, nose or other body parts.
Readers who are interested in following and/or understanding Jewish law will find the book of interest. But even those who are not committed to Halachah might find much of interest here. I learned a good deal about a number of issues with which I was unfamiliar, such as the history of clergy confidentiality or the changing attitudes to flowers at Jewish and gentile funerals over the years. (Considering the disparate nature of the topics discussed, an index, or even a few indices, would have been a welcome addition.)
While the book explicitly teaches about Halachah and Jewish history, it also indirectly teaches about another area: the Toronto version of Conservative Judaism, which is very different from most other versions of Conservative Judaism. While the vast majority of Conservative congregations in the world are now egalitarian, Rabbi Allen promotes an old-fashioned approach, arguing, for example, that a woman may not even lead the Pesukei Dezimrah section of the prayers, nor may she be the one who lifts up the Torah at the end of the Torah service, nor the one who dresses the Torah. In fact, one Internet reviewer of Rabbi Allen’s book – a well-known Orthodox rabbi – has already noted that “he is sometimes stricter than I would be!” (See http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2010/01/post-orthodox-responsa.html).
While most of those in the know will not be surprised to see just how traditional Rabbi Allen’s halachic approaches are, I did find one aspect of the book surprising: Rabbi Allen’s view of the interplay of law and custom in legal analysis.
Issues in Jewish law are adjudicated on the basis of a mixture of careful textual analysis and consideration of minhag, of the custom of the Jewish people. One of the conundrums that any halachic decision-maker has is determining the relative weight of text and of custom. How do I rule when the text seems to suggest one approach but the common custom of the Jewish people differs?
Generally, it is said that one of the key characteristics of the Conservative movement, when compared to Orthodox Judaism, is that minhag plays a relatively larger role for Conservative rabbis in determining Halachah. Rabbi Solomon Schechter famously argued that the actions of “Catholic Israel” (or Klal Yisrael) are a crucial factor in determining Jewish law.
And yet, Rabbi Allen shows himself frequently to be loyal to the texts and loath to cede ground to community behaviour. One telling example is the chapter entitled “Clapping, Snapping and Tapping on Shabbat.” Rabbi Allen does an excellent literature review that shows, as serious students of Jewish law know, that the classical texts have a very wide definition of forbidden “musical” and quasi-musical activities on Shabbat. But as anyone who attends a wide range of synagogues knows, such behaviour is common on the Sabbath and is often seen (correctly or not) as a sign of religious fervour. Rabbi Allen himself notes that Rabbi Moses Isserles (perhaps the leading Ashkenazi early modern legal scholar), “allowed clapping, tapping and dancing on Shabbat because the practice was already so well ensconced that it would be impossible to eradicate it.” And yet Rabbi Allen urges us to return to text-centred Judaism and get away from common practice. He concludes the chapter: “Since clapping, tapping and snapping are considered musical sounds, they are prohibited on Shabbat.”
Rabbi Allen has produced an interesting and occasionally gripping book. Readers interested in Jewish law or in Canadian Conservative Judaism will find much of interest here.
Martin Lockshin is professor of Jewish studies at York University and rabbi of the Toronto Partnership Minyan.