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Community Blog Living, Learning, and Teaching Halakhah in a Pluralistic Context: A View From the Hebrew College Rabbinical School

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
Hebrew College President Sharon-Cohen-Anisfeld

The following remarks were given by Hebrew College President Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Hebrew College Rabbinical School Associate Dean Rabbi Jane Kanarek, and alumnus Director of Learning for the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah Ayalon Eliach, Rab`18, at the Harvard Law School Conference on “Living, Learning, and Teaching Halakhah in a Pluralistic Context: A View From the Hebrew College Rabbinical School” on December 20, 2018.

Sharon Cohen AnisfeldRabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld:

I’m honored to have this opportunity to reflect with all of you and with my two colleagues, Rabbi Jane Kanarek and Rabbi Ayalon Eliach. I am going to briefly frame our conversation, and then turn things over to Jane and Ayalon for their reflections on the project of living, learning, and teaching halacha, particularly in a pluralistic context.

As a relatively young rabbinical school, we at Hebrew College have been actively and intentionally engaged for the last 15 years in the questions: What does a rabbi need to know? And who does a rabbi need to be? (Complicated questions that, as you might imagine, can at times entail a fair amount of hand-wringing.)

The teaching and learning of halacha in our pluralistic context touches on both of these essential orienting questions.

In thinking about this aspect of our project, it is important to distinguish between what most people think of as halacha – which is, basically, a particular set of Jewish practices – and what halachists think of as halacha – which as our colleague Rabbi Ebn Leader describes it is: “the process (or tahalich) of Judaism becoming.”

It is largely this second understanding of halacha that informs our approach to the teaching and learning of halacha at Hebrew College. This is, in part, of necessity – since our students and faculty do not all share a common practice. But, more fundamentally, this is by design. What we seek to do is help our students learn to speak the language of — and thus enter into the ongoing, unfolding process of — Jewish decision-making. This relates both to what we want them to know and to who we want them to be.

Why does this matter? I would point to three primary reasons.

  1. First, it is important culturally. Speaking the language of halacha is vital to being part of the Jewish conversation – both vertically (over generations) and horizontally (in different communities). Some degree of fluency in the language of halacha is essential to a true sense of ownership and belonging in the process of Jewish decision-making. (It also yields the gift of diversity – as one actually discovers the significance and range of choices taken and not taken.)
  2. Second, it is important theologically. It is the language through which we ask what it means to live with a sense of commandedness, a sense of sacred obligation. I remember the moment in my own rabbinic training when I realized that I could not possibly come to understand myself as a Jew, much less a rabbi, without reckoning personally with the category of hiyuv, grappling with my own experience and understanding of what it means to be obligated, what it means to be commanded. That process is ongoing.
  3. Third, it is important ethically. Halacha is the language through which we ask questions about how to live in community, how to choose not just between good and evil but between competing goods, and how to live our values in an unredeemed world.

For me personally, these questions are ultimately filtered through an existential lens. Judaism in general – and halacha in particular – is vital and purposeful to the extent that it speaks to the heart of what it means to be a human being.

The sense of being part of a larger conversation – both vertically and horizontally – matters because we are not alone, and our lives do not begin and end with us. The sense of sacred service and obligation matters because it tethers us not only to each other but to God; we are meaningfully claimed and constrained. The sense of having a language to think about – and to talk to each other about – how to make choices in an unredeemed world matters because that, after all, is where we live our lives.

It matters less that we come to the same answers regarding practice — than that we are asking the same questions, in a language that allows us to stay in faithful conversation, which means to stay in relationship.

That, by the way, is part of why it felt like the most authentic way for us to do this session was in conversation with each other.

Jane, b’khavod.

Rabbi Jane Kanarek:

It is an honor to be here at Harvard thinking with all of you. It is also wonderful to see so many of my colleagues and students from Hebrew College here. Teaching and working with all of you at Hebrew College is a joy.

It may, perhaps, be more intuitive to think of halakhah as proceeding from action to theory. A Jew lives a life in which her actions are guided by the details of the classical halakhic tradition and then comes to reflect on her actions. In other words, to quote the over quoted (at least in certain contexts): נעשה ונשמע. I will do and then I will understand. Practice or action comes first; understanding comes second. In a world in which Jews live embedded within rich communities of Jewish practice — synagogues, minyanim, families, and friends —- such a model makes sense. Jewish behavior grows from what Jews do in their communities.

Such an embedded model does not, however, describe the world of most of the rabbinical students whom I teach at Hebrew College. We are a pluralistic rabbinical school, which in practice means that our students come from across the Jewish spectrum. Some have grown up outside of the Jewish community while others in the Orthodox world. While many of our students see their work as building these embedded communities, this does not describe their communities of origin — and for some, even their current communities. A minority of our students live in what we might call more traditionalist halakhic communities with a loyalty to a more traditionalist vision of halakhah, by which I mean that they want the classical codes and attendant literature to guide their actions. Some of our students have walked out of what they feel were the confines of Orthodox halakhah and community. For others it is because they have heard about halakhah and understand it to be foreign, ossified, — certainly not something that is relevant to their individual or communal practices. Or perhaps halakhah is irredeamably sexist and hierarchical. How could one be loyal to and shape one’s behavior under the authority of this entity? Still others are interested in the possibility of creating a transformed halakhah — either one rooted in the classical codes or one that radically departs from them.

To pedagogy.

What does all of this mean for pedagogy?

Because of the social context of my students — so common in our post-Enlightenment world — we have chosen a pedagogical model that moves from theory to practice or action. It is a process oriented approach where my questions are not: What is your halakhic position on a particular issue? And how would you classify that opinion? I do not ask students to think about whether their position on a particular issue might be classified as progressiver or liberal or conservative. We are, after all, a pluralist school where we do not demand halakhic observance within any type of ד אמות. Rather, my framing pedagogical questions consist of the following:

  1. Are you thinking about halakhah in a living, moving, and breathing way?
  2. Can you conceptualize halakhah as a language for Jewish life?
  3. Can you conceptualize halakhah as a route to God?

To this end, in the first year of the program, students are required to take a course called “Theories of Halakhah.” In this course, I introduce students to the halakhic library and to the world of legal theory, both secular and Jewish. We read halakhists and theorists from Joseph Soloveitchik, to Ronald Dworkin, to Joel Roth, to Chayim Nahman Bialik, to Robert Cover, to James Boyd White, to Rachel Adler (to name some of our authors). My goal is to open up law as a discourse, or, to paraphrase and draw on James Boyd White, to help them see law as:

Halakhah is not and should not be static and it is not the property of one community.

My students will, also, I hope find this language of halakhah to be a window into the Divine. But in this case, I want my students to consider the ways in which this particular language of halakhah can be a way of translating this seeking after God into a language for constructing Jewish community through praxis.

From theory to practice:

Our halakhah courses do not remain solely in the realm of theory. We do move into the practical: courses on hilkhot shabbat, kashrut, aveilut, and even hilkhot poalim (labor law) — and more. To give you another example: In the first part of my class on hilkhkot kiddushin, I ask students to have a mastery of the basic sources from the Mishneh Torah and Shulhan Arukh surrounding kiddushin and nissuin. They will have all done a Talmud course in the first perek of masekhet kiddushin, so they will have some knowledge of the sugyot that lie behind the codes. From there, I move to more contemporary material. I have them read, for example, Moshe Feinstein’s teshuvah that forbids two-ring kiddushin ceremonies and Rachel Adler’s article on brit ahuvim. Again, I am not prescriptive about our student’s conclusions from this material. By the end of the course, some will want to maintain the language of harei at mekudeshet and one ring. Others will choose a brit ahuvim. But I do insist that —- wherever they stand -— they read with charity and that they put Feinstein and Adler in conversation with one another to see what might emerge. What might we learn from creating conversation where it does not usually happen? And what might this conversation mean for how they will perform marriage ceremonies?

Of course, this all involves a personal risk for me. I myself am committed to halakhah as interpreted by the traditional codes as central to what it means to live a Jewish life and to build community. I have had to find a way to teach that enables me to share this language of commitment with my students without being prescriptive and with a commitment to empowering them — beyond any fear I might have about how they will choose to live their Jewish lives. They may choose to leave it behind or they may choose to understand it in a radically transformed way. Whatever the case, I have needed to become comfortable with giving my students the tools to choose.

I want to end by quoting the words of one student from the conclusion of their final from our class Theories of Halakhah.

What interests me most about this conception of halakhah is the knowledge that you’re stepping into an as-of-yet incomplete story, where the future is determined by the real, lived experience of all those who claim ownership of it. This halakhah is one where if you see a place where the law is failing, you are invited to add your voice to the chorus of people working to change that law. Your experience of the law is as valid a story as anyone else’s: find many who

share your story with that law and then you’ve built a community for whom your relationship to that law is the norm and with whom you can craft a communal praxis that aligns with your story; if your community’s response to that law resonates with others, it will spread and become a more universal application of the law – the halakhah will shift to reflect the aggadah. This process feels accessible and holds the potential for real, structural change.

How this theoretical understanding of halakhah relate to my own practice remains to be seen. If I believe deeply in this journey, then it is on me to adopt a halakhic practice with a community invested in this type of change. But I am more interested in a Judaism that speaks to the community I have than finding a community to meet my Judaism. What does it mean, then, to bring my community along with me on this journey? Adler asserts, and I agree, that communal praxis is key to a deep structural reworking of halakhah. I am left wondering, then, what does the journey from grab-bag Judaism to unified praxis look like? And, moreover, where does one begin?

Thank you.

rabbi-ayalon-eliachRabbi Ayalon Eliach, Rab`18

It is such an honor to join two of my most important teachers and rabbis, in this law school, which shaped so much of my thinking about law, in general, and Halakhah, in particular.

The Hebrew College pedagogy that Jane described was invaluable for how I think about and live a Halakhic life. But I want to emphasize that, at least at first glance, those are two very different things.

Thinking about Halakhah is not the same thing as living it. I have a heightened sensitivity to this distinction because the Orthodoxy that shaped the first half of my life would never tolerate such a bifurcation. One learned Halakhah in order to practice it. End of story.

But as Jane noted, a direct translation of theory into codified practice is not appropriate at Hebrew College because of the diverse background of its students.

I want to complicate this by suggesting that Hebrew College’s pedagogy actually makes it less likely that students will defer to a codified set of rules to guide their lives. And before I give any wrong impressions, I think that’s a good thing. I’ll explain.

It’s important for me to begin with some background of distinguishing how I learned halakhah at Hebrew College from how I studied Halakhah in the yeshivahs of my youth.

The best description of the approach of my youth is found in the following quote from Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man:

“Halakhic man… orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles. An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence. Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments, and fundamental principles, draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation and concludes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it for the purpose of establishing a relationship between it and the real world…” (Halakhic Man, pp. 18-19)

As Soloveitchik describes, the Halakhah of my youth was taught much like math. There were clear variables: these were the specific life circumstances being encountered. And there were clear rules and formulas that were applied to those variables: this was Halakhic reasoning. And this equation led to a clear result: an unambiguous answer about how to act in those particular circumstances.

That pedagogy was designed to not only learn Halakhah, but also to live it.

Hebrew College’s pedagogy, on the other hand, exposes students to the messiness of Halakhah. It highlights the ways in which the same rules and formulas have been applied to yield drastically different answers. And some of the theories of Halakhah that are taught take a critical perspective that illuminate the historical, cultural, gender, and other influences that have shaped it. To rephrase the words of James Boyd White that Jane cited earlier: it emphasizes that Halakhah is an art, far from the mathematics that Soloveitchik described.

And here is the challenge: Living Halakhah, and not just thinking about it, is much easier when its guidance is clear, like math. Teaching halakha as an art actually makes it harder to live halakhah.

This concern should be familiar to this institution. One of the most repeated critiques I heard while studying law here is that Harvard prepares its students to think about the law, but not to practice it. Instead of focusing on what people call “black letter law,” the equivalent of Soloveitchik’s Halakhah of fixed rules and formulas, the coursework here exposes students to multiple perspectives on every legal issue and introduces them to the ideas of legal realism and critical legal studies, which, like the pedagogy at Hebrew College, highlight the messiness of how the sausage is made.

If the goal of living a Halakhic life or practicing law is to follow unambiguous instructions, then this critique is totally valid.

But what if that’s not actually the point?

One of the most important concepts I learned in law school is called “situation sense.” In short, situation sense is the intuitive orientation that people who study law develop, that they then apply to real cases as lawyers or judges.

Situation sense is not a really strong ability to apply rules and formulas. Instead it’s the often subconscious judgment cultivated through studying a seemingly endless library of fact patterns, and the responses of past legal thinkers to them. They begin to recognize patterns and draw intuitive connections and sensibilities that they would not have otherwise had.

This process of pattern recognition allows the lawyer or judge to approach real life situations by drawing on an internal warehouse of case studies that intuitively inform how they will respond.

Situation sense is so significant because without it, we still make decisions based on our intuition. But instead of that intuition being informed by the wisdom of many other people thinking about similar situations, it is informed by heuristics and ad-hoc snap judgments — a large percentage of which are totally wrong or misguided.

That’s the idea of situation sense in secular law. But the same concerns apply, and are even amplified, with regards to Halakhah.

Halakhah is the art of life. The best literal translation I can think of is “a way to move.”

And moving in the world is not easy. We face countless questions every day that demand thought and reflection: how might we be better parents? How might we be better friends? How might we be more grateful? How should we behave in our financial transactions? How should we respond to major life transitions like birth, coming of age, and death?

Answering any of those questions well would demand the experience and reflection of days, weeks, years, or even a lifetime. And when they arise, we simply don’t have that time.

So what we end up doing is what lawyers and judges would do if they had no legal training: we rely on heuristics and snap judgments.

Studying halakhah as Jane described offers an alternative. By studying countless examples of fact patterns related to parenting, friendship, gratitude, financial interactions, and major life transitions, we develop an internal warehouse of cases to draw on when we confront the real thing. In other words, we develop halakhic situation sense.

Of course, this does not mean we will always agree. Halakhah, after all, is an art, not a science. But it does mean that although each rabbi in my Hebrew College cohort has a different set of Jewish practices for navigating life, they’re all informed by the same library of thousands of years of collective wisdom.

Implicit in what I’m saying is that developing such situation sense could be helpful for any human being. If Halakhah enhances human intuition around responding to life’s most important questions, its study and application should not be reserved for professionals, like rabbis.

Let me make that explicit by saying that I absolutely think studying halakhah using Hebrew College’s pedagogy would certainly be beneficial to almost anyone.

Of course, that vision is unrealistic. But since being ordained, I have had the privilege of working at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, a family foundation whose mission is to help people apply Jewish Wisdom to live better lives and shape a better world. Stated differently, we try to expose people to as much Jewish wisdom as possible so that they can refine their situation sense for navigating life’s big questions.

It’s a big project, and our classroom is the world. But I am incredibly grateful that in pursuing this ambitious goal, I am able to draw on my studies at Hebrew College as well as thousands of years of accumulated and accumulating Jewish wisdom.


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