Rabbi Topek Fund

Yom Kippur Sermon - Dr. Ira Rezak

"Halacha and Innovation in Jewish Tradition" 
Dr. Ira Rezak, Professor Emeritus, School of Medicine
Past President Hillel Foundation Board of Directors


In speaking about Parshat Ki Tavo a week or so ago Rabbi Agishtein urged each of us to strive for change in the New Year. He remarked that, to be sure, we’d be hearing familiar prayers and melodies in the synagogue during the Yomim Noraim and that there’d be many other stable and positive circumstances in our lives, but that we all, whatever our ages, should try to alter our way of life over the course of the coming year, to make an effort to end the coming year somehow different from what we are now.  


His remarks set me thinking, not for the first time, about the relationship between constancy and novelty in life, and between tradition and innovation in Judaism. You will all have noticed that the makhzorim we are using this year are different from those we used in previous years. Again to quote Rabbi Agishtein, “There is a carefully balanced tension between the steadying hand of tradition and the drumbeat of progress in Judaism.” But with specific reference to makhzorim he continued “In this area, tradition plays second fiddle to usability and accessibility”. Well, I certainly agree with these sentiments, indeed I am sure, we can all accept the principle, I might even call it an obvious fact, that traditions in general, including those established within the dalet amot of Jewish orthodoxy, have changed in the course of our long history as a people, and indeed that all traditions and other norms necessarily evolve over time. The question, of course, is how the balance between tradition and progress is to be struck, how the tensions that Rabbi Agishtein has noted are to be resolved. A sharper way of framing the case is to consider how our halakha which is understood as masoretic, as the true path of “orthodoxy”, can and should also be accepted as mutable, so that it may remain, in the rabbi’s words, “accessible”.


There are of course many approaches, philosophical and practical, to such questions. One might choose to view the variety of possible solutions exclusively as a “religious” matter or, even more specifically, as fully determined by divine commandment. But it is also possible to address the range of possibilities as worldly matters, for traditions certainly pertain to the way we conduct ourselves in the world, in our social and cultural environments more broadly conceived. One might therefore even choose to see all questions concerning the way we live collectively as political matters, for even religious behaviors serve to, indeed are intended to, govern our lives socially as well as personally. But in any case we face a need to reconcile divergent options that must face the tension between two goods for, again, we probably would all agree that the stability of tradition and the necessity of progress based on pragmatic considerations are both social goods. There are many ways of approaching this delicate but absolutely necessary balancing act for religious and indeed all human behaviors are situated within a large and complex cultural environment. In America, we have inherited a democratically established constitution which has set rules, imperfect no doubt but agreed to by the majority, of how the members of our society are to negotiate and adjudicate differences among individuals and within larger communities or even geographic separate venues. At the other end of the spectrum there are concepts of authority which, to put the matter baldly, involve considerable subordination of personal choice to an established but not democratically determined hegemony. Such authorities come in various flavors, of course, self- appointed tyrants, traditional (that word again) leaders, whether hereditary, priestly or elitist, and then there is a broad category of leaders who are only temporarily authoritative, empowered by election, appointment or even by popular acclaim. Religious leaders in particular, for example, may be variously understood as ordained and therefore imbued with a special spiritual capacity or, alternatively, as sympathetic and wise pastoral leaders, or even more limitedly as hired officials.


As American Jews we experience and, I might even say, we profit from a tolerable amount of tension - call it a balance, between all of the above modes of religious guidance -prescription, leadership,  personal example and the availability of our entirely voluntary participation. We are accustomed to say that we live in a free country, and it is certainly the case that the considerable degree of social and geographical mobility we enjoy allows us de facto freedom from imposed human authority over matters of religious observance. Nevertheless, here we are on Rosh Hashana, a congregation, a group of people, who both individually and collectively have chosen for a variety of reasons to repeat traditional prayers, set to familiar melodies. Jews are said to be a chosen people bound to a halacha divinely initiated and and interpretable only by authoritative ancestors. Yet it seems obvious to me that in fact, in America, we might more properly be termed a choosing people, having freely opted to follow this halakhic path at a time and in a place where the options available to us are extremely varied. Thus to return to the original conundrum posed by Rabbi Agishtein, shall we see ourselves as totally bounded by tradition, or are we independent operatives who may freely modify our own path forward?


Rosh Hashana initiates עשרת ימי תשובה, ten days of teshuva, of repentance. The ordinary meaning of the English word “repentance” is an experience of sorrow, regret, and contrition which often extends to acts that can ameliorate and reverse these feelings and this state of being. Repentance implies an awareness that we have previously done something wrong, or at least failed to do what is right; the structure of our prayers certainly emphasizes this idea. The English prefix “re” means to do something again, to return, usually to a point where we’ve been previously. But the second particle of the word repentance comes from the Latin, poena, meaning a penalty, or in Greek, poini, meaning a fine. It’s interesting, therefore, that repentance is in its English philological derivation is very close to the concept of כפרה which basically means the annulment or expiation of guilt through paying a penalty. This was explicit in the ancient  יום כפור ritual of sending of a kid to Azazel or more currently in the symbolic ritual of כפרות whereby we offer a penalty of money, or symbolically sacrifice a chicken to foster abrogation of sin. Through this and other processes of כפרה, of repentance, we hope to achieve atonement, more properly to be pronounced and understood as an at-one-ment, a reconciliation with our proper relationship to Hashem.


Interestingly, the Hebrew noun תשובה, and the English noun “return”, both seem also to be based on a backward directed approach to life, for the root שוב itself means “return”. As a verb, תשובה, to come again seems a bit more forwardly oriented and, even more positively, the same word תשובה, again as a noun means an “answer”. Even so, in both the Hebrew and English expressions, repentance and תשובה, we are left with a preponderant sense of our responsibilities to an established tradition, to orthodoxy, which literally means the “correct opinion”, the already accepted, established, authoritative, mandatory set of beliefs and practices.


So where do we find room for the idea of progress, in Rabbi Agishtein’s sense of the word, the idea that we ought to actively seek to change ourselves in some positive way going forward and not merely look backward to repent of our sins and return to a presumption of rectitude exemplified by our ancestral traditions ? The Hebrew word קדמה  (Kidmah) in the Bible means “front”, but  the very same word קדמה  (Kidmah) in the specific sense of “progress” is a late-comer to the Hebrew language; it was coined only a hundred years ago by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Of course, the shoresh קדם (kodem) among other things means to be in front and both it and cognates in many Semitic languages, such as Aramaic, Syriac, Akkadian and Arabic, carry the connotation of boldness, advancing in attack as in the well known military command - קדימה, “Forward!” The interesting thing, though, is that both in Hebrew and in English the very idea of going forward remains also linked to the notion of “before”… so that קדם (kodem) is not only to be in front and charging into battle, but to remain situated “before”, just as the English root “fore” underlies the concepts both of “before” and of “forward”.


This etymological excursus may seem a bit arcane but it appears to me to underlay, to support, to confirm, a profound ancient social understanding. Progress, invention, change, the future is obviously continuous with, but also utterly dependent upon, the past. The idea that some have of progress as a kind of radical freedom, that would detach individuals or societies from their past, is thus shown to be impossible both linguistically as well as practically. Continuity, the traditions whereby past experiences become the basis of an evolving future is the necessary matrix in which our lives take on meaning, within which we must all therefore inevitably exist. Tradition, Mesorah, halacha, if you prefer the term, is not only desirable but fundamental to human existence, but so is change.


But having hammered that point home, let us again return to our rabbi’s musar – how shall we change ourselves during the coming year, presumably in a positive way, without contravening the established tradition. How to balance halacha with an imperative to adapt personally and collectively to the changing circumstances in which we find ourselves. Some sectarians strongly resist change; Amish and certain Hassidic sects come to mind, but for the rest of us who resist constraint by such specific visions of the past, let us ask ourselves - what forward looking choices are available to us, what watchwords will guide us toward the balance that our Rabbi has urged between our formal religious obligations and the desire to improve ourselves and our world?.


Let me offer a couple of possible suggestions, Conscience and Creativity, based on the recommendations of  two distinguished modern rabbis. One of them is my cousin, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died a couple of years ago in his 90th year. A student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was a graduate of both Yeshiva University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, and became a pulpit rabbi in California where for more than sixty years he encouraged Jews to try to act more positively. Based on the positive principle of hakarat haTov, he founded the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, to urge that American Jews accept a previously unrecognized obligation to support gentiles who had risked their lives to help Jews during World War II. He was also a founder of what became known as the chavurah movement to inspire ordinary Jews to be more than passive participants in Jewish synagogue life and ritual. In his book “Conscience:The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey”, my cousin cited many well-known Biblical examples of our patriarchs and prophets arguing with Hashem in matters of conscience based on their human understanding of ethical principles. He cites Nehama Leibowitz’s observation that whenever the phrases Yiras Elohim, or Yiras Hashem, the fear of Hashem, appears in Torah they refer to the conscience of the individual for only the individual conscience can know whether a particular action is done in good or in bad faith. Rabbi Schulweis then points out that there is no equivalent expression of Yiras Torah for Torah has been given by Hashem but it is not to be seen as equal to his totality. The distinction between Hashem’s eternal existence and the instructions we have been vouchsafed in the form of written and oral Torah leaves room for and indeed demands, the exercise of human conscience.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, called by generations of his students the “Rav”, in his 1944 book “Ish HaHalacha” (Halachic Man), somewhat similarly, dwells on man’s capacity for creativity as a necessary complement to the creation we have inherited. The Rav understands Hashem’s infinite holiness is some sense as having undergone contraction within the finite laws, standards and measures of our Torah (as suggested in Devarim 23:15 “For the Lord thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp…therefore shall thy camp be holy”. But he believes that the light stored up in the treasure house of our halacha allows, indeed directs us to undertake creative actions that can extend ourselves in holiness toward Hashem’s infinity. He reasons that if this were not so, Hashem have created us in his image and granted us freedom of choice, for He might otherwise have originally created a fully perfected world. Thus is our assigned to us, as explicitly stated in the words of the prayer we offer daily in Aleinu, לתקן עולם במלחות שדי, to prefect the world in Hashem’s kingdom.    


Conscience and creativity are thus two God-given capacities that we all possess and with which we can and, as Rabbis Agishtein, Schulweis and Soloveitchik have said we should, strive each day to improve ourselves, perfect our traditions and with them the world we are fortunate to inhabit.

                                                                                                                                                  Ira Rezak


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