What would Rav Soloveitchik say about “Creative Halachah”?

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Vayakel-Pekudei 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l related to "creative Halachah", "flexible Halachah", "new Halachah" and "meaningful Halachah", in his two lectures, “Zeh Sinai”, and “Sichah Le-Parashat Korach”, and it is as though they were just written today.

Here are a few of his comments:

“Our underlying foundation must be humility before the Master-of-the-Universe. A haughty person will never be able to become a great Torah scholar. We must accept G-d's will, without restraint, and not replace it with our own mundane, very utilitarian logic.”

“Our Sages use the expression ‘accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven’. What does the word ‘yoke’ add? “One who accepts the Kingdom of Heaven without its yoke can be doing so for convenience, or because it suits his own wishes. Undertaking the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven can sometimes be very inconvenient and burdensome.”

“In order to join the ranks of the Sages of our tradition, one must avoid trying to explain Torah law via external rationales. One must not judge or assess Torah laws according to a secular yardstick. Such an attempt, whether based on an historical or psychological interpretation, or deriving from a utilitarian approach, undermines the very foundation of Torah and tradition, and ultimately begets the most tragic results.”

“We must not surrender emotionally. We must not feel inferior. We must not develop an inferiority complex. Anyone suffering from such a complex is surrendering to the transient charm of modern, political or ideological slogans. I say that not only must we not compromise – certainly not that – but twe mustn’t even surrender emotionally or feel inferior. It is forbidden for anyone who undertakes the yoke of Heaven to ever think it is important to collaborate to the slightest degree with the modern, secular, philosophical trend.  I believe that Judaism has no need to apologize either before the modern woman or before the modern representatives of religious subjectivism (which argues for a ‘personal truth’).”  We mustn’t try to adapt the eternal halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society.”

“Undertaking the yoke of Heaven requires us to attain the traits of respect and love, and to admire the words of the Sages of our tradition, be they from the Mishnah, the Talmud or medieval times. In every case, they are the ultimate authorities. Irresponsible expressions against our Sages verge on heresy.”

“I bear witness to the fact that modern life is very complex. I know your problems…We are facing terrifying social, cultural, political and economic problems; problems within the family, the community; and problems of society in general. We sometimes feel as though we are swimming against the current, and that it is moving swiftly via an external force, in the opposite direction from our own… The vast majority have abandoned us. We face an enormous challenge, but if you think the solution lies in a reformist philosophy, or in an external interpretation of Halachah, you are making a heinous error.”

“Obviously, many problems cannot be solved… If we say to dissident Jews, ‘This is our position,’ they won’t like it. They will say that we are inflexible, that we are cruel. Yet they will admire us.”

“The Torah calls upon the Jew to lead a life of great valor, a life of self-sacrifice.”

“Yet to say that the Torah is inflexible regarding problems, that it does not respond to people’s needs, is absolutely false. Halachah is indeed responsive both to the needs of the community and to those of the individual, but proceeds along its own route…with its own criteria and principles.”

“Believe me, [my grandfather] Rav Chaim Soloveitchik used to do his utmost to be lenient. Yet there are limits even to the leniencies of Rav Chaim. When you reach the limit, all you can say is, ‘I surrender to the supreme will of Eternal G-d.’”

“To talk about Halachah as if it were fossilized, G-d forbid, is ridiculous… We are against changes, but novel thinking is certain the very backbone of Jewish law. Novel thinking is endemic to the system, not external to it.”

“Korach rebelled against the authority of Halachah. He said, ‘All Jews are equal!  Therefore, every Jew has the right to interpret Jewish law.’

“What Korach wanted, and what many Jews want now… is that the Torah’s exegetical tool should be common sense, the empirical knowledge of daily living, man’s normal intellect.”

“The Oral Law cannot be identified with common sense…. It has its own methodology… Anyone who knows what the Oral Law is knows this.  Are you familiar with the Women’s Liberation Movement? With complaints against the Oral Torah, against our Halachah, claiming that it deprives the woman, that the woman is unequal to the man in Jewish law? There are rabbis who are willing to surrender in order to appease several female knights of Women’s Liberation. Basically, anyone who has studied Torah as a child, and knows the Pentateuch well, anyone who has studied the Talmud, knows that this accusation constitutes slander, since the Torah states in Bereshit that G-d created man in G-d’s image, that He created man male and female. Thus, equality is a given."

"Let me explain the approach of those who advocate ‘common sense Halachah’. It doesn’t matter what they call it. Whether they call it ‘meaningful Halachah’, or ‘creative Halachah’, or ‘the new Halachah’… they are errantly being led by a simplistic philosophical doctrine that includes half-truths and false clichés. They are enlisting…a theory about subjective religiosity.   When I hear people talking about ‘meaningful Halachah’, about “ending halachic stagnation’, about ‘empirical Halachah’, I know what they mean… precisely what Korach and his followers had in mind.”

“Obviously, Moshe won…Korach’s congregation admitted in the end, “Moshe is the truth and his Torah is the truth’.”