In a world where for every rabbinical will, there is a halachkic way, what do we do to answer questions about that which is new? Where do we find the rulings that allows one to live life in the real, current world? In the following ideas I wish to illuminate one path.
In size and scope, as well as organization, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah ranks among the greatest and most innovative Jewish legal texts of all time. In its day, it was ground-breaking for its novel system of codifying halakhah. In the more than 800 years since its composition, it remains matchless in its “lucidity and breadth”. By his own account, Maimonides invested ten years of incessant drafting, revising, and editing in this work.
The idyllic world of the Mishnah, however, is not a world of uniformity; far from it. The vast majority of passages in the Mishnah contains a dispute between different rabbinic sages. When does one begin the morning prayers? How does one constitute a Jewish marriage? How much drawn water invalidates a ritual bath? On all of these issues and on thousands of similar issues, the Mishnah includes various opinions. The trouble we have today is that the modern world, the world of technology and tolerance, has yet to see its Maimonides. We don’t have an updated Mishneh Torah. So what do we do? Let’s look closer at what one can do with the law.
Let us work toward the idea that instead of using the law to isolate, we can find ways in the law to make society more open and more tolerant. Where the law is intolerant, let us find justifications for how it can be changed. This leads to questions we must ask about Mishnah. Why are the opinions of the minority included with the opinions of the majority even though the law is not like them? This may be so that a later court can examine their words and might also rely upon them. (Mishnah Eduyot 1:3).
While one could determine law based upon the Mishnah, its intention was to train the sages in thinking through the legal issues that inform the halakhah. Similarly in history each sage, according to his own potential, would write notes for himself of what he heard regarding the explanation of the Torah, its laws, and the new concepts that were deduced in each generation concerning laws that were not communicated by the oral tradition. Using this knowledge base one can deduce and answer new questions of law by using the principles of “biblical exegesis”, that is, critical explanation and interpretation of text.
If we take a look at this line of logic one can see a path toward an answer to many problems of the interpretations of halakhah. The technology generation must learn what has been written by the sages before and try to apply it to life. In our attempts to understand such massive amounts of information we are bound to make our own annotations. In a society such as ours, a globalized tech driving world, we must work to create something like Maimonides work. Just as he took a large amount of complicated and outdated literature and coded it, we must work to insure we do the same. We must continue the quest for critical explanations. In short, “instead of looking to halachka to know what to do, look instead to the problems we have and use halachka for inspiration on how to solve them”.