“One of the most salient features of Orthodox Jewish life at the turn of the twenty-first century is the halakhic handbook designed for the layperson”

One of the most salient features of Orthodox Jewish life at the turn of the twenty-first century is the halakhic handbook designed for the layperson. For the past twenty or thirty years or so, it is this genre of religious literature (in Hebrew for Israelis and in English for Americans and other English speakers), and not the classics of the oral or written law in the original or in translation, that seems to dominate the displays in Jewish bookstores, sometimes to the exclusion of any other type of literature. In a 1994 essay, historian Haym Soloveichik characterized these guidebooks as one of the most important markers of a recent shift in the texture of Orthodox life and the accompanying religious atmosphere. In his view, they are an indication that the halakhic tradition is no longer a living lore conveyed mimetically in the household from parent to child or by observation of teachers and peers in street, synagogue and school; it has become, rather, “a text-based religiosity.”

One could make a case for the notion that these handbooks, by disseminating halakhic knowledge to laypersons who cannot or have not studied the Talmud and the classics of halakhic discourse intensively, provide them with tools to make decisions in matters on which they would once have deferred to rabbis. However, most of them comprise lists of “staccato,” unnuanced rulings concerning every conceivable halakhic eventuality, and thus, according to the social critique embodied in Soloveichik’s essay, they are limiting rather than empowering. As a consequence of their popularity, Soloveichik believes, the rich, organic traditions practiced by multitudes of families and communities, with their inherent natural diversity, have been challenged and uprooted on the basis of the written word and textual analysis, which is presented as monolithic. In the examples he cites, the “handbook” position is more stringent than the practices that preceded it, even though, as he convincingly shows, textual analysis could just as well have been employed to show that some of those practices themselves, particularly those associated with kashrut in the kitchen, were overly stringent. Soloveichik sees this development as a response to the rupture in Ashkenazi Jewish life engendered first by emancipation and then by the Holocaust. Authentically God-fearing Jews have no need to question the religious life that developed naturally in the household; it is those who have lost true piety who cling to the letter of the law as reflected in the written word.

The truth, however, is that a text-based religious life need not be less diverse than a mimetic one. The Babylonian Talmud, a text (albeit one based on oral tradition), consists primarily of diverse and radical interpretations of earlier texts and traditions. These are the fertile ground upon which all subsequent halakhic development grew, with its many variants and interpretations. In my opinion, the problem is not that the Passover handbook has replaced the family as the source for learning the rituals of Passover, but rather that it has replaced the individual’s reading of Pesahim, the Talmud tractate dealing with the laws of Passover. An unmediated encounter with the Talmud, and/or with a variety of interpretations of talmudic texts on a particular halakhic point, allows the individual autonomy in determining halakhic practice, based upon his or her own understanding of the texts and approach to observance; it confirms the timeless notion that Talmud Torah is not merely one of the 613 commandments, but rather a prerequisite for observing the other 612. Thus, a well-annotated halakhic guidebook, in which the rulings in the text are balanced by references to alternative rulings, does not disturb me in the slightest; it is a resource rather than a restrictive guide. Whether absorbing halakhah through this type of individual study is more or less “authentic” than the mimetic process described by Soloveichik is a matter of opinion and of one’s criteria for authenticity (it is certainly less in keeping with the Ashkenazi tradition), but it should be remembered that following the “rupture” described by Soloveichik, learning halakhah by example is not an option for many Jews committed to halakhic practice.

Moshe Benovitz, “A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life and Man and Woman: Guidance for Newlyweds (review),” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues vol. 12, no. 1 (2006), 311-313.