With the emergence of Reform Judaism early in the nineteenth century…, appeal to the concepts of modernity and progress came to serve as the normative criterion for determining the value of Torah law. In the words of the third plank of the Pittsburgh Platform (1885): “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted the views and habits of modern civilization.” This statement of Reform Judaism in the nineteenth century demonstrates that the medieval rabbinic resistance to pursuing matters of human authorship was not unfounded. Subsequent history has shown that the traditional halakhic life is indeed endangered if the diachronic character of the Torah is openly and actively developed without any countervailing force. Concentration on the human authors could and, in this case, did detract from belief in the divine origin of the book. When a scripture comes to be seen as a product of culture, one that comes into existence through a long, variegated historical process, then the unity of the scripture – the simultaneity, self-referentiality, and mutual implication of all its parts – is thrown into doubt. As in the case of the third plank of the Pittsburgh Platform, the result is often a justification for the nonperformance of scriptural norms, in this instance, offensive or inconvenient Torah commandments (mitsvot). R. J. Zwi Werblowsky points out that “Liberal and Reform Judaism once welcomed Biblical criticism precisely [because] they found in criticism a welcome ally in their struggle to get rid of the Law and to substitute for it a purely ethical (and so-called ‘prophetic’) Judaism.” In fairness, however, it must also be noted that the perception of the Torah as an artifact of human culture that, like all others, reflects its own period led the liberals, in turn, to suspect that the totality of its norms could no longer be applied in the vastly different historical situation of modern Western Europe and America. As a contingent product of history, the Torah – or at least its superseded aspects – had to yield to the contingencies of history. To avoid the putative fossilization of the community, liberalism elected to fossilize large parts of the Torah, using historical methods to show that they are a dead letter. The theological liberals could do this only because they had shifted the locus of normativity from the text and the tradition onto the historical process, the dictates of autonomous reason, the conscience of the individual, and the like.

Jon D. Levenson, “The Eighth Principle of Judaism and the Literary Simultaneity of Scripture,” in The Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 75-76.

The direction of Israel education is lagging woefully behind the changes that have taken place among American Jewish youth. Although substantive changes are slowly taking place through the efforts of various institutions such as the Jewish Agency, the I-Center and others, it takes a long time to effect change in the field. In the end, people stick to what they are used to. Most of the teachers in today’s classrooms grew up and were educated themselves in the era of post-1967 knee-jerk connection to and support of Israel. Too often, we enter the classroom with the same falafel, Herzl, and “they-want-to-kill-us-but-they-can’t” narrative. Most of our students are simply not in this place.

Yigal Ariha and Laura Shaw Frank, “Ears that Can Hear: Israel Education for the Twenty-First Century,” Conversations Issue 10 (Spring 2011), 45.

Halacha’s successful adaptation to the needs of exile preserved the Jews for 2,000 years. But by stymieing its readaptation to the needs of revived Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, its most zealous adherents are doing it a disservice. Not only are they preventing it from fulfilling its original mission—i.e., providing Jewish solutions to the problems of a sovereign Jewish state—but they are also undervaluing the purpose of its exilic adaptation: The preservation of the Jewish people as a people. For if halacha continues to have nothing constructive to say about the burning issues confronting the modern Jewish people in its state, many Israelis may eventually become convinced that only by severing severing the state from its Judaism can it survive. Should that happen, of course, Israel will cease to be “Jewish” in any meaningful sense. And the disappearance of the world’s only Jewish state—even if the State of Israel were to physically survive—could prove as devastating for the Jewish people as the loss of its state was in 70 C.E.

Evelyn Gordon and Hadassah Levy, “Halacha’s Moment of Truth,” Azure, no. 43 (Winter 5771/2011), 82-83.

It remains to be seen what kind of political and cultural alliance can develop between (a) secularists who are more patient with religious liberals than the New Atheists are and (b) religious liberals themselves. And this is where the issue of giving religious ideas a “pass” has become especially difficult. Political liberals of secular orientation tend to give religious ideas a pass because they hope thereby to achieve issue-specific alliances with faithaffirming Americans on the environment, health care, foreign policy, taxation, and so on. Why mess things up by embarrassing the faithful and demanding that they repudiate more resoundingly their more conservative coreligionists? In the meantime, religious liberals are under constant attack from their conservative coreligionists for being on a slippery slope to secularism and are thus reluctant to break ranks with more conservative believers to an extent that secularists would find productive. Hence these religious liberals, too, prefer to seek issue-specific alliances with secular liberals and leave potentially divisive religious argumentation aside.

David A. Hollinger, “Religious Ideas: Should They Be Critically Engaged or Given a Pass?Representations #101 (2008), 151-152.

Halacha is the most characteristic and developed expression of Jewish thought. Although one cannot acquire a complete picture of the rabbinic mind without knowledge of midrash aggada, its rhetorical style, particularly its use of hyperbole, can make it an unreliable source of rabbinic theology. Jewish tradition has always expressed itself most rigorously through halacha. The rabbis of the Talmud are never more themselves than when they are operating in the realm of halacha.

Rabbi Ozer Glickman, “Think Local, Act Global: Tzedaka in a Global Society,” in Toward a Renewed Ethic of Jewish Philanthropy, ed. Yossi Prager (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2010), 276.

We also need to realize that guilt doesn’t work anymore. The escalating rate of intermarriage and the Holocaust are themes that do not motivate today’s teen. Kids can tell when we are there for them and when we are there for ourselves. If we are here for ourselves because we are worried about the future of the Jewish community, then why would they buy it?

Marc Fein, “Reaching the iPod Generation: NCSY Regional Directors Share Strategies on Raising Children to Love Judaism,” ed. Bayla Sheva Brenner, Jewish Action (Summer 5771/2011), 29.

Perhaps the moral fatigue of living in a pluralistic society, surrounded by many competing ethical systems, makes us long to turn to legislation as the master source of what is right and wrong. When we do this, consciously or unconsciously, we are inevitably disappointed in the law. A great many of these disappointments stem from the fact that we are looking for something that is not there: a coherent moral code. This disappointment is, in my opinion, to the greater good: as long as we are disappointed by law when we try to read it ethically, one hopes we will be less likely to mistake it for a moral code.

Alice Sturm, “The Amoral Law”, Hypocrite Reader, Issue 2 (March 2011).

Giving tzedakah offers us a tangible way to combine our agenda for social justice and preserve the Jewish people. In America, we have been blessed with wealth; we must use it to bring blessing on all Jews, America and the world.

Scott A. Shay, Getting our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem & New York: Devora Publishing, 2008), 252.

We are hindered in our ettorts to understand the Mishna and its relation to preceding traditions by our lack of evidence for exactly what Judah the Prince did with the earlier traditions and for what purpose. Albeck has claimed that he was writing a law code, others a textbook for study, others a suggestive summary of the law meant to lead the reader to other sources. See the outlines of theories in J. Neusner (ed.), Modern Study of the Mishnah.

Anthony J. Saldarini, “‘Form Criticism’ of Rabbinic Literature,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 96, No. 2 (June 1977), 264, n. 26.