The Freehof Blog Texts, Sources, Opinions, and Arguments
What Contemporary Bioethics Can Learn from Progressive Halakhah October 21, 2020
It is the fall of 2020, the beginning of the Jewish year 5781, and the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating. We await a vaccine, wondering about its effectiveness and about whether the world’s governments can organize properly to manufacture it in massive quantities and to distribute it efficiently and equitably. There is much we do not know about the future, but one thing we can say with certainty is that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. [more]
How Much is a "K'zayit"? You Be the Judge April 7, 2020
With everything else you have to worry about these days (“these days,” for those who may come across this entry in the distant future, are the days of the COVID-19 pandemic and worldwide social distancing), one thing that you should not worry about is the precise amount of matzah that you need to eat in order to fulfill the mitzvah at the seder. [more]
COVID-19 as Sha`at Hadaḥak (A Time of Urgency) April 6, 2020
Jewish law, like other legal systems, makes provisions for times of urgency or emergency, commonly referred to as sha`at hadaḥak (שעת הדחק).[ The current coronavirus pandemic would certainly seem to qualify as sha`at hadaḥak, particularly in light of the regime of social distancing and stay-in-place that has been forced upon us. So much of Jewish religious life assumes the setting of a community, the presence of a minyan, yet this has become impossible given the restrictions placed on social gatherings. How are halakhic thinkers coping with the challenge of permitting virtual communities to serve as the equivalent of physical ones? <more
Coronavirus, the Halakhah, and the Counsel of Experts March 13, 2020
At this writing, the COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Tough measures are being taken around the world to deal with the disease, whether to contain or to mitigate its spread, and to attempt to cushion its economic impact. Travel restrictions and quarantines are in effect in North America and Israel; schools and universities have moved to online instruction; large public gatherings have been banned. This crisis is a test of our ability, as individuals and as communities, to come together to do what is necessary to preserve the public health and to calm the rising fear that many are feeling.
Is there a particularly halakhic insight that might be helpful to us at this time? [more]
Halakhic, Liberal, and Secular? August 14, 2019
In a recent interview with the Times of Israel, Dr. Andrew Rehfeld speaks of his vision for HUC-JIR, the Reform movement’s seminary and intellectual center, now that he has assumed the presidency of the institution. The discussion is wide-ranging and fascinating. Dr. Rehfeld, an associate professor of political science at Washington University who left academia to head the Jewish Federation of St. Louis from 2012-2019, is the first non-rabbi to serve as president of HUC-JIR. As such, he brings a new perspective to the job, which can be a gooding: “It’s very hard for organizations in the middle of dynamic shifts to make them from within, so I think there is a greater opportunity not just for me, but for anyone coming from the outside.” We agree. New perspectives carry in their wake new opportunities for learning and growth. And it’s in that spirit that we offer the following comments. <more>
Compulsory Immunization April 29, 2019
The measles outbreak in the United States, so closely associated with opposition to immunization within the haredi (right-wing Orthodox) community (https://www.haaretz.com/…/.premium-anti-vaxxers-anti-semiti… ), raises the question: is there a legitimate Jewish religious – i.e., halakhic – objection to the immunization of children? The answer, in a word, is “no,” a position shared by the major denominational groupings: <more>
Two Cheers for the Chief Rabbi December 17, 2015
We tend on this blog to be rather critical of the established (= Orthodox) rabbinate in Israel. so it's only proper to congratulate that august institution when it does something right. <more>
Conversion? What Conversion? November 30, 2015
Another day, another outrage from the ḥaredi rabbinate. This time, it's a decision by a Jerusalem beit din (rabbinical court) annulling a conversion to Judaism which took place over thirty years ago. The conversion, in other words, legally never happened. You can read the details here (and here, in Hebrew). One of the more sordid of these is that the head of the beit din, Rabbi Ḥayyim Yehudah Rabinowitz (that's him in the middle of the picture), is currently embroiled in charges of corruption surrounding his conduct of the court. <more>
In our last post, we examined a statement that appeared on a Reform Jewish website. The statement declared that "Jewish values" support current efforts to do away with the mandatory criminal sentencing regime in the United States, in particular the heavy sentences handed down to non-violent drug offenders. We argued that, aside from the merits of the proposed reform, the "values" that the statement cited (the verse Deuteronomy 16:20 - "Justice, justice you shall pursue") amount to little more than a nebulous slogan and that any substantive support that does exist in Jewish tradition is most likely to be found in the halakhah, the texts and sources of Jewish law.
All right - so who's going to volunteer to conduct a study of the vast corpus of the halakhic literature in search of that support? <more>
A recent post on a website sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism urges Reform Jews to support the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123). Introduced in the United States Senate with impressive bipartisan support, the bill limits the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences especially for nonviolent drug offenders. The goal is to deal with the problems of over-criminalization and mass incarceration (the US leads the world in incarceration, both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the population). The post notes that the draconian penalties now imposed upon even nonviolent drug offenders fall disproportionately upon persons of color, though they as a group are no more likely than white people to use or sell illegal drugs. This clear racial disparity, the post says, is an offense against "Jewish values," which is a reason why Jews in particular ought to support the reform effort.
That's clearly a worthy goal. But troubles us is the way in which the URJ post justifies its claim that sentencing reform is in accord with "Jewish values". <more>
Rabbi Sh’lomo b. Adret (Rashba / רשב”א, d. 1310 in Barcelona) was one of the outstanding rishonim, or “early” (pre-16th century) rabbinical writers. His Talmud commentaries (ḥidushim) are regarded as classics of the genre and are standard features of the yeshiva curriculum. Rashba was also a recognized halakhic authority, and his collected responsa (t’shuvot), numbering in the thousands, cover the entire range of Jewish law and practice.
One responsum of his (vol. 1, no. 215) is especially timely for rabbis and cantors at the Yamim Nora’im, the High Holiday season. Here’s the question (sh’eilah): <more>
The latest round of the conversion wars in Israel is more than simply politics, the attempt to entice ḥaredi parties into a razor-thin Knesset majority. When we look at it closely, we find a case of progressive halakhah at work, an example of how rabbis not at all associated with the progressive Jewish movements can nonetheless utilize progressive halakhic thinking to solve problems and to relieve human suffering... <more>