Halakhic Creativity: An Intercepted Letter
We are writing to update you on the recent activities of the newly formed Society for Halakhic Creativity, Innovation, and Renewal. This umbrella organization – known by its acronym, SHICR – was created by the merger of the various Jewish groups devoted to creative and innovative halakha. Representing the broad Jewish spectrum – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and beyond – the Society promises to introduce fresh and imaginative ideas into halakhic discourse.
In its brief existence, SHICR has already rendered trail-blazing decisions on several crucial issues in Jewish life. Below is an update on recent activities that offer an insight into the scope of our work.
- DAILY PRAYER: A man submitted the following question to our office: It is frequently quite difficult for him to don his tefillin, recite the morning prayers, and eat his breakfast, all in the short span of time that is available between his getting out of bed until he leaves for work. Would he be permitted occasionally to skip his tefillin and prayers if he has a particularly important business appointment at an early hour?
Predictably, most traditionalist decisors would be insensitive to the needs of this questioner. A typically hidebound response would undoubtedly suggest that the man get up earlier. Some decisors might even go so far as to suggest that he abbreviate or entirely skip his breakfast. But such a response displays complete callousness, and would only turn a contemporary Jew away from his heritage.
It is the view of SHICR, however, that the challenge for Judaism today is to show the compassionate face of halakha. By applying the newest tools of halakhic jurisprudence, our creative halakhists propounded the innovative view that Judaism is a religion of life, which means that a person should not only get a good night’s sleep, but also a hearty breakfast. This is embodied in the Torah law, “and you shall guard your well being”(Deut.4:15), which stresses the crucial importance of preserving one’s good health. When the requirements for tefillin and/ or prayer prevent a good night’s sleep and a full breakfast, the Torah’s intent is quite clear: health concerns clearly override the requirements of tefillin and prayer. In our case, the issue is made even more urgent by the potential for monetary loss – to which the sensitive decisor applies the additional principles of compassion that are an integral part of the Torah.
- YOM KIPPUR FASTING: In the times of the Torah, when food was not plentiful, the act of fasting did not negatively affect one’s well-being, since in any case people often went without food. However, because of the abundant food in contemporary society, fasting is a clear health hazard. In a bold decision, the committee ruled that it is sufficient to refrain from eating breakfast on Yom Kippur morning. This decision resulted from a subtle analysis of the source passage for Yom Kippur fasting: “you shall afflict your souls” (Lev. 16:31). In contemporary times, the skipping of breakfast is a true affliction – as will be attested to by anyone who has missed his morning coffee – and therefore meets the Torah’s requirements to abstain from food on Yom Kippur.
- FAMILY PURITY LAWS: A woman’s use of the mikveh during the winter months – when she is subject to harsh winds and bitter cold after emerging from a wet mikveh – presents a clear health hazard. In a creative application of the Torah’s health laws as well as a classic illustration of halakhic compassion, the committee has determined that, in the winter months, a woman is permitted to use the shower in the comforts of her own home in lieu of a mikveh. (Summer use of the shower, however, will depend on the weather and is under current study.)
- KASHRUT: It is quite difficult in today’s society to maintain ancient kashrut practices. Business lunches, conferences, and travel are greatly compromised by dietary constraints, with obvious negative effects on one’s livelihood. SHICR has therefore issued a landmark decision, in keeping with the Torah’s concern for one’s financial well-being: kashrut need only be observed at home on Friday nights.
- PASSOVER: In the same spirit, SHICR has ruled that the restrictions of hametz on Passover apply only to the Seder itself, since a full week’s regimen of Matza clearly has a deleterious effect on one’s digestive system. Based on this creative reasoning, SHICR has ruled that bread and its derivatives – which are so necessary to the Jew’s Quality of Life – are permissible during the balance of Passover.
- SHABBAT: A prominent business leader writes that he must urgently attend to certain business matters that can only be done in his office on Shabbat. The office is twenty miles from his home. Many thousands of dollars are at stake each Shabbat if he does not drive to his office, turn on his computer, and make a number of calls to various brokers.
The traditional halakhic response would certainly be that he may not violate the Shabbat even it means a monetary loss. But creative halakha is very sensitive, has great rabbinic will, and is therefore able to find a rabbinic way. Accordingly, our innovative halakhic specialists reasoned as follows: A)the Torah clearly would not want its adherents to suffer large financial losses. B) Such losses could affect the emotional health of the individual. C) This would be a violation of the Torah’s own rules about preserving life and health,since mental well-being is no less crucial than physical well-being. Based on these principles, the SHICR halakhic committee rendered its decision: in cases of great financial loss, the individual may drive to his office and engage in whatever needs to be done so that the Biblical injunction of life and health may be preserved.
These pivotal case histories mark a turning point in Jewish law. They demonstrate the power of courageous and imaginative halakhic thinking that can revitalize Jewish life. One can only visualize how attractive Judaism would be once its hardships are eliminated. Without the restrictive practices required by Shabbat, Kashrut, Passover, Yom Kippur, prayer, and other religious duties, we can boldly create a new kind of Judaism, one that would be irresistible to the masses of Jews who are today leaving our fold via assimilation and intermarriage.
As you can see, there is no limit to the contributions that SHICR can make to the renewal of our people. We ask your help and support so that we can continue to bring more fresh air into Jewish life. Only bold sensitivity, creative courage, and innovative compassion can provide the glue to hold Judaism together.
Please respond generously.
— The SHICR Family>
Please note that this was posted on Purim Katan, before assuming the organization described above actually exists.