How can the average Reform Jew be expected to have enough knowledge to interpret Jewish law without guidance from learned rabbis?

Answered by
Rabbi Ramie Arian

If Reform Judaism is about making informed choices, how can the average Reform Jew be expected to have enough knowledge to interpret Jewish law without guidance from learned rabbis?

Clearly, interpretation needs to be based on knowledge. And yes, obviously, that knowledge is present especially among the learned. That is all true, but it is not enough.

Jewish interpretation, and not only the interpretation, but the very agenda of what is of to be interpreted, requires interaction with the real world. Otherwise, we run the risk of creating interpretations that are book-wise but counterproductive in practice. Judaism's interpretive tradition is profoundly conservative by definition. No teacher is permitted, traditionally, to overturn a ruling by a previous sage, unless he is greater in learning. And that is presumed (by definition) to be nearly impossible, since the earlier teacher was nearer (chronologically) to Sinai, and hence presumed to have a more authoritative tradition.

Narrow interpretation in that way is profoundly maladaptive in eras of radical social and historical change in the world. Great turning points in history have required courageous, mold-breaking leadership, which was not afraid to interpret the tradition in radically new ways. Such was the generation, for example, of Yohanan ben Zakkai at Yavneh (who enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple).

The 20th century has brought multiple prescedent-shattering crises to the Jewish world. Political emancipation, large-scale confrontation with modernity, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel: any one of these alone would have been an earth-shaking crisis for world Jewry. To claim, as some of my ultra-Orthodox colleagues do, that the Holocaust happened because Reform Jews in Germany in the 1930's were not sufficiently punctilious in repairing their mezuzot, is insulting, obviously inadequate as an explanation for the historical reality of the Holocaust, and patently a mis-interpretation of the situation. Yet this interpretation comes out of halachically observant, learned sages, and is taught in the name of Torah and truth to thousands of disciples in the Yeshiva world.

Is this a more reasonable, more reliable method of interpretation than what I claim?

So-called "Torah-true" interpretation puts high on the agenda of today's discussion such pressing issues as whether lettuce or broccoli can ever be truly kosher, given that it is nearly impossible to wash all the microscopic insect matter out of them. So-called "Torah-true" interpretation carefully follows the letter of the law, while sometimes completely missing its spirit. Such interpretation, for instance, allows the creation of kosher for Passover bagel mix, cake mix, pizza, even burritos: Is this truly the "bread of affliction" that our ancestors ate in Egypt?

I aver that interpretation requires knowledge, learning. I aver that no one has the right blindly to "do whatever they want" Jewishly without a solid basis in understanding the tradition. I acknowledge the value of Torah, as it has traditionally been interpreted, as a guiding voice in determining a correct interpretation for today.

Yet Torah (as traditionally interpreted) needs to be in dialogue with modernity (that is, with the modernity of whatever age it is), in order to make sense of "what God wants us to do". And there are many sensitive persons who are able to perceive God's voice in the world in diverse ways. And I (and other rabbis like me) don't have a monopoly on truth.