Taking the Law into Our Own Hands

For thousands of years, no matter where Jews lived, their lives were guided by halacha, Jewish law (a word deriving from the Hebrew verb for “to walk”). Like a Constitution though covering the whole range of human experience, halacha has grown, changed and evolved by a process in which decisions on individual cases or questions became precedents and thus, “law.”

The process of halachic decision making has generally involved an individual’s submitting a question to a rabbi (or by a rabbi to a well-known sage, if the question was thorny enough) for a decision or “responsum” (pi.: responsa) from such a religious arbiter.

Although many of the questions and answers or responsa concerned women’s lives, both as Jews and as women, women were never officially designated or regarded as religious arbiters. Halacha has thus lacked input from a women’s perspective and is to a certain extent unresponsive to women’s needs.

With the development of a body of Jewish women scholars conversant with halacha, it is now possible to change this situation—radically.

One might ask: why bother in this day and age to repair a system that has been unresponsive to women’s needs, certainly to modem women’s needs? The answer might lie, in the final analysis, in love of Torah, of Jewish law and learning, from the Five Books of Moses, to the Talmud, to the Codes and the hundreds of volumes of responsa (most of them, incidentally, now on computer).

As Judge Learned Hand once observed, law is a great educator. Halacha, because it covers areas beyond even common law, has shaped and formed Jewish life and culture (in the anthropological sense of the term) for 5,000 years, defining what behavior and practices are “Jewish.” Whether one observes halacha in its entirety or partly or not at all, we are all nonetheless deeply affected by it whether or not we know it or wish it. And the principles and values on which halacha is based, which it anchors and solidifies in deeds, are as important and relevant and meaningful today as they were thousands of years ago.

Moreover, halacha has built-in mechanisms of change, of responsiveness to different situations, that were always employed to deal with new problems—whether in the Golden Age of Spain or Poland under the Czars.

The problem, therefore, is not with halacha itself but with those who have appointed themselves today’s religious arbiters. Fearful of change generally, and of that relating to women in particular, they have frozen halacha into ossification and then called that frozen fossil “halacha.”

It is time for a change, for new leadership, new interpretations, new religious decisions.

With this in mind, LILITH has decided to launch a column of questions and answers on issues covered by halacha. Since the areas halacha deals with range from civil and criminal law to holiday observances to personal relationships, such questions —which we invite you to submit—can cover a vast territory. We expect that most of them will deal with issues that are particularly relevant to women’s lives because it is these areas that have been most ignored and undeveloped. Questions should be as specific and detailed as possible. Names, of course, will be withheld upon request.

Our religious arbiters will be women scholars of note whose responsa will, we hope, create new precedents and open new vistas in halachic development. In time, we hope as well, their decisions will be incorporated into the stream of halacha, helping to break the log-jam and allow Jewish law to flow freely and be a fountain of life once more.