Reb Zalman was a strong advocate for the halachic process. Most of us know that he developed a new halachic principle which he called “The Psycho-Halachic Process” and which we now call Integral Halachah. But we are less familiar and also less comfortable with his corollary that contemporary halachah also needs to be backwards compatible.
As part of the coursework in the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, we assign a series of lectures given by R. Ethan Tucker at Mechon Hadar, originally titled something like “Core Issues in Halachah.” In the first of these lectures (to which I strongly encourage you to listen if you haven’t already), he makes the point that, if we are going to consult with our predecessors before making recommendations to the people who inquire of us, then we need to keep an open mind and a willingness to be influenced by them.
It’s possible that R. Tucker meant that, by keeping open the willingness to be influenced, we are allowing for the possibility that we will choose to accept the decisions of these predecessors and opt for a more traditional lifestyle. And, if so, it is also possible that this is what constrains many of us from consulting these sources, since advocates of this approach are really expecting us to see the wisdom of the past and adopt it for ourselves. In other words, the more I consult with the past, the more conservative my practice will become and this is an outcome which we know intuitively is not the one we most need. It is equally possible, of course, that R. Tucker didn’t have this as an ulterior motive and is open to being influenced by the past in other ways as well.
Some years ago, Reb Zalman challenged what he saw as too much leniency in our conversion process, to the point where he said that if we did not put a tallit kattan on a Jew by choice as he (in this case) emerged from the mikveh, then we had done nothing. (And, when I challenged him in return, he said that he truly meant what he said literally and not figuratively.) Now, after several years of study and work, I’m attaching a draft of the preface to what has become a multi-sectioned book written in response to his challenge. Over these years, I have had the opportunity to consult with many sources, both primary and secondary. As will be pointed out in the pages of the book, Reb Zalman favoured the renewal of the Ger Toshav as an alternative to a full conversion where it was clear that the person did not really want to become a fully practicing Jew. He wanted to see an alternative which honoured the person’s desire to be part of a local Jewish community at arm’s length. He was also quite clear that becoming a ger toshav was not permission to marry a Jew.
The more I searched the sources, the more I realized that the argument over standards for conversion was not simply about whether the rabbi made it easy or hard. Even more surprising was that there exists an ongoing discussion of the ger toshav and its applicability to changed circumstances which is mistakenly portrayed as having been settled by the Rambam. Thus, the more I learned, the more open I became to a different way of looking both at the process of giyur itself and at the possibility of a renewed ger toshav. As someone who had not officiated at marriages between a Jew and a non-Jew, my own position has become much more open and flexible as a result of this consultation with both predecessors and contemporaries.
This book will be the subject of this year’s halachah plenary and a follow-up workshop at OHALAH and, over the next few weeks, I hope to attach drafts of the subsequent units for you to review.
Blessings to all as we move through the remainder of Av and approach the season of our individual and communal introspection.
Zalman on Student T’shuvot: