Jewish worshipper with torah scroll sukkot Reuters Sept. 26, 2010
Jewish worshipper holds a Torah scroll at the Western Wall on Sukkot, Sept. 26, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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An old parable tells of six men who were brought into a dark room with an elephant. They were told to touch the object in the room and determine what it is. The men began touching the elephant’s body. The one who touched its leg said, ‘It’s a pillar.’ The one who touched its trunk said, “It’s a water spout.” Each man thought that the part they were touching was an object of its own; none could imagine the whole majestic creature that was actually in front of them.

Jewish legal (or “Halachic”) authorities often act like this. Preoccupied with systemic rules, rabbis ignore the people whose lives depend on the decisions they make. They become engrossed with coldly calculating facts while forgetting the loving, compassionate, and just God who is supposed to be the source of their authority in the first place. Focusing on parts and ignoring the whole, rabbis make Halacha, in the words of Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, “more like a chess game than a system of religious striving.”

For instance, the reluctance of Orthodox rabbis to find ways for "agunot" (women legally bound to marriages that, for all practical purposes, are over) to remarry strikes me as a particularly egregious example of rabbis focusing on systemic rules over human need and Divine demand. To be fair, though, the malady is not unique to the right: we in the liberal Jewish world sometimes also mistake the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, a recent debate I observed in a meeting of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS). The CJLS was discussing a "teshuvah" (legal opinion) on whether a deaf community may hold a fully ritualized public Torah reading in sign language.

Last year, the CJLS unanimously accepted a teshuvah that conferred equal status to deaf Jews in virtually every other area of Jewish practice: observing the commandments, counting in a "minyan", and worshipping using sign language. The CJLS left the question of reading Torah in Sign Language unresolved, however, because they lacked of consensus on whether Sign Language is considered reading or a translation.

For the Committee’s latest meeting, Rabbi Pamela Barmash, the author of both teshuvot, invited well-respected members of the deaf community to give expert testimony. With the help of Sign Language interpreters, the expert witnesses passionately and eloquently addressed the committee.

Following their testimony, the committee members began to wrestle over the finer legal issues raised by the teshuvah, especially the “reading versus translation” debate. After about an hour of legalistic wrangling, one witness stood up and, through his interpreter, made this plea: “What I and the deaf community want are to have the same rights and opportunities as the hearing community. We want to be able to access the word of God the only way we can. Please,” he said, his passion and pain clear, “let us have Torah, too. That’s all we ask.”

Thankfully, the witness’ cries helped persuade the committee to approve the teshuvah. One of the committee’s members, Rabbi Aaron Alexander, reflected that the CJLS showed their commitment to “inclusion and near-equal access to Torah” for all. Indeed, the final vote reflects the rule rather than the exception: the CJLS demonstrates time and again that it approaches halachah with loyalty to the tradition and a love for both God and people. And it must be acknowledged: even those members who were doubtful that Sign Language could technically count as an official Torah reading seemed to be struggling to find a legal justification to make it so.

But too often, many rabbinic authorities of all stripes give into the temptation to focus on parts of the halachic tradition while ignoring the whole majestic creature that encompasses God, Torah, and People.

This is why the Talmud teaches that “a rabbinic judge only has what his or her eyes see” (Bava Batra 130b). A rabbi, in Jewish law, is not allowed to make halachic decisions by thinking about issues theoretically or abstractly. Rather, a rabbi must train himself to see the real lives in front of him – in their totality, in their need – and rule with awareness of and sensitivity to those lives. When rabbis focus only on the legal minutiae, when they treat judgment as a simple equation or as a game, they can become oblivious to the whole.

The challenge, then, is whether rabbis can restore God and people to their rightful place within the greater halachic whole. A halachah that focuses only on rules and precedent while remaining insensitive to human need and apathetic to the lure of the Divine is not halachah at all. There are reasons why such an approach to Jewish law, though perhaps inauthentic, was once compelling. But in our time a disembodied halachah is not only illegitimate, it is also undesirable. Jews will no longer conform to a halachah that is divorced from their sense of what a benevolent God would urge, or that ignores the legitimate needs of people. Nor should they. Our people need leaders who recognize the elephant in the room.

Michael Knopf is the Assistant Rabbi of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and a recent graduate of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.