Secular Jews Seek Their Own Version of Halakha

Shai Zarhi and Itamar Lapid want to take the renaissance of secular interest in Judaism to an unprecedented level: Now that secular study centers (batei midrash), rituals and prayers have been developed, Zarhi and Lapid, both from the Midrasha at the kibbutz movement's Seminar Oranim (the secular beit midrash that helped pioneer the phenomenon), are talking about fashioning a secular halakha, or Jewish legal code - a detailed code that, like religious halakha, will include a punctilious formulation of dos and don'ts, according to secular principles. Lapid, to be precise, refers to an "Israeli halakha," because in his vision, religious people will be partners in shaping it as a shared platform.

Their idea is for the secular world, which now believes in maximum individual freedom, to adopt a worldview in which all areas of life are shaped by rules that bind everyone in the community - just like state laws, or halakhic laws for observant Jews. They are not talking, at least for now, about writing a secular Shulhan Arukh (one of the foremost Jewish legal codes), but about reconstructing the world of the Mishnaic sages, before halakha was fashioned into an obligatory rule book - multiple batei midrash discussing all areas of life and the correct way to live them.

Lapid explains: "More than I'm interested in answers, I'm interested in dealing with questions, but not just via principled debates about values; rather, by delving into the details of all areas of life - labor relations, the nature of holidays and Shabbat, rituals, etc. And I don't mean that only Talmidei Hachamim [scholars] should engage in this, but all sectors of society - teachers, soldiers, journalists, everyone."

To a certain extent, this is an expansion of Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak's slogan that "everything is justiciable." Lapid and Zarhi believe that, as with religious halakha, every area of life should be discussed and shaped by society and the various communities within it, "unless society has explicitly decided, after examination, that it is leaving a given area to be determined by individuals." Such a process, Lapid believes, will infuse public and democratic life with meaning beyond election day.

He also underscores the difference between the goal for which he is striving and various ethical codes: "An ethical code is a sort of recommendation, and it is not by chance that politicians gladly ignore it," he says. "I'm talking about a binding system of rules, which would stipulate, for instance, that a certain person is not fit for public duty, even if an offense has not been proved on a criminal level. Besides, I don't want the ethical code to be drafted by a single person, but for all of society, with its various sectors, to discuss the code that binds it."

Biographical background is crucial for understanding their worldview. Both were raised in the kibbutz movement - Zarhi, 50, on Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley (where he lives to this day), and Lapid, 37, son of the late Herut Lapid (who rehabilitated prisoners), on Ayelet Hashahar in the Hula Valley. Lapid also now lives in the Jezreel Valley, in the community of Shimshit. For both men, the kibbutz movement, with its written and unwritten rules, was a sort of "secular halakha" that collapsed and needs rebuilding.

Moreover, Zarhi believes that a key cause of the kibbutz movement's collapse was that its socialism was couched in gentile rather than Jewish terms. "Our language, and its concepts, have existed for generations. So then, even if you invest them with new meaning, they still convey commitment. But when you employ global terms to begin with, it creates something that doesn't last," he says.

Lapid stresses that the kibbutz's demise does not indicate the failure of the "secular halakha" concept. "The fact that something didn't work doesn't prove that it's impossible," he says, and offers the revival of Hebrew as an example of a successful revolution.

Each arrived at this concept on his own, but it grew out of a parallel experience of gradual exposure to the world of Judaism.

Unlike the burgeoning secular enthusiasm for studying Jewish texts, for religious rituals and even for prayer services, this idea still has no takers. It undermines the most valued part of today's secular identity - individual freedom. "Halakha is the opposite of privatization," Lapid readily concedes. "Halakha presumes that we are not interested in living each man to himself, but in engaging in what connects people."

Zarhi reports that friends in the Jewish studies world are supportive of the idea, "and only the name 'halakha' bothers some of them. But I believe that part of the dialogue with the past is using traditional terminology."

A more realistic-sounding Lapid says that "unfortunately, we have not yet reached the state where we are perceived as a threat." In other words, if they were further along in realizing their vision, they would already have some opponents.