Rabbis, Take U.S. Supreme Court Lead and Let the People Guide Interpretations of Jewish Law

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions shouldn’t be lauded nor decried; they are simply reflections of current values. So too should be interpretations of Jewish law.

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I followed my Facebook newsfeed very closely last week, as my friends in the United States commented on three major cases being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. For even though I live in Israel, I really do believe that each of these decisions affect me personally: as an American taxpayer I am affected by any federal election, and as a rabbi-in-training I am impacted by decisions that affect who can or cannot get legally married.

Why Facebook more than news media? On Facebook I can observe more closely than on the New York Times how the American people (inasmuch as my Facebook friends and those that I follow reflect the American people) react to these important decisions. Without question, many of my friends have strong opinions about the Voting Rights Act, the Defense of Marriage Act, and California's Proposition 8, and I knew results that they (and I) wanted the court to produce.

Yet while I admit that I was not pleased with all three of the decisions, I was not angry with the court when it ruled the opposite of what I wanted, nor did I loudly sing its praises when I was pleased with its decisions. I accept that the justices can interpret the law in a number of different ways: in some cases to my liking, and in some cases not.

With these recent decisions I was reminded of the many parallels between American constitutional law and halakha, Jewish law. Both have specific people whose jobs are to study the law, both have sets of rules that determine how to make a legal ruling, both have multiple ways to interpret the law, and for both, those who interpret the law are influenced by their own ideologies.

However, two important distinctions remain between American constitutional law and halakha. First, despite the special reverence assigned to the constitution, it is not considered to be divine in origin. Second, perhaps as a direct result of the first difference, is the authority granted to change the law, and here I believe that Judaism has much to learn from the American legal system: in the Jewish system, rabbis are empowered to interpret the law - like Supreme Court justices - and in rare instances, known as takanot, rabbis are empowered to change the law, too.

This current structure works well at protecting the law, but it does not necessarily serve the interests of the Jewish people. For what we lack in Judaism is any sort of democratic process by which the people can shout "Lo Bashamayim Hi," "[the law] is not in the heavens," and freely interpret the rule of God. In the United States, that process exists in the form of elected legislatures and Congress, and in some states, like California, in the form of ballot propositions. Yet at the same time, the people cannot decide willy-nilly to change the law, and even if a majority-supported proposal, such as Proposition 8, is determined to violate the Constitution, it will be struck down. But even in that case the people are given a voice; it may not be easy, but the American people are granted the opportunity to change the Constitution to reflect an updated strong majority-held summary of American values.

That voice of change, of course, is not absent from Jewish tradition, and it appears most prominent in our texts in the form of the prophet. Today we may scoff at those who claim to receive the direct word of God, but prophecy is not absent from our lives. Leaders like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel acted as prophets, teaching us to view our traditions in a different light in order to inspire us to action. Indeed, sometimes modern-day prophets, deeply inspired by our Jewish texts and traditions, may teach us to adopt a new law, previously seen as antithetical to Jewish tradition, by illuminating the ways in which it fits our Jewish values. Those prophetic voices may then convince a large portion of the Jewish people that our laws need to change.

And so I do not harbor resentment at a Supreme Court that does not always rule the way I want it to, nor do I resent the rabbis whose halakhic decisions permit that which I would prefer forbidden and forbid that which I would prefer permitted. After all, even though they are certainly influenced by their ideologies and worldviews, they are charged with understanding and interpreting the law, not creating it. And so I call on my American friends to neither decry the Supreme Court nor applaud it. You are the lucky ones, for if you feel strongly about an issue, you must take it upon yourself to rally the American public and get the change approved. We in the world of Jewish leadership should then take our cue from you, and make sure that our Jewish laws reflect the living values of our Jewish community.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

American and Rainbow flags at a rally celebrating the Supreme Court rulings regarding same-sex marriage, June 26 2013, in West Hollywood California.Credit: AFP
Revelers in San Fransisco, California, after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered rulings on California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, June 26, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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