Walk, Don't Run

"Mahapekhot Bahalakha" ("Revolutions in the Halakha") by Yoram Kirsh, Ma'ariv Books, 321 pages, NIS 79.

"Mahapekhot Bahalakha" ("Revolutions in the Halakha") by Yoram Kirsh, Ma'ariv Books, 321 pages, NIS 79

Normal countries spend hundreds and even thousands of years grappling with basic issues like government, quality of life, economy, society, and, of course, religion and state. Only Israel tries to do it all at once - and fast: to complete in 50 years the processes and revolutions that in a calm, sane country would take generations. Countries battle with themselves and their citizens for centuries until they reach some middle road which allows everyone to live in harmony and peace. Around here, things are done in such a hurry, without stopping for breath, that everything seems to happen at once, while in fact nothing has really happened at all.

In the case of Israel and the Jewish people, the relationship between religion and state can be summed up in so many words: theocracy and democracy, majority and sovereignty, Knesset and beit knesset (synagogue). The problem runs deep and sends offshoots into virtually every sphere of life, from dinner plate to womb, from circumcision to cemetery.

As long as halakha (Jewish law) operated in a religious environment, things were easy. Hostile Christianity stood guard, making sure no observer of Jewish commandments abandoned the Jewish cart and hopped onto the Christian one. The harder it was to be a Jew, the easier it was for Judaism. We were a people whose spiritual experience was like a hard-boiled egg: The longer they cooked us, the more hardened, determined and Jewish we became.

Then suddenly, everything changed; someone quenched the fire under the identity pot.

Being a lone Jew became easy. Emancipation, equality, assimilation. It was possible to leave the ghetto. Welcome to university, to business, to banking. But the wider the gates opened, the more halakha retreated into itself, shutting out the world.

Now, with everything open and accessible, things are much more difficult. Halakha is on the defensive. Only in recent years, in the constant search for responses to attacks from without, is something happening within. Slowly, partially, in bits and pieces that gradually come together to form a meaningful picture, the religious establishment has begun to move and respond to the challenges of the modern era and the State of Israel.

Over the last few years, new voices have emerged. Criticism has begun to well up from the ranks. Halakhic experts, individually and in groups, are asking searching questions about where they stand spiritually, between tradition and progress, halakha and democracy. Observant Jews expect their religious framework and norms of conduct to keep up with reality. Religious Zionists were brought up to live like everyone else: to serve in the army, go to college, get a job, pay taxes. And as they go into the outside world, they are required to make changes and adapt, like everyone else.

This is the backdrop for Yoram Kirsh's book, "Revolutions in Halakha." "The development of halakha is a subject that has continued to fascinate me," writes Kirsh. "When there are serious problems that make life difficult for the public, can the development of halakha be sped up without causing a rift in Judaism? On my sabbatical leave, I made up my mind to hunt for answers to this question. The outcome is this book."

Kirsh's writing is interesting and different. His approach is clinical, but not alienated - like a surgeon in love who causes pain in order to understand and cure. Like the probing, inquisitive eye of the scientific researcher. His paragraphs are neatly arranged and numbered. His arguments and proofs are empirical. Fact, proof, precedent, anecdote and opinion come together to create an impressive picture of the slow changes taking place in the Torah universe.

The book consists of three parts: "The Dynamic Nature of Halakha in Our Day," "The Development of Halakha Over the Ages" and "A Recipe for Halakhic Revolution." Kirsh surveys the major shifts we have seen in this country: the introduction of female rabbinical pleaders in rabbinical courts, Torah study for women, women on religious councils, women in public office, new approaches to medicine and technology. He touches on the built-in tension between the everlastingness of the Torah and changeability of human beings. He is not afraid to address the wrenching conflict between those who choose the path of moderacy and those who opt for stricter Orthodoxy. He offers the reader a quick glimpse of the encouraging history of Jewish religious law and its capacity for change and development.

A more in-depth treatment is given to changes in the status and life of the Jewish woman. Kirsch maintains that quite a few of the small, micro-level changes in the religious world stem from the revolutionary change in the status of women in general. It is these micro-shifts that lead to the macro-shifts that are so badly needed. And so it seems that women have always played a key role in the process of change, and Kirsh does not hesitate to admit it - and thank them for it.

Kirsh is off the mark only once, and that is where his book goes wrong. What he is describing are evolutionary processes, slow and steady - processes in which rough edges are gradually smoothed down. He is not describing a grand, sweeping revolution. The title of his book, "Revolutions in the Halakha," is presumptuous in view of the reality he portrays and the genuine work that needs to be done on the outdated code of Jewish law.

Historically, halakha walks. It doesn't run. It doesn't soar through the skies. All the changes Kirsh mentions are worthy and important, and it is good that both observant Jews and opponents of halakha should be aware of them. But the real revolution is not addressed in this book.

Is the State of Israel today - home to Jews who do not believe in God, who do not observe the religious commandments, who are not strict about the laws of kashrut or family purity - a legitimate Jewish state, from the standpoint of halakha? The big question is not "Who is a Jew?" but "Who is secular?" Of what value are the secular institutions of the state, whose authority is vested in man and the vote of a democratic majority, in the eyes of halakha, whose source of authority is divine, supreme, theocratic and absolute?

Kirsh's book touches on these issues, but not with the same feistiness and courage. The solutions he offers are warped solutions, originating in the Diaspora and the attitude of the rabbis in the Diaspora to the laws of the state that oppressed our forefathers and mothers in days gone by. The fault lies not with the author, heaven forbid, but with the religious and spiritual leadership of the Jewish people, which has not risen to the occasion, and thus failed to deliver the goods to the theologically curious, like Yoram Kirsh.

There is no better witness to this great frustration than the author himself. At one point in the book, his inner truth erupts in full force, and he courageously makes no effort to conceal it: "One sphere in which the rabbis are exceptionally fanatical is their perception of the court system of the State of Israel as a `gentile court.'" This is particularly true of the religious Zionist rabbis. "When the judges issue a ruling that contravenes the law of the Torah, it is treated as a very grave matter," explains Kirsh. "It is akin to raising a hand against the Law of Moses."

This is a very painful truth. From the ultra-Orthodox, I don't expect anything. They opposed the establishment of the State of Israel from the outset, and cannot be held responsible for defining it religiously and spiritually now. But the rabbis of the religious Zionist camp are a source of bitter disappointment. Religious Zionists have no one to model themselves after in accepting the State of Israel from a religious standpoint.

For the ultra-Orthodox, it's easy: They live here, but mentally they are in the Diaspora. For them, there is no difference between the State of Israel and a non-Jewish state. For the secular, it's easy, too: The State of Israel is a secular state, an instrument in the hands of the people.

Only religious Zionism, torn between the two, finds no solace. If this is a non- Jewish state, then what are we doing here? If this is a halakhic state, then what are the secular and their governments doing here? Even the author's explanation that "the war, at least in part, is over spheres of influence and earning a living," is not enough.

This fine book bodes well for the spiritual survival of Israeli society. The moment voices start coming up from the bottom in the religious camp, there is hope for leadership, for precedents, for change. If the secular public has the patience to wait for this transformation in the religious community, and if secular Israelis come forward who are brave enough to carry on with Jewish creativity using modern tools rather than leaving the whole business of identity and heritage to the religious, there is a good chance for a synthesis of spirit that will blow new life into this country and bring with it the Jewish renaissance that has tarried for a hundred years.

Avraham Burg is a Labor MK.