At the height of World War II, the great Christian author, C.S. Lewis, published The Abolition of Man – a short but powerful argument for the continued relevance of traditional values in contemporary society. In his spirited defense of traditional morality and natural law – which he refers to as the “Tao,” for convenience – Lewis rejects the moral relativism of modern thinkers who seek to undermine the legitimacy of traditional values. Over time, this concise book – more accurately described as a long essay – has achieved renown as one of the greatest works of non-fiction written in the 20th century.
Reading Lewis’ penetrating words from a traditional Jewish perspective, it struck me that his arguments in defense of tradition could also be read as a powerful defense of traditional Jewish law (Halacha). Simply replacing the word “Tao” with “Halacha” yields a powerful defense of Orthodox Judaism against the arguments of modern reformers, who argue that traditional Halacha must be changed in order to remain “relevant” to the modern Jew.
The following are direct quotations from C.S. Lewis, with only one change: I have replaced the word “Tao” with “Halacha”:
“A theorist about language may approach his native tongue, as it were, from outside, regarding its genius as a thing that has no claim on him and advocating wholesale alterations of its idiom and spelling in the interests of commercial convenience or scientific accuracy… A great poet, who has loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue, may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within… It is the difference between alteration from within and alteration from without: between the organic and the surgical.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 45)
Torah scholars who live and breathe the Halachic process are “poets” of the language of Halacha. One who lives and breathes a life of Torah, one who is an “insider,” acquires the right to make the necessary modifications to the Halacha that is required in each generation. But these changes are “organic”; they are both natural and necessary in order to maintain the integrity of the Halacha itself. The “insider” Torah scholar does not alter the Halacha willy-nilly, simply to make it compatible with the popular value systems of his generation. By contrast, reformers who do not live a life of Halacha, and yet arrogantly seek to “improve” the law, fail to realize that their self-righteous criticisms lack all validity.
“Those who understand the spirit of Halacha and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing of the matter. His attempts at alteration… contradict themselves. To the… man who stands outside Halacha, the very starting point of this science is invisible. He may be hostile, but he cannot be critical: he does not know what is being discussed.” (ibid, 47)
Reformers who are ignorant of traditional Halacha lack the ability to change the Halacha; as outsiders, they fail to understand the animating spirit of Halacha and its underlying principles.
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a longtime teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), echoes this argument in explaining his decision to leave the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism in 1983. Following a lengthy debate within the Conservative movement regarding the ordination of women, the JTS faculty senate voted in favor of women’s ordination by a vote of 34-8. Halivni, however, refused to take part in the voting process, which he explained in his letter of resignation from JTS:
“I cannot… participate in a debate on a religious issue of major historical significance where the traditional decision-making process is not sufficiently honored; its specific instructions as to who is qualified to pass judgment not sufficiently reckoned with. Even to strengthen tradition, one must proceed traditionally. Otherwise it is a mitzvah haba’ah ba’aveirah – a mitzvah performed by means of a transgression.” (Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, The Book and the Sword, 113 – 114)
Halvini was not opposed to change within the Halachic system; he was not even necessarily opposed to the ordination of women. But changes within Halacha, as C.S. Lewis argued, cannot be made by academics or members of a faculty senate. Changes may only be made traditionally – by the great “poets” and “insiders” who are the legitimate guardians of that tradition.