The Need for Policy

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Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s Horeb is a well-known text on Jewish thought but what is less known is that Rabbi Hirsch actually intended to write a companion work, tentatively entitled Moriah, in which he wanted to look at Torah as an integrated whole. Unfortunately he passed away before he was able to do so. The result is that while we have a major work by Rav Hirsch focusing on the details of Torah, we sadly are left without a similar work whereby he focuses on the realm of Torah as a whole. The irony, though, is that this outcome actually parallels so much of the world of Torah thought in general. We have many works on the details but precious little on the investigation of the whole.

This, of course, may simply reflect the nature of Torah study. The study of Torah is primarily done on a micro level with a focus on particulars. We analyze psukim, verses, in our Biblical texts. We investigate individual mitzvot or halachot, trying to determine their proper performance and their meaning. Should this, however, result in a lack in our study of the gestalt? The reality is that we do not exert much effort in our attempts to define how all these parts combine to form an integrated whole. The very intent of Rabbi Hirsch to write a work discussing Judaism as a whole, a gestalt, itself was, in certain ways, unique. Of course, postulated or attempted answers to explain Judaism as a whole do exist but how often are they the result of extended, intensive time and effort devoted to this study with a goal of arriving at conclusions in this regard? Oftentimes, they are more the result of a specific situation or interrogation, not the conclusion of a focused effort to uncover this understanding. We, in fact, almost define Torah study and practice solely in terms of the particular not even considering that these particulars are part of a whole that reflects a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This, in some respects, can be seen in our focus on text study as, almost, the only form of advanced study of Torah. How often do we hear people ask whether a certain shiur is of a high level by asking whether it is focused on a text? Clearly, text study and the micro study of Torah sources are important and necessary, significant components in an overall Torah study program. The argument is not that macro study must supplant micro study but that macro study must co-exist with micro study. This does not mean that the time devoted to macro study should be equal to the time devoted to micro study. The study of texts and the details of Torah work inherently not only serve the purpose of micro study but present the building blocks for the study of the whole. As such, such study demands more of our time allocations. Serious investigation into how to put together the building blocks to construct the whole – or to see and reflect upon the variant structures that have been built with these building blocks – must still be part of the equation.

At the core of this realization must be, though, the recognition that these two different forms of study are inherently unique and must be approached as such. One cannot be deemed competent in the study of the whole simply because one is proficient in the study of details. The study of the whole demands its own methodology, the transmission of which must be part of the educational system. One of the problems that exists within Torah study is precisely the fact that once one is deemed proficient in the details of Torah it is assumed that this person is also capable and skilled in the study of the gestalt. The reality is, in many areas of knowledge, that a distinction does exist between the process of study of particulars and that of matters as a whole. Economics articulates a distinction between micro and macro, the study of the elements of an economy and an economy as a whole. Einstein’s search for a unified theory of physics emerged because of his difficulties with the difference in the theories of the elemental atom and the cosmos as a whole – but a distinction nonetheless does exist. While realms of life necessarily overlap, there is indeed a difference in our very process of analysis whether we are looking at the particular or the whole. While an inherent qualitative distinction clearly does exist between kodesh and chol, the sacred and the profane, Torah and general wisdom, a difference between micro study and macro study is true for Torah as well. How we study and investigate the particulars of Jewish life is not how we can study and investigate the holistic nature of Jewish life. This is a branch of study that needs to be rekindled.

This leads to the issue of policy. By the term ‘policy’, I refer to the conclusions reached through an investigation which focuses on a reflection of the whole system of thought and the effects on the whole of the society, and not simply the particulars in action and consequence. Some will note that this is a potentially dangerous area of study for it can lead to the side-stepping of clear halachic conclusions due to perceived policy considerations. This clearly is a concern. One of the fundamentals of Orthodoxy is the commitment to following the halachic directive even without full understanding and, thus, of determined overall effect. Study of policy does raise this concern for it does look at objective and purpose as a factor in decision making. The fact is, though, that policy – a determination of objective and purpose – still does play a role in Torah and, while not generally in the particulars of Halacha, it clearly has a significant role in the overall approach to halachic decision making.

It is a policy decision, for example, that demands of a posek, the halachic decision-maker, to exert great effort in the attempt to find a method by which to define a woman who would seem to be in the category of agunah outside of that category. While policy indeed has a limited role in the determination of the particulars of Halacha, it is often policy which directs us and guides us along the path of Halacha. A necessary component of Torah thought must be the method by which we must make such decisions. In the case of the agunah, Chazal already gave us some direction in instructing us to make all effort to find a heter. This type of query, however, extends to many other issues. For example, we often hear in regard to the issues of conversion or the role of women that the flexibility of the Halacha must be applied to find allowances in these matters as well. Is this, however, correct? It is a policy statement to maintain that in the same way as in the case of agunah we are to search for heterim in these realms as well. To reach such a conclusion or to challenge such a proposal, we need a proper investigation of policy.

It is this type of policy analysis and determination that is woefully lacking in so many areas of not only Torah life but, in certain ways, of Jewish life in general including the State of Israel. (This may reflect the fact that the study of Judaism within any perspective and denomination ultimately flowed from the original text-centered study of Torah.) Our mindset, the Jewish mindset, would seem to be on the particular, attempting to solve the challenge found in a specific situation without a proper consideration of an overall policy. This also leads us to make determinations of individual cases as if they exist in a vacuum without a vision of the overall effect on the matter as a whole. The reality is that A affects B which in turn affects C and, so many times, any determination of A must consider the numerous effects on other matters. Halacha is always the first step for the determination of a matter in the vacuum of the specific circumstances -- it is a starting necessity. Policy needs which involve the consideration of the matter surrounding and beyond the specific circumstances, though, cannot be overlooked.

Of course, other reasons for our lack of focus on policy could exist. Perhaps it developed as a result of the need over the centuries to constantly respond to immediate danger. We were limited to consideration of the immediate and the specific. It may have been because a ‘policy’ was already dictated to us by outside forces. The effect of our educational direction with its focus on details often at the expense of consideration of the whole, though, cannot be overlooked. Whatever the reason, our weakness in policy analysis must be recognized and corrected. The determination of policy must be a priority to us. Before one can declare that we must use the flexibility of Halacha to find heterim in the realms of conversion and women or against such a declaration, one must first make the determination on, indeed, what the policy should be. This conclusion must be the result of intense, proper study of the gestalt of Torah.

Too often, on matters that demand policy analysis our approach still remains to focus on solitary cases on an ad hoc basis without a consideration of the necessary overall policy. Resolutions are reached yet usually with limited results precisely because the focus is on the particular. We, furthermore, always seem to be solely responding, which is an after-effect, rather than approaching circumstances with an arching philosophical precedent and overview. What is demanded is the study of this vision. What is demanded is an overall policy initiative that considers the entire big picture. We cannot simply respond in pieces. We cannot simply offer solutions that do not consider all the factors and effects. To determine policy, we must also study Torah as a gestalt. Our focus cannot be that of Rabbi Hirsch’s Horeb but must be that of the unwritten Moriah.

In this regard, Nishma intends to make inroads in this investigation of policy on many different fronts. We will be instituting a new blog, Nishma: Policy, which we will use to spearhead our investigation of policy issues. The first three issues the investigation of which we intend to undertake is: (1) The Eilu v’Eilu Community – Structuring Orthodoxy; (2) Jewish Communal Unity – Relating to the Non-Orthodox; (3) Orthodoxy and Homosexuality. We look forward to your involvement. 

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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