Re-Examining Progressive Halakhah

Re-Examining Progressive Halakhah

Re-Examining Progressive Halakhah

Re-Examining Progressive Halakhah


The Freehof Institute of Progressive Halakhah is a creative research center devoted to studying and defming the progressive character of the halakhah in accordance with the principles and theology of Refonn Judaism. It seeks to establish the ideological basis of Progressive halakhah, and its application to daily life. The Institute fosters serious studies, and helps scholars in various parts of the world to work together for a common cause. It provides an ongoing forum through symposia and publications, including the quarterly newsletter Halakhah, published under the editorship of Walter Jacob, in the United States. Our Academic Council includes the foremost halakhic scholars in the Refonn, Liberal, and Progressive rabbinate as well as a number of Conservative and Orthodox colleagues, and university professors.

This book follows the volumes: "Dynamic Jewish Law, Progressive Halakhah- Essence and Application" (1991), "Rabbinic-Lay Relations in Jewish Law" (1993), " Conversion to Judaism in Jewish Law "(1994), "Death and Euthanasia in Jewish Law "(1995), "The Fetus and Fertility in Jewish Law "(1995), "Israel and the Diaspora in Jewish Law" (1997), "Aging and the Aged in Jewish Law "(1998), "Marriage and Its Obstacles in Jewish Law "(1999), "Crime and Punishment in Jewish Law" (2000), and "Gender Issues in Jewish Law" (2001). It is part of a series whose subjects are diverse and the approaches taken by the authors are equally so. We wish to encourage wide-ranging discussions of contemporary and historic themes.


The last two centuries have brought radical changes to our understanding of the world. The physical and social sciences have provided us with new insights. Philosophical systems, very different from those of earlier ages have been developed. This has had a major effect on our view of Judaism and its traditions.

Judaism was partially shielded from the earlier changes brought about by the Renaissance. The medieval world of scholasticism in which religion contained the absolute and all encompassing truth had given way to the critical spirit. As few Jews were in contact with the intellectual world of that period, Judaism, for the most part, could continue as before. The mode of reasoning as displayed in the commentaries on the Talmud or in the responsa literature remained very much the same. There were changes in both of these areas, but they had nothing to do with the intellectual climate of the surrounding world.

The eighteenth-century rumblings that eventually led to the Emancipation changed all of this. For most Jews of Central Europe, the change came in a single generation. The rabbis, the traditional leaders, were not prepared for the new intellectual world and sought to stop its influence, but such efforts were destined to fail. New views had to be developed. The process occurred first in the Reform movement, but eventually spread to all other groups within Judaism. They affected the rituals of the synagogue, the relationship of Jews to non-Jews, the halakhah, and much else.

Changes and adjustments in the practical application of the halakhah were relatively easy, but the foundations also needed attention and that came more slowly. The guiding principles on which decisions were based and which thereby guided all of Jewish life, had to be reviewed. The hermeneutics that served through the ages needed a critical view. Were they still valid? Could they be adjusted to a different world?

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