By Liana Wertman
As a female, queer, leftist, and observant Jew, entering into traditionally Halakhic spaces has been an incredibly difficult spiritual process. While the fact of keeping laws in relationship with God feels necessary and divine, I couldn’t find myself in the Orthodox world that taught me the rules in the first place. Their Halakhah was anchored in a time where no part of me was acceptable for any Jewish practice. But I had never found meaning in spaces where Halakhah seemed connected to nothing more than my own interest and agency. I needed structure but I needed it to be growing and open. As I sought to find or build a Halakhic process that met me where I was, I turned to Torah. I found my answer in the first command God gives to us: Lech Lecha. Go to/for yourself.
This command is given to Abram by God and is the beginning of the journey that separates Israelites from the rest of the Mesopotamians and leads to a people united around One God. The command itself is grammatically interesting. The first word is a command form of the verb Halakh, “to go” or “to walk” - meaning “Go!” The second word is the prefix “to” or “for” (the lamed) and the pronominal suffix for the 2nd person singular masculine meaning “for/to yourself”. The emphasis throughout the Pentateuch seems to be on the first word, the command verb “Go!” In Genesis 12:1, God is literally telling Abram to “Go” from his home land, from his family, and to a specific land that God promises to his descendants. Throughout the Pentateuch, Abraham’s descendants were still literally “going” to this land and the journey there was filled in with HaShem's rules. This command to go, to walk, becomes a way of life. To live a Jewish life becomes about finding the way to continue along this path set out by God.
Halakhah, the body of law that guides Jewish practice, could be translated as “the way” or more literally as “the going.” It comes from the root halakh, the same root as the word lech. To figure out how to follow the command “go” first given by God the Jewish community has created an extensive and rather moldable form of law. As long as these laws are based in Torah they can be argued and changed through interpretation and reasoning. To actively “go” on this “way” of laws it has to be doable in new and more modern contexts throughout time. Laws that seemed clear and direct in Torah are re-interpreted to fit with a new era. This ability to reinterpret honors the second part of God's command: the Lecha. We must each be in this journey to and for ourselves and who “we” has changed over time.
This Halakhic structure grew and was tightened through codification several times over the 2000 years after the Second Temple was destroyed. But modern philosophy and liberalism caused a massive rupture in the process. Enlightenment thinking recognized individuals (albeit not all individuals) as inherently worthy of rights through their own agency. The power held by gods or kings struggled to hold meaning facd with the idea that each person under any law or hierarchy had agency and could consent or not to the bounds placed upon them. The yoke of God and Mitzvot, a central tenet that has kept Jews answering the eternal command of Lech Lecha has been thrown into question.
One could argue that Jewish response went in two ways. First, by focusing only on the "Lech" some communities attempted to solidify Halakhah against these liberal ideologies. Rather than let Halakhah move and flow with the times it needed to be unmoving and strong to maintain its commanding power in a changing world. The second option was to focus on the "Lecha," the self allowing an individual to able to select what they wanted out of practical halakhah even if that meant rejecting them completely. I would argue that both of these approaches lessen the strength of the call and of our answer to Lech Lecha and only a Halakhah that answers the entire commandment can sustain Judaism in the long-term.
My search for a Halakhic process that I can exist fully within requires a modern understanding and response to Lech Lecha. In this essay I will attempt to create an image of what it might mean to answer Lech Lecha today. We need to look at modern, existential, and post modern Jewish thinkers to see how they answer different aspects of this call. Looking at Franz Rosenzweig and Eliezer Berkovits, I will argue that Traditional law and halakhic texts continue to give us a basis for answering the command “lech”, guiding us but not anchoring us in place. I will then look at what it means to understand Obligation in a time of individual liberal agency through Mara Benjamin's metaphor of Maternity to recalibrate the “Lecha”. And connecting Emmanuel Levinas to Rabbi Rachel Adler and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, I will look at how to begin answering a modern understanding of Lech Lecha and creating a new Halakhah through our responsibility for the Other.
This essay will not be able to fully explain why we should obligate ourselves to the Jewish project or it’s continued inherent worth in modernity. For the time being, I would like to posit that God’s initial command to Abraham was not just to Abraham, but the central call to Jewishness. It is a continued call to us to seek relationship with the One God and to go to our truest selves together. Whether our entire family line has been answering this call or we hear it on our own the act of answering this call together is what makes the Jewish people. Figuring out how to continue to answer it is our current job.
Let us begin with the ‘Lech’ and the traditional form of answering this call. The two thinkers we will look to here are Franz Rosenzweig and Eliezer Berkovits. Franz Rosenzweig enters this conversation in his article, The Builders: Concerning the Law. In this open letter to Martin Buber, Rosenzweig argues for Jewish Law to be given “liberation” alongside Torah and Jewish learning. The law that Buber seeks to leave behind Rosenzweig argues is not true Jewish Law but the “Law in the shackles put upon it [...] by the 19th century” (Rosenzweig, p77) Western Orthodox traditions. Could deep Jewish learning, he wonders, truly happen without some obligation to the Laws being learned?
What does it mean to unshackle the Law according to Rosenzweig? Law is not only imposed upon us by God but the human need to act comes out of our relationship with God. To unshackle the law means to “extend the realm of what ‘can be done’”(Rosenzweig, p82) to bring it back into relationship with the “living reality [Heutigkeit]”(Rosenzweig 85). This extension is infinite, “nobody should be allowed to tell us what belongs to its spheres,”(Rosenzweig 86) and will continue to grow and change over time beyond what we could imagine in any current moment. The collective effort to reimagine the law gives the law its ability to bind the community beyond the individual. Buber refutes this in letters to Rosenzweig where he says that since God is not the law-giver there can not be Universality to a Jewish law beyond what one person chooses to take on to themselves. But while Rosenzweig concedes that God is not law-giver he says that God commands us and in how we response we have agency in our Obligation. In the end, the Torah was given to us, “sold to us” by God and it is ours to agree to or not.
In Eliezer Berkovits’s Not In Heaven, Berkovits helps us imagine how to open this shackled Law through the law itself. The name of the book itself is reference to our ownership over Torah and ability to interpret. Berkovits introduces his book by saying that “Halakhah is the bridge over which the Torah moves from the written word into the living deed.” (Berkovits xix) But if Halakhah brings Torah to our lives, and there is no static life, halakhic interpretation of Torah means “application to a specific time in a specific situation” (Berkovits xx). Where Rosenzweig argues to open more avenues of what is possible, Berkovits gives us real tools to do this as well. These tools are already present in the Halakhic project as the guide posts on the path we walk. They are: common sense (svara), the wisdom of the feasible, and priority of the ethical. For Berkovits, these rules exist intrinsically in the Halakahic process and we should use them to bring movement and modern reality back to Halakhah’s application. I would argue that they also form for a basis upon which to imagine an expanding Halakhah. All our work to rebuild a Halakhah that truly answers Lech Lecha must be grounded in Torah and guided by our three stated principles. But it must also address the changing world around us by adding new categories to Halakhah.
By working with these two thinkers, we can see from both perspectives a request to reopen and reorient the stagnant “lech” of halakhah. We can visualize an interaction with Law that is based in the power of the person while still answering the commandment of God to go. In choosing to answer, in recognizing the obligation, the person retains their agency, and thereby is able to mold the path they walk on to fit the world around them within the rules of Halakhic change.
This concept of retaining agency in obligation is the central tenet of Mara Benjamin’s The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought. In her first chapter, she outlines a renewed understanding of Obligation through a feminist concept of agency and maternity. Feminist work sought to include Woman as a part of the liberated self of liberalism. In doing so both philosophically and literally motherhood and maternity became a choice, something one could have agency over. But while one can make choices to avoid motherhood once motherhood is voluntarily taken on it becomes an “exercise in submission and an exercise of agency within a set of constraints” (Benjamin 4). This modern understanding of maternal obligation and agency expands the scope of how Obligation can be imagined to affect the life of a modern person. Once a baby is born all one’s decisions surround that baby. All aspects of life change and need to be thought about in relation to the child. That does not mean that other things cannot be done and cannot change over time, but rather that some form of change must take place across all aspects of life. There is still agency within the obligation, in how and when we choose to act and in interpretations we make on the rules childhood supposedly demands. I believe this model perfectly represents what it means to be tied, to be yoked, to obligation and to Mitzvot on an individual level. While we might critique the individuality of liberalism but there is no way to turn back and ignore the self and individuality completely. In this metaphor, we can imagine a Lecha that is still honored while attached and obligated. This piece that had long been missing can be foind her. In this version of Lecha we are seen, whole, and an agent with choice in our own halakhic binding.
Using these thinkers we have situated responses to the Lecha and the Lech broken apart by liberalism in relationship to modern issues. The Halakhah itself must be expanded, opened, and made movable once again. To do so requires a response to real modern life around the Halakhah while using traditional principles and texts to ground ourselves. The modern need for a self with agency while still being obligated is resolved using Benjamin’s model of maternity and Obligation. Agency is maintained and engaged by taking on an obligation at all despite not being able to do everything one might want to do once it has been committed to. Our goal becomes creating a cohesive response to Lech Lecha as one command.
Where existentialists saw personal presence in real relationships as the setting for connection with God, such as the I/Thou of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas saw the Other as the catalyst for these connections to the Divine. Obligation was not self imposed or not, it was imposed by the fact of our constant and ultimate responsibility for and to the other. This “for” and “to” resembles the ambiguous and interesting prefix of Lecha, going to or for ourselves. For Levinas, we are responsible to the Other in being obligated to try to end their suffering. We are also responsible for the actions of Others in this relationship. This responsibility is called to us from the 'Face of the Other', and we are to answer Hineni - Here I am. We cannot demand this responsibility in return because our focus should be completely on the Other and our responsibility to them. This seeming lessening of care for self point is difficult to imagine in practice but points us to some areas that will be important in building a new response to Lech Lecha.
The issue of the Other, especially in the I/Thou of Buber, or even the I/Thou/He (including God as separate) of Soloveitchik, is the “third person.” How do we account for our responsibility to another person when there are in fact many other people? The “presence of someone else next to the Other” (Levinas 89) is the emphasis that creates a call for justice and law. In seeing the many Others of Judaism, the people answering Lech Lecha alongside us, Halakhah created Laws that fit the needs of those people. But over time, our understanding of who is deserving of being our Other to whome we are responsible has changed. Only in the last century have we begun to truly demand that all people not only men in power be given the right to be seen as whole people. While our systems are meant to exercise Justice, they must “always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation” (Levinas 90) demanded from the face of the individual Other. To bring our obligation to the other into the context of Halakhah, we must hold the entire system accountable to the people who were not allowed to be seen as full people until now. We must answer Hineni to women, to queer folks, to trans people, to Jews of color, and to disabled Jews and hold Halakhah in check to face them anew and see them. For too long, Halakhah has been answering from one Jewish man to another and the third person has entered and needs to be addressed.
The best way to understand how to do this is to look to Rachel Adler in her book Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Adler argues that the Living Reality that Halakhah should apply to is told and understood through stories. The world we inhabit now is full of stories of diversity, inclusion, respect, consent, and openness to change. These stories do not fit into Halakhah of old, at least not when applied to the people I mentioned in the above categories. By telling new stories of who Jews are, of how we live and what we need, we can create new standards upon which to rest our Halakhic decisions. By seeing the female, queer, trans, disabled, diverse Other in our stories, we are responsible to do Justice by them according the world we live in. Halakhah then must change for them and end their suffering no matter how radical that change may have to be.
Another change that modernity brought to Jews was bringing them into the larger world. They were no longer living as physically or economically isolated communities. Many of our laws, especially around issues of Kashrut, are about reacting to or creating purposeful separation from non-Jewish communities. Wine cannot be drunk when touched by someone who is not Jewish and they cannot light the flames that cook our food. But where modernity made us “private citizens” responsible for ourselves it also made us “citizens” alongside people who were not Jewish. The world this new form of Halakhah is entering into is one that would need to see the non-Jewish Other as a Jewish responsibility. We can see Torah inspired forms of this existing in Aryeh Cohen’s book Justice In The City. He cites a biblical ritual from Deuteronomy and the Rabbinic responses to it as proof for our responsibility to our unhoused neighbors. As we consider how the Torah, and Halakhic texts of the past, should be understood to be applied to our actual world, we must also consider the people we live alongside. Lech Lecha cannot ignore the people we meet along the way.
Modernity and the agency given to the individual in liberalism pushed Jews to either assimilate and assume the rights of private citizens while refusing Jewish obligation or to refuse this assimilation and anchor Halakhic progress in place to maintain a “traditional” practice against changing times. Both are unsustainable for a healthy and lasting Jewish future. The going God asks of Abraham was not easy. Abraham had to trust God on a long and difficult journey, separated from other peoples and with no specific outcome in sight. To live a Halakhic life anchored in a reality two hundred years past asks Jews to live heavy and alienated lives. It also asks Jews who are not cis-men to give up rights and joys that the rest of the world would grant them. But this difficult task is meant to be rewarded. This reward, “for your benefit and for your good” as commentator Rashi understands the verse, is not vague and distant for Abraham but specific. The life Abraham will lead will be full of wealth and joy should he answers the call. But this cannot happen when one seeks only the rewards either. Without actions, without the effort it takes to go at all, there is nothing to reach or to gain. One must go on the way of the Jewish people but also see the reward in this life based in the reality in which we live.
When brought together, the thinkers I’ve presented here are asking for Judaism to understand Jews as modern humans without losing our connection to our active Jewish life. The closer we get to the present day in our readings, the more clear it is that there is a desire to answer and fulfill our own Lech Lecha as one that meets us where we are in the reality we live in. This new halakhic response will be feminist, gender expansive, inclusive, and diverse. It will be based in Torah and it will be based in a world where we live alongside many other peoples whom we see as equals.
The question remains how to bring this Halakhic process into being. How do we not only answer Lech Lecha individually but offer it as a communal path together? Adler raises this issue in her work. Adler asks the important question: “If Halakhah evolved historically and reflects cultures through which it passed, then what makes it holy?” (Adler 27) I answer this question by once again returning to Lech Lecha and its impact on the Halakhic process. Our commandment from God is to go for/to ourselves, legitimizing Halakhah as the attempt and practice of answering this call as a community. The Halakhic process is legitimate so long as it attempts to bring Torah into the real world. That the way itself is human created, edited, or changed is a requirement for it to maintain its continued legitimacy in trying to answer the ultimate divine call. This then leads us to the question: which humans can change it so people will follow it?
Historically, since only men were considered as answerers of the call of Lech Lecha then it stands to reason that only men would be able to have the authority to map out the way there. The reality of the world around Jews at the time confirmed this concept. And as Certain Jewish communities rooted in traditional Halakhah, in the Lech, have refused to bridge this path with the lived reality of the 21st century by continuing to exclude many Jewish voices in the change process. Because so many progressive Jewish communities are focused on the Lecha without Obligation we have come to believe that the people who follow the anchored Halakah own the halakhic process. Luckily, the reality we live in includes open and easy access to traditional Jewish texts and extensive learning opportunities. To truly answer Lech Lecha, authority should only be legitimate if the authority knows not only the Jewish texts but is also grounded in the real and current issues of our world. These people will likely not be given “official” authority by anyone who is not truly seeking to answer a fulfilling and modern Lech Lecha. New forms and relationship to Torah authority will come forth. The leaders will emerge, are emerging, as Jews who have been left out of Halakha come to believe that they are called to this path.
This vague and difficult call for forging our own path is rooted in my trust in the Jewish people and my trust that God is truly calling us to find the best path we can to God and for ourselves. To truly honor modern humans and our current reality we cannot impose this new idea upon anyone. It must be democratically and individually chosen by Jews, the majority giving authority over time. I would like to emphasize this by using the three forms of Halakhic application that Berkovits offered in “Not In Heaven.” All decisions must use common sense, they must prioritize the ethical, and it must be feasible for modern people to act out in their lives. People will not follow something that is untenable to them. Our current Jewish options are or are becoming untenable for a fulfilling Jewish life in the modern world. So we must have something better to offer our community. We must do the work (for the moment) without approval from the current authorities to make it possible for Jews for many generations to come to go for and to themselves. So Lech Lecha.