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Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Slippery Slope of Halachic Innovation


Megillah 2

Nowadays it seems that whenever anyone comes up with a creative Halachic (Jewish legal) idea, the immediate response is “Beware the slippery slope.”   And we have good reason to be afraid.  We need only look over at certain Jewish groups that have veered from traditional practice to see where cutting corners may lead.  In some cases, it begins purportedly innocuously with the removal of the mechitzah and culminates in practices completely incompatible with G-d’s Word such as gay marriage and ordination. 

Yet, Halacha by definition means ‘going.’  And throughout our history we have innovations introduced by our great rabbis, such as Hillel’s prozbul, a device that aids money-lending at the time of the sabbatical year, when all loans are otherwise dissolved.  Or the ketubah that provides financial and other protection for women during and after marriage.

Is there any basis for the ‘slippery slope’ argument and when does it apply?

The Mishnah states: The Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th of Adar, no earlier and no later.  Walled cities from the time of Joshua bin Nun read on the 15th.  Villages and big cities read on the 14th, but the villages may advance the reading to the day of gathering.

Rashi explains that villagers would gather in the cities on Mondays and Thursdays when the courts were open, as per the institution of Ezra the Scribe (since the Torah was read on those days).  Villagers did not have the skills to read the Megillah and they needed a townsman to read it for them.  Sometimes the day of gathering was the day before Purim, the 13th Adar, sometimes it was as early as the 11th.

The Gemara explains that this dispensation to read the Megillah a day or two or three early was a leniency granted by the Sages so that the villagers would be available on Purim to supply the townsfolk with their Purim provisions of food and drink (produced on the countryside).

Rabbi Judah warns, however: When was this dispensation in effect?  Only during the days of yore when the calendar was determined by the sighting of the new moon by the High Court in Jerusalem who then sent out messengers to inform each community when the new month had been declared.  But, nowadays, since people would look at this practice of reading early and get confused, we only read it on Purim.

Rashi explains the potential confusion:  Everyone looks forward to the Megillah reading, knowing that Purim is on the 14th Adar.  Following Purim, people count fifteen days until the conclusion of the month of Adar and then a further fifteen to Pesach, which begins on 15th Nisan.  If we were to read the Megillah on the 11th, people might start their thirty-day count immediately, consequently beginning Pesach on the 11th Nisan and lo and behold, they’re eating chametz on the final three days of Pesach, G-d forbid! 

Whoa, isn’t that a bit of a jump?   If you read the Megillah a couple of days early – so that you could help people celebrate their Purim – we’re afraid that you’ll eat chametz on Pesach!  Who would ever think such a thing?

Nevertheless, whether or not it sounds right, it is abundantly clear from this Gemara that our Sages were concerned about the ‘slippery slope.’ 

The Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers teaches that the wise man is one who sees the future.  All actions have consequences.  There is always a butterfly effect.  Our Sages are charged with being the “Eyes of the Assembly” and determining whether there might be adverse future consequences from any present communal activity.  And even it means that we need to disrupt the villagers’ ability to provide us with our Purim needs – a worthy pursuit indeed – the concern for what might come of it overrides our present needs and wants!

So how do we know if a new practice is a worthy Halachic innovation or the beginnings of a slippery slope to transgression?

Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman tells the story of the wedding of a relative he attended.  While it took place in an Orthodox synagogue, he was warned that many of the chuppah practices might be a little too radical for him.  The relative advised that he might like to just show up for the reception.   Now, the way he tells the story, he wouldn’t have been surprised at seeing mixed dancing at the celebration.   What did shock him, however, was the intensity of the physical interaction between the sexes and the unabashed interchange of partners on the dance floor. 

Says Rabbi Shulman, ‘I certainly appreciate that every community needs its rabbinic leadership and no doubt, that synagogue has the right rabbi for that community.  And in that capacity, he fulfills an important role.   But what they need to understand is that their behaviour in other areas, such as on the dance floor, demonstrates that they should not expect the rest of the Halacha-observant community to look to them as leaders in Halachic innovation.’

In other words, an integral aspect of Halachic leadership is piety.  When one is wanting in one’s piety in other areas of religious observance, it is difficult to believe that one’s demands for changes to traditional Halachic practice stem from a position of piety.  Piety must permeate one’s entire life in order to be credible.

And that’s why Rabbi Judah is concerned about the slippery slope of having people read the Megillah early.  The Gemara states clearly that this was a leniency offered by the Sages.  It wasn’t ideal.  Ideally they wanted everyone to celebrate Purim together on the same day.  But they felt that it might be too taxing on the people – arranging their provisions would be a challenge and so they found a leniency.

But leniencies don’t lead to piety.  Piety asks us to strive to be stringent in our observance.  And if you love G-d then you will want to serve Him in the most pious way possible, without cutting any corners or searching for leniencies.


Does that mean that we shouldn’t be creative in Halachic practice?  We most certainly should – our brothers and sisters are dropping like flies and we need to figure out how to keep them in the fold.  But it must come from a place of pure and pious intention and motivation.  When the motivation is pure and true – as evidenced by our behaviour in all aspects of our lives – magic happens and the Halacha continues to be a moving – ‘holech’ – process.