Shmuly Yanklowitz
Shmuly Yanklowitz

Halakhah: More Conscience, Less Authority

Since many assume that the term halakhah is translated directly to encompass the limited meaning of “Jewish law” (rather than, say, “the Jewish way” or “walking Jewishly” or, simply, “Jewish vehicle for progress”) many people believe that halakhah concerns itself primarily with obedience to authorities. On the contrary, our task in the world is to navigate each situation with great care while concomitantly accounting for factors of tradition, ethics, and spiritual integrity. We cannot afford to outsource decisions of greatest import, especially those that affect our inner worlds, to those who are distant from the matter at hand and merely interpreting external sources. While it is only good to consult with trusted rabbinic experts, their central role is to act as educators not ultimate authorities. The final decision for our most essential life choices can only be our own.

While there are certainly elements of Jewish thought that express the view that the role of halakhah is to command obedience, there are also those who argue that the principal concern is with cultivating one’s moral and spiritual character—not merely producing automatons— personal conscience must be more central than pure obedience. The rabbis taught that the purpose of the mitzvot was to refine our character, (Bereshit Rabbah 44:1). That refinement is not some mysterious mystical process achieved through blind obedience and submission to authorities but rather through intellectual deliberation and spiritual intentionality.

Of course, we desperately need experts whose wisdom we can rely on. But we must exercise great caution in turning these figures into infallible beings that we blindly follow. Some religious Jews today claim that there is great nobility in blindly outsourcing our life decisions. They invoke a new innovation called “daas Torah” (that we are bound by God by the divinely inspired ruling of the rabbinic authority we ask our questions to) but this is not the traditional path. We don’t need rabbinic approval to lease a new car, take a new job, or join a new educational program. We need not believe that an authority knows the will of God in a moral predicament in our personal life situation more than we ourselves do.

Judaism contains teachings that tell us to go against the status quo, or at least, act in contravention against those with authority when they deviate from the paths of righteousness. When a verse says something as radical as “Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition” (BT Brachot 19b), the implications between the lines require us to exercise our emotional intelligence and best judgement, perhaps even at the expense of a traditional authority. Going further, in a commentary on the Torah, Ramban explained that: “God says that, with respect to what God has not commanded, you should likewise take heed to do the good and the right in God’s eyes, for God loves the good and the right. And this is a great matter. For it is impossible to mention in the Torah all of a person’s actions toward one’s neighbors and acquaintances, all of one’s commercial activity, and all social and political institutions” (Commentary on Leviticus 19:2).

This is also true of that which has been commanded but which encounters a unique moment that requires unique application. The rabbis were willing to overlook strict judgments and apply Jewish meta-ethics to resolve halakhic matters. As just one example, a significant rabbi in the Talmud ruled in favor of employees over the employer not because it was the halakhah but because he believed it was the just thing to do, (Bava Metzia 83a). Various sources inform us of the Jewish parameters from the past and then the intellectual and spiritual work is upon us to navigate all factors.

We must continue to engage with religious life with commitment, community, and structure in our lives even though we know that human understandings of the Infinite are so imperfect. No religion represents a perfect truth, though they all attempt to achieve it in their own noble ways. The ways of world religions are largely reflections and constructions of humanity, even when springing forth from divine revelation. The greater spirit of religion, however, speaks through the human spirit revealing the undiluted word of God. One cannot hide behind the Shulchan Aruch or the Rambam or behind another’s religious authority as a means to not do the heavy intellectual lifting of coming to a moral decision. When we choose to settle for easy truth, it is as if we haven’t yearned for truth at all. Each of us must stand before God on our own. Employing a defense that we are not accountable for our actions because we relied on the direction of others ostensibly greater than us is an untenable proposition. It’s lazy Judaism in the false guise of humility. It’s false idealization rather than an intellectual pursuit towards inner knowledge.

In a letter to his father-in-law (Rav Soloveitchik), Rav Aharon Lichtenstein is deeply disturbed after witnessing two young religious boys who fail to help someone in need because they are engaged in a textual analysis about the situation. He writes:

Can’t we find children who would have helped him and still know the gemara? Do we have to choose? I hope not; I believe not. If forced to choose, however, I would have no doubts where my loyalties lie: I prefer that they know less gemara but help him.” (By His Light p. 249).

Rav Lichtenstein spent his entire life in the beit midrash learning Torah and yet he still believes fervently that listening to our conscience and acting with our own inner sense of morality must at times outweigh a lengthy textual process assessing the situation. While the ideal is to have both textual mastery in conversation with and enhanced by conscience, he is clear which one must ultimately be prioritized in moments that lack perfect clarity.

Indeed, there have been rabbinic ideologies that have been violent. The Talmud records an incident where the scholars among Beit Shammai ambushed and killed many of their rival scholar camp, Beit Hillel, so that they could outvote them and put in place the laws according to their own interpretation (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:4; Shabbat 17a). We must hold on to the paradox that we should revere some of the greatest sages of our tradition while also honestly embracing and denouncing that they indeed have been religious fanatics, even murderers.

While we may revere Maimonides as one of the greatest philosophers and halalkhist in Jewish history, we must also acknowledge (and reject!) that he taught regarding those that deny a fundamental Jewish belief or disobey halakhah that “If it is within one’s power to kill them with a sword in public view, then kill them. If that is not possible, one should devise schemes that can bring about their deaths,” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Murder and Preservation of Life 4:10). Another example is how Maimonides recommends domestic violence. “A wife who refuses to perform any kind of work that she is obligated to do, may be compelled to perform it, even by scourging her with a rod” (Ishut 21:10). The point is not that we shouldn’t revere Maimonides as a great scholar but that we dare not submit to him and make him an ultimate authority that we may not contradict. Or consider how the Vilna Gaon, a great scholar to be revered, yet also said if he had the chance to kill the Hassidic Jews in his time that he would. His followers persecuted these early Chassidic Jews and even reported Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady to the Russian authorities which almost led to his execution. Should we learn the Vilna Gaon’s brilliant insights, yes. Should we submit to him as an authority we are bound by, God forbid!

For too long, countless religious teachers have pretended as though there aren’t serious moral problems that have emerged within the halakhic tradition or offered strange apologetics. Those of us committed to halakhah must be open and honest about these sources and take responsibility for them. There are countless rulings in halakhic history that are morally problematic. We should be wary of any school of thought that expresses that the rabbis express the pure word and will of God. Indeed, Jewish theology is adamant that all human beings are fallible. Were the rabbis far more wise and pious than the average person, I most certainly think so. Were they imperfect and also products of their time? Of course! Will each of us, as mortal and fallible beings, make more mistakes when we take responsibility for our religious and moral lives than when we outsource that responsibility? Perhaps. But, that is why we were given free will and one shot at life. We dare not sacrifice this opportunity to cultivate our inner world and make the best choices we can.

A teacher is not one to submit to but rather one to learn from and one to challenge at times. Rav Yehoshua ben Korcha taught that the student must point out to the teacher the error he is about to make (Sanhedrin 6b). We are instructed to fear God, not man! “Do not hold back your words because of anyone,” (Sanhedrin 6b).

Rav kook taught that it is forbidden for religious behavior to compromise a personal, natural, moral sensibility. If we silence God’s voice within our natural morality then our fear of heaven is no longer pure, (Orot HaKodesh vol. 3). We must stop treating individuals as “too weak” and “too ignorant” to make their own decisions and thus we must outsource all moral and spiritual decision-making; indeed this room-servicing of religious life deadens the soul. To be sure, there may be some who really embrace that they just want to be consumed with eating chicken wings, watching football, and obsessing over the stock market and really want to be observant but don’t want to invest time or thought in the process. For such folks, we surely prefer that they outsource their religious decisions than abandon religion. We are not speaking here of the religiously unthoughtful.

Let me also be clear that I’m not looking to make religious life easier in any way here and have everyone simply do as they please. Rather I want to see us raise the bar and call upon each of us to work harder to think through dilemmas. Each of us should invest in becoming Torah scholars and develop our inner world through our mussar work. We should consult more, read more, think and mediate more deeply, and listen more deeply to our inner Divine voice. Most halakhic situations will not require much research and thought, but we have other moral moments that require our own unique perceptions and judgement.

For Judaism to survive and thrive, halakhah requires rebellion not submission, protest not obedience. In fully committing to the tradition, we are engaging in a subversive act in relation to the conformity of society. Rav Kook explains how we need “gaava d’kedushah” (holy arrogance) to come close to God.

Often a person’s heart will feel full of strength (עז). At first glance this feeling will seem similar to a feeling of arrogance.  But after clarifying the matter, the reality is that one’s heart is filled with courage from the Divine light that shines in one’s soul.  What one sees is the greatness of Hashem. If this person subdues them self and distances them self from this pride, not only will they not do them self any good.  They will also weaken all of their spiritual powers, (Midot HaRAYaH).


Perhaps more powerful than any text I have studied has been the revelations that stir within my conscience. Ultimately, we must transcend the boundaries of temporal religious thought and move into a greater spiritual realm. This is halakhah’s purpose. Every time we engage with halakhah, we become attuned the manifold realities of the Divine. When we are religiously engaged (emboldened for actualization yet still humbled with self-doubt), we transform into spiritual beings on a constant search for truth. And that is where halakhah blooms most beautifully.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethicsNewsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.