REVIEW: Rabbi Ido Pachter’s Utopian Dream

Avi Baumol Tradition Online | December 21, 2021

Ido Pachter, Yahadut al HaRetzef (Carmel Publishing, 2021), 241 pp.

I have a dream to set up a council of people infused with spirit and community. They will be comprised of people from all streams, denominations, sects. There will be men and women; old and young; Haredi, religious, traditional, and secular; Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Yemenites. This council will define the nature of Zionist-Jewish identity in our day. It will not ignore or skip over any aspect in the “large tent” called Judaism. It will deal in all areas, from spiritual and theoretical to practical, presenting a model of Judaism which is wide enough to include the nation of Israel in its land. The council will transition “religious denominations” into something connecting all Jews and something in which all Jews will take ownership, inculcating the values of joint responsibility to all of Israel—which, in turn, will write the next chapter of the history of the journey of the nation of Israel. 

This council is indispensable for the Zionist project, which is still far from fulfilled. Let us remember that it took several hundred years from when the Israelites entered the land until they managed to join as a kingdom and build a Temple at its center. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, following the Rambam, reminds us that the land of Israel is just the framework and platform. We, as autonomous beings, must erect a structure of content. This is our responsibility to ourselves, to the generations which came before us and those which will follow. The time has come for us to take hold of our spiritual destiny (216). 

These are the final two paragraphs of Ido Pachter’s Hebrew manifesto, titled in English Diversity in Judaism, his idiosyncratic vision for a new system of halakha, a more harmonious version of the Jewish nation, and his attempt to redeem the halakha from its current state which will then facilitate the writing of the next chapter in Jewish history. This is a tall order, indeed, but Pachter feels he is up to the task. 

Rabbi Dr. Ido Pachter is Haifa born, B’nei Akiva grown, Maale Adumim learned (student of R. Nachum Rabinovitch), and Bar-Ilan University educated (with a doctorate on the ideological development of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States). He has served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Ramat Poleg in Netanya for the last nine years but has since moved on to start a new organization (Techelet) to advance his vision. To appreciate this book, and several other recent titles in Israel, a prefatory remark about Jewish life in Israel is in order.

Judaism in Israel is different from that in the United States. The two largest Jewish populations rival each other in numbers as they represent the two centers of gravity; yet Jewish life, law, and culture manifest themselves very definitely in each locale. Judaism in the United States is split into two categories—synagogue life and the secular world. Jews of different stripes might meet up at the JCC, but for the most part there is a great divide between denominations. In the town I spent my entire childhood in, I never met a single member of the Conservative Synagogue—and it was right on my block! This reality creates mini-Jewish cultures, and the Orthodox community, even in its more modern or liberal branches, is quite isolated from any other. Generally, when a liberal Orthodox rabbi proposes new and perhaps “revolutionary” ideas, the mainstream synagogues and institutions quickly join to confront and condemn. 

Israel is a different reality entirely. Not Synagogue-based but town-, settlement-, and city-based, with Jews of all types (except ultra-Orthodox) interacting to a far greater degree. Certainly, there is a schism between Haredi and secular, but within the Orthodox world the situation is more fluid as children from the same B’nei Akiva group might all pray together and yet espouse different philosophies on religion and State. Though there is a “Rav Ir” (City Rabbi), his position is more political or bureaucratic and therefore not as influential in the life of the average citizen. Families might be more influenced by the Yeshiva or Midrasha in which the parents attended, or by the various role models the children have encountered in their studies as well as in the army. 

Hot button issues in Israel are less contentious in the Modern Orthodox community and there is more latitude for new innovations and new endeavors. In my hometown Efrat, for example, there are over 40 synagogues and each one has a different flavor: traditional Asheknazic, Sephardic, Yemenite, “Happy minyan,” “Yeshiva minyan,” egalitarian minyan—some with (small c) conservative rabbis, others more liberal, others with no rabbi at all, while yet one other has a woman spiritual leader. There are no protests and many, such as me, frequent different minyanim depending on the day. Kids are growing up exposed much more to general Israeli culture, encountering Jews of all types and confronting a richer Jewish experience but also one fraught with partisan politics, schism, and even animus.

Rabbi Dr. Ido Pachter (photo: L. Moldovan)

All of it makes this ripe and fertile ground for change, and change is in the air. Over the last few years, many initiatives have emerged which challenge the traditional way of Orthodox hegemony in society: advancement in women’s roles, new Kosher organizations which challenge the Rabbanut, splinter Jewish organizations which aim to close the gap between religious and secular, conversion reform and new literary works on confronting a new reality of the nation of Israel living in its homeland after two thousand years of Exile. Some questions being asked are: Should we pray the same way we have prayed? Should we continue to fast for the destruction of the Temples? Should we not update our new reality? Should we still follow “Galut” forms of Jewish existence and halakha? Should halakha continue to be “top-down” with a few rabbis dictating the policy for the majority of Jews? Or should there be a more democratic version whereby diverse Jewish groups living together in the land can have a say about their religious as well as political destinies?

These last questions, I believe, are part of the motivating factors for Pachter’s book. Each of the nine chapters tries to build the case for less hegemony, more autonomy, more plurality in halakha, more personal initiative, and the creation of “a new dialogue,” which will, in his words, “return the dignity to halakha which has been trampled upon and transform it to a more attractive ideal that the Modern Jew will choose anew.” 

Pachter presents a new version of halakha which will give rise to a new Jewish community in Israel. His vision is bold, his points provocative. He uses biblical typologies to convince the reader that what he is calling for is in fact a return to the authentic Judaism which, he believes, has been mangled, deformed, filled with fear and removed from the average Jew during the exilic existence. By taking halakha and returning it to the hands of the common Jew, he feels that halakha will no longer be caged in archaic forms of compulsion but shared in partnership with the Jew bringing it into the modern era. Chapter three, titled ‘Halakha and the Freedom of the Individual,” focuses on shifting from a theocentric attitude of halakha to an anthropocentric one in which he believes there is “hidden a great opportunity to lessen the tension between the world of halakha and individual freedom” (90). Man, then, will not feel the need to surrender to halakha but rather be empowered by it to develop a fuller and more fulfilled existence. 

In the fifth chapter, Pachter explores the notions of “Heavenly Halakha” which bears the stamp of “truth” versus what he considers to be an earthly halakhic truth. Quoting the famous Talmudic debate of Tanur shel Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b), as well as other sources, he develops two distinct theories of how we should view halakha. Adopting the school of Rabbi Yehoshua, who believes that Torah is not found in the heavens, and that relates specifically to the area of halakhic adjudication (psak), he laments that in today’s Orthodox world many accept the first school of halakha as “truth superior to us” (emet gavoha) and they are reticent to accept any new idea or position that is not well-founded in the authorities. Instead, he believes, modern-day religiosity does not seek divine truths but earthly ones. It sees the tradition as foundational but only in order to build on it a living contemporary halakha. This, he believes, is the responsibility that God entrusted in us—applying the Torah to day-to-day life which not only doesn’t reject novel halakhic positions but blesses the endeavor.  

And from here Pachter is willing to make a leap in the theory of psak which is, I believe, a departure from commonly held beliefs about the process. Because debate is seen by him as natural and essential in the flourishing of the halakhic process, he sees no reason not to rely on one lone voice in the tradition. He writes, “the widespread rule is when the majority and the minority clash the halakha follows the majority, but still we must ask—what of the fate of that minority position?” (127). It can surely be adopted “when there is a need.” 

One example he gives is relying on the lone position of Rambam about heating up liquid on Shabbat. He asks, why not follow the Yemenite position and accept this as normative halakha? Another allowance would be Rambam’s assertion that the disqualification using a mikvah with water that is not directly gathered from the heavens is only rabbinic and therefore a woman may use a mikveh in a bathtub in a time of need. A third position is that of Rav Yosef Mashash who gave a lenient ruling that married women need not cover their hair, a position apparently permitted by the chief rabbi of Petach Tikvah, Rabbi Moshe Malka. Pachter concludes the section reinforcing his position that relying on one voice works when we acknowledge there is not halakhic heavenly truth that appears on earth, rather it is created by Torah Sages. According to this approach, a lone voice is also part of that halakhic truth and following it is legitimate to be relied upon. 

Pachter is asking his readers, the open-minded Modern Orthodox communities in Israel, to trust him as he embarks on a campaign that will deconstruct the halakhic system as we know it, only to build it up a better way. He is aware that this is a big risk (see, e.g., statements on 51, 59, 78), and that putting this much halakhic power in the hands of the common Israeli might lead to a weakening of the system and less harmony—but he is willing to take the chance. But should we? Do we have such faith in the average observant Jew, when offered the opportunity to choose our own halakha? Will not the result be an extremely watered-down version of halakha and a greater schism between modern observers and the ultra-Orthodox? Additionally, how does he think this will work practically? He does not address the hegemony of the Rabbanut and the fierceness with which they will defend their position; nor does he take into account the already complicated divisions within Orthodoxy and the mounted attack the ultra-religious Zionist movement has taken on one of their own—Rabbi Eliezer Melamed—who has written an unparalleled halakhic work, Peninei Halakha, but has been castigated due to some liberal positions he stakes. 

A utopian vision is just that—utopian. Its strength stems from its willingness to ignore practical realities and to aspire to radical change which, if succeeded, could repair what’s broken and restore Jewish communal life. But that same strength is also its greatest weakness, opting for an all-encompassing, revolution—a nuclear bomb if you will—rather than attempting to fix the problems one by one, in a slower methodical way. The book does not lack in audacity, in fact he devotes an entire chapter to “fear itself” and the threat it holds on the Jewish capacity to progress. In fact, he calls fear the greatest threat to contemporary halakha; he suggests we reject it completely, only then will halakha truly flourish. 

Together with his aspirational ideas about halakha and its transformation come many practical laws that he deems outdated, unconvincing, too strict for the populace and therefore worthy of change: changes to the siddur, attitudes towards Christianity and entering a church, as well as drinking their wine, selling hametz, rethinking the entire notion of modesty, rejecting the value of having large families, how to view innovations in science vs. halakha, women’s hair covering, Ashkenaz vs. Sephard, laws of Nidda—specifically endorsing the position that women go to the mikveh after only seven days, and many other. 

Ultimately, he advocates an entire change to the halakhic system. Chapter 8, from which the book draws its title, proposes that diversity in observing halakha not be viewed as a “bediaved,” a lesser form of Judaism; rather, he believes fulfillment of halakha should be staggered—some who sit in kollel can feel free to observe every humra (stricture), while others should not feel second class if they choose to not come to synagogue, not pray daily, wear tefillin, tzitzit, mezuza, not fast, not be as cautious about meat and milk…the list goes on. 

If, Pachter conjectures, we view halakha as only appealing to the top one percent of Judaism, then the system is working perfectly; if however, halakha should permeate the entire nation, such that all types of Jews will feel empowered by its observance, each on his or her own level, then, believes Pachter, “halakha will be removed from its cage and transform to a relevant, attractive option for the entire Israeli population” (184). 

Pachter’s book is quite alluring as it speaks to the modern Jew living in Israel who is thinking and rethinking the halakhic process. There are many challenges we confront and often many feel that the centralized hegemony of the Rabbanut hinders our advancement as a Jewish nation. We are ready to hear new and innovative ideas about how to make sure halakha answers our needs in the 21st century and beyond, whether it relates to women’s leadership roles, attitudes towards the community at large, or our relationship with the world. And in this context his book is a valuable contribution to this community of ideas for change. Many of his arguments resonate with modern Jewish thinkers in Israel and I personally find myself agreeing with a lot of what he has to say.

However, I believe Pachter bites off more than he can chew and we can digest. Even if it is not his direct intention, I fear that his radical democratization of halakha unravels thousands of years of halakhic precedent and dismisses the process that has been developed until now. He has not convinced me of the theoretical ideal of a decentralized halakhic system, nor am I persuaded that a bespoke halakha will unite all the streams of Judaism in Israel and usher in a new chapter of Jewish history. We should keep dreaming and keep pushing to create a fairer halakhic system—but reaching for utopia may lead to a far more dystopian result. 

Rabbi Avi Baumol serves as the rabbinic representative of the Chief Rabbi of Poland in Krakow.

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