Modern challenges for traditional rabbis

Challenge and Continuity: Rabbinic Responses to Modernity, Science and Tragedy Yoni Birnbaum, Valentine Mitchell, £25 (pb £12.95)


 In this short work, Rabbi Yoni Birnbaum briefly introduces rabbinic methodology in responding to certain ideological and pragmatic challenges of the past 200 years. Birnbaum explores how leading halachic decisors dealt with localised threats to Jewish practice posed by non-traditional manifestations of Judaism, scientific developments and the exigencies of the Holocaust.

Birnbaum shows how decisors managed the tension between allegiance to an Orthodox, precedent-based system and responding to rapidly-changing realities. He focuses particularly on the differing approaches of Rabbis Moshe Schreiber and Moshe Feinstein, each renowned for bold responses to contemporaneity.

I was intrigued by the methodological chapter “A Question of Source”, which explores the range of sources commonly marshalled by a rabbinic decisor when preparing a responsum.  

The author successfully refutes the view that aggadic (non-halachic) passages in the Talmud were not used by decisors until the modern era.  He begins to flex his intellectual muscles, but needs to work harder to disentangle the influence of non-halachic sources (such as midrashic passages) from meta-halachic considerations (such as societal pressures) on the halachic process.

A work of this size is inevitably, and I imagine, intentionally, light on analysis, adopting a more descriptive style.  Yet it would have benefited from more critique and comparison of sources. I was somewhat surprised by the brief chapter entitled an “Overview of Rabbinic Perspectives” to advances in science. While correctly focusing on a familiar clash of ideologies, it omits references to important sources such as Pachad Yitzchak and Rabbi Kook.

Overall, a charming introduction to halachic responses to a range of contemporary issues that will challenge its readers to look more deeply into its important themes.

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