Friday, August 05, 2005

Halakha isn't chemistry

In the '40s the DuPont Corporation had a slightly-Orwellian sounding slogan to promote its products--Better Living Through Chemistry. It was the exciting era of asbestos. But apart from the chemical mishaps it is undoubtedly true that chemistry really did and does enhance the quality of life in the modern world. Content halakhic Jews will agree that Better Living Through Halakha is a slogan that works for them. But there is where the similarity between chemistry and halakha ends.

Culture--minhag, actual practice--is an intrinsic part of halakha. Today some of us tend to look at halakha as if is is a science in the sense that there are exact formulae and predictable answers to questions. No, that isn't what it is.

Minhag plays a real role in halakha. It still does and it always did. And that can be proven from the Gemara and the responsa literature of the past 1500 years. The attempt to turn halakha into chemistry is fairly modern and unlikely to succeed completely, because it is NOT chemistry.

Why do I write this? Because I had a little friendly spar with DovBear about the very issue. He says that the taboo of women wearing tefillin is "cultural nonsense", since woman routinely take the lulav on Succos. Great sevara, right? But he's wrong, since he is treating halakha like its chemistry. That woman "always" took the lulav and esrog but did not don tefillin is relevent in the halakhic context. That isn't to say that women's issues are irrelevent-- on the contrary! There are historical examples of women adopting practices en masse and so making it halakhically binding for women. Who knows what a snapshot of the Jews will look like in a hundred (or twenty) years compared to today? It is because halakha isn't chemistry that its evolution is unpredictable!

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