When Hermeneutics is not Enough: Interpretive Shortcomings in Halakhic Culture and their Ethical Prices

A classic achievement of the Shalom Hartman Institute over the past decades has been the highlighting of the revolutionary power of Rabbinic hermeneutics. The works of such scholars as Moshe Halbertal, Daniel Boyarin and the late Aharon Shemesh were formed in the SHI bet midrash informed by the inspiring insights of our teacher David Hartman. These works focused attention on the depth of understanding of scripture guiding midrashic reading on the one hand and the moral uprightness and daring of rabbinic interpreters, on the other. Too little attention, however, has been drawn to moments of moral shortcomings and failures.

Our seminar will distinguish between two kinds of failures, structural and specific. First, the moral price of the primacy assumed by the very discourse of halakhah in Rabbinic thought: what happens when every value is rendered a commandment. Second, the moral prices of specific decisions, interpretive moves with an attendant moral price-tag. For example, the change of meaning of the biblical word ger from stranger to convert, an interpretation that neutralized the biblical demand to care for the non-Jew living among us. This turn colors the relation of observant Jews to the non-Jew to this very day. Or, to take another example, Hillel’s prosbul allowing the collection of debts in the sabbatical year saved the  economy but does it come at the price of the Torah’s economic utopia?

Our interest however is not only in critique but also in understanding the corrective principles embedded in Rabbinic culture and understanding the techniques of tikkun in halakhic discourse. These include such strategies as supererogatory action or ethical constructions of the religious personality as stabilizers of halakhic formalism.

Coordinators: Menachem Lorberbau and Ishay Rosen-Zvi

This seminar takes place at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel.