Beit Hillel – Traditional Yet Revitalized Approach to Halacha
Guest post by R. Yitzhak Ajzner
Rav Yitzhak Ajzner came on Aliya from Australia immediately after high school. He spent 10 years in education in Israel, in various positions ranging from a school principal to a teacher at the Hesder Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim. He also served as a community rabbi for a few years. He currently works as a software engineer, and is a member of the Beit Midrash for Halacha of Beit Hillel.
Beit Hillel recently released a responsum addressing the question of inviting a non-Orthodox Jew for a Shabbat meal, knowing that it is likely that the guest will desecrate Shabbat if he comes. This publication, which permitted and even encouraged such an invitation, with certain crucial qualifications, aroused much public debate, including a discussion in the Hirhurim-Musings blog (link). In deference to the important participants and readers of this forum, I would like to offer further background to this responsum, explaining Beit Hillel’s Halachic approach, paying attention to the uniqueness of Beit Hillel’s methodology for making Halachic rulings, and finally giving further background to the particular Shabbat-guest responsum.
Beit Hillel’s Halachic Approach
Beit Hillel is fervently and totally committed to Halacha, the Orthodox tradition, and the rigorous methodology of studying the sources from the Talmud, via the Geonim, Rishonim, Aharonim and Poskim; carefully weighing the various opinions on the background of the issue at hand, bearing in mind the nature of the period of time.
Beit Hillel leans to a holistic approach. While one can find Halachic rulings which will emphasize certain traditional values, while paying less regard to other central Torah tenets, Beit Hillel will attempt to bring all concerns to the table. To use the responsum under discussion as an example, every desecration of the Shabbat is considered a tragedy by each and every one of those who gave their agreement to the psak. However, the general state of Am Yisrael, with the majority of Jews uncommitted to Halacha, and families split between observers and non-observers, is no less tragic, and is a full participant among the issues weighed.
Beit Hillel would never approve of leniency on any Torah value or Halacha in a void.But when value stands against value, it is the very essence of the Oral Torah, and the duty of the rabbinic leaders of each generation to evaluate and weigh the issues, using their moral compass, common sense and precedence to favor one Torah value over another.
This is reminiscent of the famed story attributed to Rav Chaim of Brisk. There are many versions, but they all have Rav Chaim instructing Jews with health concerns to eat and drink on Yom Kippur. When confronted by a colleague about his leniency on the laws of the solemn fast, Rav Chaim famously retorted: “I am not being lenient about the laws of Yom Kippur; on the contrary: I am being strict about the laws of guarding one’s life.”
Beit Hillel is not lenient, Heaven forbid, on the laws of Shabbat; on the contrary it is strict about the laws of guarding one’s fellow Jew’s spiritual life, family harmony, and the unity of Am Yisrael.
Beit Hillel’s Methodology
Beit Hillel is currently comprised of approximately 170 Rabbanim and Rabbaniyot, the vast majority leading communities or holding key Yeshiva/Midrasha roles, including several Rashei Yeshiva, who share the ideology of an enlightened, inclusive Judaism, whose “ways are pleasant”; and are committed to presenting what they consider to be the genuine face of Judaism to the public, sophisticated, nuanced and sensitive to the needs of the era.
All of the members are invited to participate in the Beit Midrash Ha-Hilchati (Halachic study forum). This forum meets about every 2 months (according to need) for roughly 5 or 6 hour sessions, to study and discuss pressing Halachic issues of weighty and significant public concern, towards publicizing responsa. Critical sources are sent to participants before convening, so they are well versed and prepared for the conference. A symposium will typically include a lecture by renowned experts on the topic at hand, who present different angles of the subject. This will often be followed by an in depth lecture by one of the Beit Hillel members on pertinent aspects of the question. The symposium is typified by lively and energetic discussion throughout the proceedings, and will end with debate over the decisions to be made, and when necessary will determine how to investigate matters further.
These meetings are invariably followed by further extensive deliberations by the Beit Midrash forum via email.
After decisions are reached, a draft is made up by one of the members, which is submitted to the Beit Midrash forum for comment and often extensive debate. This process will continue until a consensus is reached.
Once the Beit Midrash forum agrees on a document that reflects their proceedings and decisions, the document will be submitted to the wider Beit Hillel forum by email, giving the entire group the opportunity to offer new insights or point out issues or sources overlooked.
As is readily apparent, this is an unprecedented method of developing a responsum. The result is a paper which has been critically examined and weighed by some of the best minds that Religious Zionist rabbinic leadership has to offer. The entire spectrum of Halachic concerns, from texts to social issues is thrashed out and taken into account. The shared responsibility affords the decision substantial authority and validity.
Inviting A Non-Orthodox Jew For A Shabbat Meal Responsum
This particular topic was the product of several sessions, and particularly lengthy debate. All the members fully appreciated the gravity of what we had embarked upon, and it was with great trepidation that pen was finally put to paper. Our hearts genuinely and sincerely cried out “Shabbos!!“
At the same time, however, we all know of, and most of us have witnessed or even participated in the magical effect that the Shabbat meal atmosphere has upon our non-observant brethren, and how often this experience can ignite a return to tradition. Furthermore, we have all heard of the heart breaking stories of families torn apart by non-observant members becoming estranged by their observant brothers, who want nothing more than to share their spiritual wealth, but are held back for fear of desecrating Shabbat.
Yes, our moral compasses and our understanding of the big picture of Halachic Torah, instructed us that if it is possible to allow the healing of family rifts, and make a contribution to bringing alienated Jews back to their roots, then it is incumbent upon us, to find that way. But this was by no means a case of making a decision in advance, and finding the sources to justify it afterwards. The sources were exhaustively studied and debated, until the required consensus was reached that indeed there is firm Halachic precedent and instruction to permit and even encourage inviting guests to Shabbat meals; as clearly spelt out in the sources and elucidation which follow the body of the responsum (link).
Beit Hillel seeks to provide a balanced and socially sensitive approach to Halacha and public affairs, while zealously remaining well rooted within Halachic tradition. It has adapted a democratic and inclusive methodology which lends it authority and a prominent position in the public discourse. The responsum allowing and even encouraging the invitation of non-observant guests for a Shabbat meal, with the detailed caveats, is a prime example of the implementation of Beit Hillel’s policies; and the resulting lively and positive public discourse which followed pays tribute to the success Ribono Shel Olam has blessed us with, until this point.